Car sharing-membership-based hourly vehicle rental-has been mostly utilized as a way for big city dwellers without a car to get around. And in that sense, this "fleet guru" has sat with his hands folded, saying that the concept has limited applications. (I've been known to scream "Get a horse!" to passing Zipcars.)
But the concept is starting to mutate into other fleet applications in ways that are not entirely car sharing, car rental, commercial or government fleet or pool vehicle-based, but a permutation of all of those. The lines are certainly getting blurred.
Levente Fulop of Invers Mobility Solutions, a technology provider for public and private fleets, filled me in on some of these new directions.
Car sharing is sprouting shoots with individuals that want to start car sharing in their neighborhoods. Apartment and office building owners and managers are looking into buying a car or two, stationing them in dedicated parking spots and using a simple reservations program to book them. This is a perk to attract people and businesses to the building and may allow developers to plan for fewer parking spaces.
One-way rentals are opening up new possibilities. This is being pioneered by Daimler's Car2Go member-based program in Austin, Tex. The idea is you can pick up a car at a designated spot in the city, use it and leave it anywhere in the city within a geofenced area. Anywhere in the city. The system uses GPS to identify the car's location for the next user.
A challenge, says Fulop, is to keep drivers within the geofenced area. Do you fine them if they leave the car outside the boundaries? Also, you can imagine a bunch of cars being used to get to Austin's famous Sixth Street nightlife area and left there in favor of cabs on the return-not fun for staff having to get up on a Sunday morning to move cars into a better geographic arrangement. (As I remember, the stale beer smell on Sixth Street is not as bad as Bourbon Street in New Orleans.)
Zipcar has field staff dedicated to servicing vehicles for minor issues and repairs via bicycle. Maybe a worker on a folding bike that fits in a trunk could jump in the driver's seat to relocate the vehicle. The bean counters would have to see if that's a cost-effective duty under a salary.
A bigger issue is the cost of parking, says Fulop. Forward-thinking cities ideally need to let these cars park for free. You have to convince the city to give up parking revenue for slightly less congestion, which could be a tall task.
Another even more grassroots concept is peer-to-peer car sharing. This entails members of the private sector providing their vehicles when they're not using them. The vehicle owner posts availability on a member-based Web site. The owner gets paid for the use of the car and the system administrator gets a cut too.
This system could work in traditional carless downtown communities but also in low-income communities.
Automated, kiosk-based car rental hasn't really taken off, yet. But the concept could allow smaller car rental operations to service customers after hours and be an extra revenue source. This is another technological challenge, but not insurmountable: previous renters for which the rental agency has credit card and driver's license information could access a link on the rental agency's home page for after hours rentals. Upon credit card authorization, a key box on the car rental lot would dispense the car key. The system would automatically update fleet availability. Just don't try to drop off the key at the Redbox in front of the 7-11.
There are better ways to utilize corporate fleet and pool vehicles as well. Call it "fleet sharing." The idea is to track who's in the car and for what purpose. Imagine getting in a pool vehicle, or even your coworker's company car, and accessing a computer the size of a portable navigation unit. The unit has an interface that allows you to choose the type of business trip or if the trip is non-business related. The unit could also assign a cost to a certain department within your company.
This concept would allow those underutilized pool vehicles that sit in the parking structure at night to go home with someone after hours and either charge them for the privilege or allow it as a company perk, with an easy system of authorization and control.
In a general sense, going home with someone at night and being charged for the privilege is not ideal, especially if you're in a relationship or light in the wallet. But in the world of fleet, whether its car rental, commercial or government fleets, using a vehicle to its fullest potential is essential.