Changing the car-rental business, one minute at a time

Devised with tourists in mind, the common car-hire agency rents vehicles by the day or week. But for city-dwellers, the occasional need for wheels is usually measured in minutes or hours, not days. One upstart company, parented by two car-business giants, has a solution.

Car2go is an urban car-share concept conceived by Daimler Mobility. It is an idea that has put a total 7,000 of Daimler’s Smart Fortwo cars in 22 cities worldwide, with Milan being the latest. They’ve also signed up 375,000 people who, for a minimal membership fee (€19 in Europe, $35 in the US and Canada), can take one of those cars for a spin any time they like. It’s a pay-by-the-minute (€0.29 per minute, to be precise), fully self-serve car rental option, based on the ability to of smartphone apps to find a nearby Fortwo. As with other car-sharing services, including BMW’s DriveNow and Volkswagen’s Quicar, Car2go members merely swipe a card against the reading device mounted inside the windshield of a parked car, enter a PID code in the dash display, grab the key from the glovebox and they’re on their way. It’s a micro car rental solution, in more ways than one – though one aimed, from conception, towards urban dwellers, not tourists.

For the traveller in Europe, however, Car2go seems like an ideal solution – particularly with Milan sweetening a list that contains Amsterdam, London and Berlin. Trains between European cities are exceptional and usually deliver their chargers right to the heart of downtown. From there, a quick taxi to a hotel, a metro rail to other parts of the city and then – in the interest of exploring a city in the ambling way tourists are so comfortable – a ride in a medieval-village-friendly Smart car for jaunts to obscure restaurants, hidden plazas and other slices of life viewed through the driver’s side window.

It shouldn’t surprise that car rental powerhouse Europcar is a 25% shareholder in Car2go. The company’s current ad slogan, “Moving your way”, is consistent with a business philosophy of being close to customers’ mobility needs. Fabrizio Ruggiero, CEO of Europcar Italy, says the company encourages a kind of “virtuous cross-selling.”

“For example,” he says, “one of our incoming customers, arriving in Milan and meaning to visit the city for a few days before he takes his Europcar vehicle for a tour in the peninsula, might take advantage of the Car2go while staying downtown.” It’s also easy; there’s a Car2go drop-off location near every Europcar office in Milan, and Car2go members receive a 15% discount off Europcar’s best daily rates.

So, should a Car2go member from Austin, or Miami, or Seattle book a flight for a European sojourn? Not so fast.

Currently, city-to-city roaming is only allowed within a single country. If a driver wants to rent in Vienna, or Milan, or Ulm (yeah, Ulm), documentation must be presented in each country. For Italy, that means a driver’s license that is valid in the country, a passport, a mailing address, a credit card and a mobile number, and those documents will have to be physically verified at a Car2go office. Additionally, making a switch from Car2go to Europcar – while logistically simple thanks to dedicated Car2go parking near most Europcar offices – requires a new round of paperwork, and possibly different documentation. In short, call before you go.

But there are inklings of changes, faint promises of international registration and glimpses of a glorious world to come, in which a card in the wallet can be used to quickly access a car anywhere in the world.

Car2go is on board with that vision of the future. Nicholas Cole, president and CEO of Car2go North America, notes, “We are working towards further enhancing the convenience of our service by facilitating access between international Car2go cities.”

In the meantime, all that stands between car-sharing and a perfect Italian vacation solution is a streamlining of both the agency and host nation’s bureaucracies. By the time that’s sorted out, we will probably be renting flying cars – something Daimler is no doubt working on already.