Car2go ‘home’ in Austin tightens up to keep cars accessible

I’m told that 54,000 people have registered and become Car2go members since the one-way car rental service debuted in Austin in 2010.

I’m told that they’ve rented the stubby blue-and-white Smart cars more than 1.5 million times in Austin over those five years, which would be at least 800 rentals a day. Or somewhere north of two rentals a day for each of what since January has been a fleet of 400 cars here.

I’m told that it is really easy to do, based on a Car2go “how-to” video on the Daimler subsidiary’s website, which features a somewhat dim-witted character named Dave managing to get a Car2go going with his member card, take a drive and then park the car in what is either heaven or a pure-white studio set.

Apparently my wit is even dimmer than Dave’s. Or at least my computer skills.

Despite sporadic attempts over about an hour to work my way through the registration process online, I am still not among those 54,000. At least, I think I’m not. Perhaps they’ll place a return call in answer to my desperate email after this column runs and we can work it out. Hey, I managed to get the app onto my phone. I really want in the club, and there’s usually one of their cars parked near the American-Statesman for my possible use.

But, my betters — thousands of them, apparently — have figured it out. In fact, the company, which made Austin its second site for the rentals, now has operations in about 30 cities worldwide. More than 1 million people are now members, Car2go says.

Back in 2009 when I first heard about Car2go, I was pretty sure the rental push was mostly a loss-leader strategy to put Smart cars in front of the American market. I had seen the half-a-cars in a couple of trips overseas, their 9 feet of length wedged into impossibly small spots, often facing straight out in a parallel parking place. But you didn’t see very many of them over here. To my eyes at that time, they looked a little dangerous.

A Daimler official at Car2go’s introductory press conference back then, in what I figured later was a giddy moment of loose lips, told me that each car in the fleet would have to be rented four hours a day (at a rental rate then of 35 cents a minute, plus tax) for the company to make money. At two or even three rentals a day each, and even with the current 41 cents a minute rate, it’s hard to imagine that the cars are averaging that much ka-ching time.

James Emery, Car2go’s Austin general manager now, declined to tell me how often each car is rented on average or whether the operation is making money, which is absolutely his right as an executive with a private business.

“I can’t speak specifically about our financials,” he said. “But we’re really happy with how Austinites have adopted Car2go, and we’re going to continue to invest in Car2go in Austin.”

The company now has cars for rent in 10 American cities, about 4,700 of them, and another 2,700 in four Canadian metro areas. If they’re not making money, that’s a heck of a commitment to marketing.

Oddly enough, six years later the only Smart cars I tend to see in Austin have Car2go written on them.

The Austin operation, as it happens, is undergoing a big change, effective today.

The way Car2go works, if you’ve missed it, is that they are parked within an electronically defined “home area.” A member can go up to one anywhere it sits (locating it either by luck or pluck, or using the app or website), work Dave’s magic and drive away. In fact, they can drive far away, outside that home area, racking up that 41 cents a minute and, after 150 miles on a single rental, a 45-cents-a-mile charge as well. Or they can drive a block, park it and end the rental.

But the beginning and end of a rental can only occur within that home area. Park it outside of there and, while the car will dutifully shut off when you turn the key, the time meter keeps running. So the boundaries of that home area matter.

That’s what is changing here.

As of today, the home area in Austin will go from about 50 square miles to 28 square miles, a 44 percent reduction. The boundaries now will be, roughly speaking, RM 2222 and East 51st Street on the north, Manor Road, Pleasant Valley Road and Grove Boulevard on the east, Oltorf Street and Stassney Lane on the south, then Bluebonnet Lane, Exposition Boulevard, MoPac Boulevard and Shoal Creek Boulevard on the west. Big chunks of home area have been lopped off in every direction.

The problem, the company says, is that cars parked in those outlying areas, such as most of Tarrytown, Allandale and large swaths of East Austin, tended to sit idle with no rentals far longer than in more central areas. In fact, the 56 percent of the previous area that will now constitute “home” has had 88 percent of the rentals, the company says. Ninety-four cars that tended to be allocated to that 44 percent (company employees move cars around to keep a reasonable spread) will now reside in the diminished home area.

The idea is that the cars, where they are to be found at all, will be easier to find. And rent.

Perhaps this will become more relevant to me shortly. Give me a call, Car2go.

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