Yesterday afternoon, I had a chance to sit down with Car2Go CEO Nick Cole, to discuss how Car2Go works with city transit systems, how Car2Go can help make cities better places, and to answer some of the many questions suggested by STB readers. I tried to distill the many questions you asked down to a reasonable number which I hope, nevertheless, was sufficient to cover most of the bases. If there’s something you really think I should have asked, say so in the comments and I’ll consider following up with the Car2Go folks via email.
First, though, I should note that Car2Go is having their official launch party at Etta’s, just north of Pike Place Market, on Saturday, from 9AM to 3PM. I’m told there will be free food, swag, and test drives. Additionally, as many readers have noted, you can also use the promo code SOUND when you sign up, to get 30 free minutes of driving.
Note that interview questions and answers are condensed, taken from my notes.
Bruce: How has Car2Go worked with transit in other cities?
Nick: In the cities we’ve previously moved into, Car2Go has really acted to complement the existing transit system. Some trips, like those between outlying or less-dense areas, are just hard to serve with transit. Cities like Seattle are growing, and city governments are trying to figure out how to repurpose their streets to move people around more efficiently; Car2Go helps them do that. Some of the people moving into cities are coming from suburban areas where car-ownership is universal, and are looking to go carless or car-lite; Car2Go helps them make that change, because they know they can have access to a nearby car if they need one.
More after the jump.
How do you think your service relates to ZipCar?
We see them as complementary, largely serving different trips and markets; shorter versus longer rental periods, different vehicles, spontaneous versus planned, etc.
Indeed, I’m a big guy, I can’t imagine a weekend camping or road-tripping in a Smart Car.
[laughs] You couldn’t, and I suspect most people here would agree, but it’s interesting: in Europe, people will rent these cars for a weekend or more, and sometimes drive them across three countries.
Why is the UW area stopover only? Most of those restricted areas make sense as low activity areas (the Arboretum, etc.) but there would seem to be lots of demand there.
That area is a legally distinct jurisdiction from the rest of Seattle; we will have to negotiate separately with the UW for the ability to end trips there. We’re aware of this issue, we’d certainly like to expand the home area serve that part of town.
For the first hundred days when we go into a new city, we’re in a ramp-up mode, where we’re primarily focused on bringing in new members, getting them set up, and working out any operational problems with the cars. After that, we move to a feedback, improvement, and expansion mode, where we would start to focus on issues like this one.
How did you decide to set these initial home area boundaries?
We primarily look for areas of mixed-use urban density; that’s what drives our demand.
Is it possible to change the home area? If so, what will guide your changes? For example, many of us are baffled by the decision to draw the Rainier Valley boundary about two blocks short of Mount Baker Station, which is the transit crossroads for the Central District, Columbia City, and other active, dense neighborhoods.
Yes, within a jurisdiction where we’ve negotiated a deal, home area changes are extremely easy, and we often make adjustments after the initial ramp-up. We base these changes on observed travel patterns, from member surveys which will go out very shortly after the first hundred days, and from customer feedback.
How should Car2Go members give you that feedback?
Facebook, Twitter, and the customer service email address. We monitor social media continuously, and can respond in near-real time to feedback which comes in that way.
What about the idea of a home area island at the airport?
This is a little trickier; we’ve not done this before. We’d have to negotiate with the Port of Seattle to obtain parking at the airport, and we’re not sure if we’d get enough turnover to make it pencil out: other than a few frequent flyers, most people only make a few trips to the airport each year. What might make this more viable is a model whereby you reserve a car at your destination airport before you leave, so you can be sure to have one waiting when you arrive. But this is somewhat of a different model from our current business. It’s an interesting idea, but unlikely in the short term.
Anecdotally, downtown often seems to be really short of cars (relative to its density). I wonder if there might be a problem with so many of downtown’s streets having peak-only parking restrictions (making them unusable for Car2Go)? Are you aware of any problems there?
We’ve haven’t noticed this issue yet; however, we’re still early in the ramp-up and the final travel patterns aren’t really established. This is, again, the kind of thing we’ll look into after the first hundred days. If there’s a car or parking shortage downtown, we’ll address it.
What kind of travel patterns do you see? Do trips seem to be paired or mostly one-directional?
On an individual car or member level, we see everything. A car might move many times, a few blocks here and there in a neighborhood, then sit idle for hours, then in the evening someone drives it clear across town. There are people who make a trip, then immediately make another reservation for another trip; others never do that, and both are totally OK with us. On an aggregate level, we see the kind of pattern you’d probably expect: moving into downtown, offices, and financial districts during the day, they out to residential areas in the evening.
