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Opinion: is car sharing the future?

Sharing cars makes futurists very happy, but are we too lazy to embrace it?

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Before too long, goes the story, we won’t own a car. Not if we live in a city, anyway. We’ll just rent one by the mile or the minute, hopping promiscuously to another when it suits, different ones for different needs, and none at all when we’re going nowhere. We’ll simply abandon it at the roadside when we no longer feel like paying for it. At which point another driver will locate the thing on an app, unlock by phone, hop in and beetle happily away.

This sort of car-sharing is a picture that suits the inclinations of urban planners, environmentalists and other utopians. I’m actually a bit of a utopian myself, so I can see what they’re on about. It’s greener because it means fewer new cars could be built as they’d be shared among more users. Having fewer cars at the kerb opens up more road space for driving. It’s also potentially a more equitable pattern of transport: the barrier to entry would be lower, so the less well-off wouldn’t be priced out of car access.

Or instead of the car pool being owned by a central entity, think about peer-to-peer sharing. You buy a car, put it on a sharing platform, and others can hire it from you. That subsidises the cost of owning it, so you can afford the V8 instead of the EcoBoost. (Wasn’t this supposed to nurture the environment?)

Car makers talk up the idea of sharing, maybe because they fear their products would otherwise become socially and politically unacceptable in overcrowded future cities. And sharing justifies their monster investment in autonomous cars, because the ‘rider’ of 2025 could idly summon the car to their door, and then send it off to recharge itself afterwards. Besides, autonomous cars will be crazy expensive to begin with, and sharing their price might be the only way they’ll take off.

Most of this – not the autonomous bit, which is ages away in all honesty – is available now. The leasing industry is allowing super-flexible contracts, the insurance industry is finding ways of providing ultra-short-term cover, and the app ecosystem exists.

But guess what. Adoption is sluggish. BMW and Daimler both brought car-share schemes to London – Smart’s Car2Go and BMW-Mini’s DriveNow. Then they merged. Now they’re giving up and departing Britain and the US. It didn’t take off.

Mid-term hire isn’t doing that well either. Several lease companies have schemes where you can swap one car for another far more frequently than the usual three years, and pay a monthly fee that includes nearly all costs. Yet it turns out the people who have entered those so-called subscription contracts actually don’t take up the swapsies. They can’t be bothered to change, and mostly end up keeping the same car for far longer than they theoretically need to.

It seems most of us prefer to have a car outside our home, ready to go, with our crap left inside it. It’s a personal thing. We’d no more share a car than share our underpants.

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