City driving could become as cheap as talking on the phone if a new car-sharing scheme takes off in Europe. Even simpler than Paris's famous Velib community bicycle system, city dwellers will be simply show their drivers licenses to drive away in any car2go vehicle for just ?0.19 cents (Dh1) a minute. Ultimately, the system, which has no joining fees, insurance charges or fuel costs, hopes to leave cars within a three-minute or 300-metre walk of every city driver - and car2go will organise a fleet of cleaners to keep them pristine.
"The idea is that when you want a car, you just take it and when you've finished with the car, you just leave it," car2go project manager, Robert Henrich, said in Ulm, Germany. "Membership will be free. You pay by the minute, which covers all the fuel and insurance costs as well." The brainchild of Daimler-Benz's city car division, smart, car2go will start its pilot programme with 50 smart CDIs spread all over the city of Ulm. The fleet will expand to 200 cars by the beginning of next year.
Admitting they are starting small to iron the kinks out of its system, car2go is working to prove its viability before tendering for Paris's upcoming Autolib system. Drivers can sign up on the internet or in a series of inner-city booths and car2go will give them a small, round sticker to put on their licenses - but the secret is that the sticker is actually a tiny transponder. Each of the car2go smarts will have small screens inside their windscreen to explain if they are free, busy or out of service and, when you put the transponder next to it, the smart's doors unlock. Drivers then just enter a PIN into a pad on the dashboard, turn the key and go.
When you get where you're going, you just park and put your license next to the dash screen, which locks the car and "hangs up" your drive. And Benz is thinking big, too, with any license "dot" and PIN pre-planned to be capable of starting any smart in a car2go system in any city around the world. "There are 480 cities with more than a million people in the world," said Dr Jerome Guillen. "The ideal number we are working on is around 5000 cars for a million people, so that's 240,000 smarts."
But while it's still ironing out its details, senior managers insist the project will be a profitable, stand-alone business unit within the Daimler-Benz giant. Municipal bodies will not need to pay for cars, but car2go will seek help to find exclusive parking for its smarts. "We will pay for certain parking spots that you can use. We intend to make blue spots (special car2go parking spaces) for 70 per cent of the vehicles.
"About 300 to 400 metres between blue spots would be ideal. We expect people to walk only between three to five minutes, maximum. "In Paris, the metro was developed so that nobody was more than 500 metres from a metro stop and this is similar." People will pay for their car2go travels via a monthly bill, and the telephone comparisons don't stop there, because prices will vary depending on the city and, for Ulm, there is a maximum cost of ?9.90 (Dh47) an hour and ?49 (Dh233) a day.
"Any 12-year old should be able to understand how to do it and any grandmother should be able to understand. Any of the complicated things are for us to deal with," Dr Jerome Guillen, Head of Daimler-Benz's Business Innovation department, said. Those complications include issues like cleanliness, refuelling and theft. It has taken an initiative from eBay on cleanliness and, before starting the car, it gives drivers the chance to rate how clean the interior is and whether there is damage to the car.
"You rate the previous user and we want to create trust in each other to develop a community ownership of these cars," Dr Guillen said. If that fails, it will contract a cleaner in each city to spruce up the cars that need attention, just as it will have a team of people to fill the cars when, automatically, the car tells the car2go head office that it's running low on fuel. As for theft, Daimler has engineered the car2go electronics into the car's computer system to give it control over the potential problem.
"Being a manufacturer allows us to do a few things with the car," Dr Guillen said. "If somebody breaks the window and tries to start the car, it won't work, even with the key. "We also know where any car is at any time. If we see a car driving into Belarus or England we can call the driver on the phone in the car or, failing that, we can simply shut down the engine. "That said, we will keep no record of individual itineraries. Just where and when it was picked up and where and when it was dropped off."
One of the things it may learn is that some cities won't want the diesel from the tiny smart CDI, even if it only uses 3.3 litres of diesel per 100km, so smart has had 100 fully electric FourTwo city cars on trial in London for more than a year. "We can imagine that they (car2go cars) could become electric fairly quickly," Henrich said. "It's a very interesting opportunity to think about. Electric car numbers are very low. This study is not completely new for Daimler. Ten years ago we were thinking about it, but the technology was not available." email@example.com