What do you look for in a city? You previously mentioned density and mixed use, but you’re in some cities, like San Diego, which are overall very suburban, and not in some cities, like San Francisco and New York, which are very urban.
San Diego, with its 100% electric fleet, is a bit of a special case [discussed more below]. In general, we look for a mixed-use urban core, and a city which is interested in having a service like ours. Some of the cities you mention us not being in, we’re already working on moving into.
While cities with a pre-existing dense urban core are the obvious market for Car2Go, it seems to me that the place where this service could perhaps have the greatest transformative impact is in suburban cities like Phoenix, which are in the process of (re-)developing an urban core, almost from whole cloth, around their light rail line. Car share seems like a particularly apt technology to help with the transition away from universal car ownership in developing neighborhoods where basic services (e.g. groceries) are almost never within walking distance, and the overall transit network simply doesn’t provide enough convenient mobility. Are you you seeing interest from such cities, and do you see potential for your company in them?
Yes and yes; several cities like that have approached us. Austin, our pilot city in North America, is a great example. Overall, it’s a low-density city, but they were eager to have us, and since we’ve been there, they’ve built up their skyline, and our business there is working great.
How do you choose how many cars to put in a city? How come we have more cars than Vancouver?
It’s based on the expected level of demand, the area we’re covering, and the comfort level of the city. Vancouver’s home area, even after a round of expansion, is still just over half the size of the Seattle home area. All of our North American cities are in the 250-350 range, although in Europe, our fleets are bigger: more than a thousand in Berlin, for example. Partly this is because the cities are bigger, fewer people own cars, etc., but partly it’s because city governments are more comfortable with large car share fleets. Even if we thought there was the demand for a thousand cars in an American city, if we went to the city government and asked to put out a thousand cars on the street, they’d be shellshocked. So we’re flexible with cities; start smaller; we can always expand more gradually as they become comfortable.
Talk to me about electric vehicles in Car2Go. Are they in Seattle’s future?
We have EVs in San Diego, Portland and Vancouver; the first is 100% EV, and the other two we call the “hybrid” model with a mix of gas and electric. San Diego had a federal grant and a partnership with ECOtality to install charging stations around downtown, and were looking for a car share to serve downtown, so it was an great fit. In general, EV deployment is purely an infrastructure problem. If there are enough public charging stations that we can access, we’ll put in EVs. If Seattle gets the infrastructure, we can do it here.
What are your thoughts about offering differential rates (or bonus minutes) as an incentive to move cars from areas of low demand to high demand?
It’s a very interesting idea, and we’re thinking about it. Generally, if a car has been unused for 24 hours, we’ll send someone out to check on it, and possibly move it. If we could incentivize members to use them, instead, that would be just as good.
What kind of information might be made public about Car2Go usage patterns?
The information is proprietary, part of our business, so we can’t give all of it out. We usually release summary information about the number and average duration of rides. Beyond that, sometimes for our host city governments who want to know how the service is being used, we have prepared heat maps showing how trips are distributed across the city.
Indeed, there’s nothing I could write which would make my readers as interested and happy as a bunch of really interesting data.
We’ll see what we can do. After the first hundred days, we’ll have the initial data, and I’ll be back in town; maybe we can share something then.
Finally: one of my pet peeves about the early 2010′s is how my wallet is filling up with incompatible contactless smartcards — ZipCar, Car2Go, ORCA — all of whose functionality could, technically, be subsumed by the NFC-equipped smartphone I also carry around with me all day. Please tell me you are doing something to leverage this increasingly common, potentially incredibly convenient, but almost totally unused smartphone technology.
Yes, absolutely, we are working on something along these lines. One of the benefits of being part of Daimler is that we get to tap our parent company’s engineering resources in areas like this. More generally, we’re looking to technology to personalize your car experience. One the the nice things about owning your own car is that it’s your space, and it has your music in it, etc; we’re interested in using wireless technologies like NFC and bluetooth to replicate that. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to use your smartphone to unlock the car, and then once you get in, your music is playing, and your common destinations are already up on the Navigation screen, etc.
Nick, on behalf of my readers and myself, thanks very much for taking the time answer our questions.
And thank you for coming in. We read the blog post where you asked for questions, and were amazed at the number and quality of questions. Your readers are really smart and engaged.
Thanks… we love them, too.