When you're trying to reconfigure how people think about urban car "ownership" – by which we mean stripping out the ownership part and replacing it with the idea of having access to a car whenever you need one – the powertrain isn't really the most important part of the picture. This is the lesson from yesterday's announcement that 300 all-electric Smart Fortwos will go into carsharing service in San Diego before the end of 2011.
See, in almost every way, the carsharing program that Car2go will implement in San Diego is the same as the one that Car2go runs in Austin, TX. At yesterday's press conference, Nick Cole, the president and CEO of car2go North America, LLC, said that there are some details that still need to be worked out – for example, the price per minute rate. It will most likely be "comparable" to the 35 cents a minute that Car2go costs in other North American cities, but they're not saying – but that the general vibe will be the same, whether you're going on gas in Vancouver, BC or running on electrons in San Diego.
The biggest question (as readers pointed out in the announcement post) is: how will the cars get recharged? The electric Fortwos that are coming to San Deigo are almost identical to all the other Smart Fortwo EDs in the world except that they will have the Car2go telematics system installed (in San Diego, so close to Mexico, this system will be bilingual). Cole said that, given that the Car2go electric vehicles have a range of 84 miles and based on Car2go usage in other cities, they will most likely need to be recharged every two or three days. Of course, that only answers half the question, since someone will have to take the time to recharge the vehicles. Who? That person won't necessarily be who you think it is, as you can find out after the jump.
Photos copyright ©2011 Sebastian Blanco / Weblogs, Inc.
Paul Delong, Car2go's director of sales and marketing, told AutoblogGreen that the vehicles will be recharged in a way that's very similar to how Car2go Fortwos are refueled elsewhere. In the Austin Car2go program, which has been operating for a year, most rentals average 40 minutes and/or five miles. That's can add up to a lot of individual trips, even in an EV. As a bonus in San Diego, when you reserve a vehicle online, you will be able to see the battery's state of charge, so if you want to go for an extended drive, you can find the right car for that.
Once a car's battery dips below a certain point, the vehicle becomes unavailable to other users at the end of the current rental and one of two things happens: if the driver has the time and inclination, he can head over to a charge point – easily located using the car's navigation system – and plug in. If he does, he will be credited a bit of money on his account just as a Car2go driver in Austin is credited for gassing up. If the driver can't or doesn't want to do this, then a member of the local Car2go staff will head out and bring the car to a charging station. Once full, the vehicle reappears on the list of available Car2go vehicles (accessible online or through a smart phone app) and it rejoins its siblings out on the street. Cole said that, after the initial rush, Car2go will likely employ three or four people in San Diego for tasks like these and to process new memberships.
This sort of arrangement may seem unusual, but Cole called Car2go "a realistic alternative to traditional car ownership." It's is, most certainly, a new way to think about urban mobility, and Cole added that "Car2go, at it's core, is collaborative consumption." This term refers to the shared use of resources, and magazines like TIME go nuts over it. Jerry Sanders, the mayor of San Diego, is a fan of these green moves as well, in part because he has made a public commitment to promoting plug-in vehicles in his city. He said that the city council is currently debating changes to the city code to allow carshare vehicles to be parked in the street when they're not in use, something that private cars can't do, and to create special parking areas for the vehicles in other places. Votes on these changes are due soon, so exact details are not yet available.
San Diego is most certainly ready for plug-in vehicles. Or it will be, at least. Jonathan Read, the president and CEO of ECOtality, said his company has been scoping out San Diego as a place to install a whole mess of chargers since last year. Thanks to some financing support from the DOE, the company's first round of charging stations is already in place around the nation, and ECOtality is learning how and when people charge. With Car2go, Read said, the message is that EVs are not toys or golf carts; they are a way to increase mobility by sending the message that transportation is a commodity and not something you own. In the near future, he said, ECOtality will be running 1,500 chargers around the city of San Diego. Car2go drivers will not have to pay to charge at these stations, just like they don't pay for insurance or maintenance or gas in other cities.
Speaking of other cities, will someone's Austin Car2go membership card allow her to get into a San Diego vehicles? Not at first, but Car2go CTO Helmuth Ritzer said that membership will in some ways be transferable between cities, perhaps working sort of like a cell phone roaming plan. Cole said that making things work between Austin and San Diego will be a lot easier than figuring out international rules with Vancouver or Hamburg or Amsterdam. Still, Cole told AutoblogGreen, one day, we can expect a unified global membership option. Visitors to these cities can also sign up to be a Car2go member in order to have access to the cars when they're in town.
Then there's the question of why does San Diego get the all-electric fleet? Part of the answer lies in the city's EV readiness and in the work ECOtality has done here, but the other part is that Car2go is quite literally moving to an electric future. Ritzer said there is no real technological reason to keep the electric and gas fleets separate, but it makes everything simpler for now. "Hybrid cities" that offer both types of Car2go powertrains, might be coming down the road. Also, Cole said, there might be some Car2go cities that will start with gas-powered fleets and, once local recharging infrastructure is built up, will then transition over to an all-electric fleet. Oh, in case you can't tell from these hints, Car2go is going to continue to expand. Cole said he's hopeful the company will be able to announce another North American location this year, with "exponential" growth coming in 2012.
It's not easy to get these things started, though. Aside from the logistics of working with the local government, there is "an incredible investment" required to bring 300 electric vehicles to a city. Even though Car2go is a subsidiary of Daimler, it still has to actually purchase the vehicles, and the official MSRP for a Smart ED is $44,387. We're not sure what a Car2go Electric Fortwo costs, but it's not cheap. Car2go buys the cars through local dealerships, and that also means, in San Diego, at least, that it can take advantage of both the federal and state tax incentives for electric vehicles. The dealership is then responsible for doing maintenance and repair on the vehicles, which is why a small handful of people can run a network of 300 cars. Even with all of this, the business case is obviously strong (and obviously private, sadly).
Still, the proof is in the driving. If Daimler believes it can make money not selling me a vehicle and I can save money by only buying the car minutes I actually need, then how does it make sense to use any other system? With bikes and public transportation and taxis and the rest, urban car ownership seems pretty doomed, if Car2go makes are much sense to others as it does to us. Does it make sense to you?
Our travel and lodging for this media event were provided by Daimler.