Car sharing schemes - savior of the electric car?

Despite increased activity and interest in electric cars by activists, politicians, scientists and finally manufacturers, sales of electric cars remain slow. An article in today’s Sunday Times by Dominic Tobin and John Arlidge states that just 21 new electric cars were sold in Britain last month! Now that is a low amount of cars no matter how you frame it (even if it is one more than Feb 2011).  

This is obviously a concern given the large amounts of R&D some automakers have dedicated to these projects. One solution according the authors is to make loss making electric vehicles available through car sharing clubs. This they say will mean “manufacturers can reduce the overall carbon dioxide emissions from the cars they make, and thus keep the EU regulators at bay”.

  Below:Mercedes Car2go has been rolled out in France, Germany and the USA


The two big manufacturers that already have car sharing schemes of the kind discussed in the article are Daimler (Car2go) and BMW (DriveNow). Daimler is currently the only one using electric vehicles. The schemes basically allow people to hire cars for short periods of time, pay-by-the-minute and and drop off in any municipal bay. This is all facilitated by a smart phone and a chip installed in a members driving licence. Simple.

So could these schemes be the key to the future of urban mobility? According to the Sunday Times, Mercedes claims 70,000 members and BMW 16,000, whilst world wide membership of urban car clubs tripled between 2006 - 2010 to reach 1.2 million members. Also consider the fact that 80% of under 25’s in Tokyo, one of the worlds biggest consumer markets, don’t own a car (and I am sure you would find similar patterns in other major cities) and you can begin to see the structural issues. These days having a car in a city can be a massive hassle and looking after a tonne of metal in a crowded environment with limited space is stressful.

So perhaps the reason for slow electric car sales does not only come from their  lack of range (largely perceived and not relevant in a city) and high price point. It could be the way in which we perceive car ownership that no longer fits with many people’s actual lifestyles.

Car sharing does of course come with its own problems for OEMs, who I’m sure would rather sell a car to 10 individuals rather than 1 car for 10 to share. But looking at it from the other direction, this could just be a great way to access a lot of people who would otherwise not have bought a car at all. 

It is in a sense shame that regulation seems to be running ahead of demand for clean vehicles (although this matches historical precedent many aspects of the automotive sector). However, these kinds of solutions could be vital to providing sustainability in the EV market, both to take up demand side slack in the interim and structurally over the longer term. Changing business models as well as perceptions is the next step.  

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