Drive my car, please

Aug 20, 2012

Think about how much you drive your car. You might drive to work – then you just park your car all day while you’re inside. Or you leave town for a few days – then don’t use your car for the next three weeks. Meanwhile, plenty of other people don’t have cars, but sometimes need them.

Now you don’t have to envy people who have cars. Several new companies in the Bay Area are trying to match unused cars with people who can use them – it’s called car-sharing. So you, with that car in the garage, can make a few extra bucks. And you, who need a car ... well, you might get to take your neighbor’s Ferrari out for a spin.

I talked to three San Francisco residents to help me understand why people share their cars. Will Aldrich has a 2005 Black Subaru Outback, Dreirdre Araujo owns a 2005 Ford Focus Wagon, and Ali Femn rides in what she calls “a big jacked-up Jeep with oversized tires.”

The three people I spoke with have a few things in common: they all live in San Francisco; they all own cars; and they’d all be happy to let you rent their cars – even though they’ve probably never met you. 

Fenn had her first rental within a week. She said that it was an interesting experience, albeit slightly awkward. "The person was like, ‘How does this work?’ I said, ‘I guess I just give you my keys and you drive away.’ It was very easy."

Ali Fenn drives her jacked-up Jeep maybe once a month; the rest of the time, it just sits in her garage. A few months ago, she found out about a new company called Getaround located just down the street from her. She could register her Jeep on Getaround’s website, set a calendar saying when it was available, and charge people whatever she wanted to rent it. Fenn charges $15 an hour or $50 per day. Renters pay for gas, and the company provides comprehensive insurance, so the car’s totally covered. Fenn said once it was gone overnight and she walked down through the garage and her car wasn’t there. She remembered thinking "I have no idea where my car is at this moment.”

Jessica Scorpio, one of the founders of Getaround, says it takes a certain kind of open-minded person to want to rent their car out to a stranger. She told me successful car-sharing is all about striking a balance: if you’re going to share something as valuable as a car, you need to feel like you’re in control.

"It’s important for us to maintain the sanctity of car ownership for members to help them start," Scorpio explains. "They can evolve their own model as they go along."

Ali Fenn said that’s what helped her make the leap. In the past she's had cars she wouldn’t let anybody touch, including the one she has now. But it got to the point where she thought, "What could possibly happen? You have to believe people are in it for the right reasons."

A few thousand people are signed up for the Getaround service, mostly in the Bay area, but also in a few other cities. A similar company, RelayRides, also has a couple thousand people on board; a third, called Spride, is doing a pilot project with City CarShare. The cars run the gamut from late ‘90s sedans to a brand-new Tesla Roadster.

Shelby Clark, the founder of RelayRides, says that people use the service to make money – that Tesla will run you $50 an hour. But Clark said that the main point is for people to be able to access the kind of car they need, when they need it.

"People are becoming more and more comfortable with sharing. But at the same time, people don’t really want to compromise on their lifestyle. And I think sharing goods is a really great way to do that," says Clark.

So will car-sharing work for those of us who don’t have fancy rides? I decided to find out by signing up my own car: a 1998 Honda Civic, dark green and awesome. I picked Getaround because they have cars and renters in the East Bay, where I live.

When I met Jessica Scorpio at Getaround’s offices in San Francisco she said my car was on the old, beat up end of the spectrum. Despite this, I was sure I could convince someone to rent it – my car runs just fine. I sat down with Scorpio to create my car's online profile. 

Scorpio asked me to check off all my car's features. I wrote down air conditioning, my car's one feature. To give you all a sense, the available features are convertible, leather interior, GPS, sun roof, moon roof – I have none of those things. DVD system, roof rack … sadly, none of those things. Audio is also something I have none of, as my car radio has been stolen so many times I have stopped replacing it, but you can put gasoline in my car. Given that, I think I should set my hourly rate to the minimum, which is $3. So it’s a bargain, folks.

Scorpio told me that character matters – people want to feel like they’re having an exchange with a person, not just an object, so it’s good to list a car’s special selling points. But in the end, the point is that our cars don’t define who we are. They’re just tools, like anything else.

"A lot of people are just trying to get from point A to point B, so anyone who just needs a car would be happy to get wheels, I would say," says Scorpio.

A few days went by, and no one was biting, even at $3 an hour. I started to worry that my car just wasn’t good enough. But then, finally, I got a request.

His name was Chris Brooks from Las Vegas, Nevada. Brooks told me he came to California more or less on a whim. The mood just struck him one day and there he was, renting my car. 

I handed him the keys, and away he drove. Over the next few days I often found myself wondering where my car might be, how it was doing, if I’d ever see it again.

A few days later I got a call from Brooks. He said he just wanted to let me know my car was back in one piece, all safe and sound. He didn’t park it in the same place – there was mud, so he parked it a little further down the street. He thanked me for letting me drive it and wished me a great weekend.

Brooks dropped off the car in pristine condition: he filled up the gas, even made me a new set of keys. It was nice to have my car back, but in the end, I’m just as well off without it. If I really need to drive somewhere, I can always rent someone else’s car.

Listen to the audio story above.