Free-floating car sharing: a flexible alternative to the private car?

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For many city dwellers, owning a car can be a major hassle. You may use your car only occasionally, yet still have to fight through daily traffic jams and shell out a fortune for parking on top of your monthly petrol and insurance payments.  Thankfully, new mobility solutions are emerging in many cities.

One is car sharing. It allows urban residents to sign up, pay an annual or monthly membership fee, book and pick up a car in their neighbourhoods and be charged per hour and/or kilometre travelled.  Users simply wave a card over the windscreen to pop the locks, climb in, and then hit the road.

The first wave of “return” car sharing appeared in Europe in the oil-crisis hit 1970s but the trend really came of age in the first half of the 1990s. The way it works is that vehicles are made ​​available in a permanent station on the basis of a prior reservation (by internet or via a customer relations centre) with a defined departure and arrival time. At the end of its use, the vehicle must be returned to its original spot, usually located in a covered car park or on a dedicated street parking space.

The greatest advantages of the “one-way” service is that it provides it users with a much sought-after flexibility

The mid-noughties and onwards then witnessed a second wave of “free-floating” car sharing develop at the same time as the emergence of the sharing economy, collaborative consumption and smartphone technology. This system has proven particularly successful among the so-called Millennials generation, who, through a combination of financial and environmental concerns matched with the widespread adoption of smartphones and their apps, are choosing to share access to products and mobility services, rather than opt for individual car ownership.

The pioneers of this system, Montreal-based Communauto in partnership with France’s VULOG, have developed the technology and accompanying services. Their “free-floating” system makes vehicles available within a delimited area, typically the dense urban centre of a city, where clients can spontaneously locate and book a conventional, hybrid or electric ‘takeaway’ car by identifying it from Communauto’s web or smartphone application.

The greatest advantages of the “one-way” service is that it provides it users with a much sought-after flexibility as they can drive wherever they need to go and then terminate the rental of the vehicle by simply returning it within the same delimited area, using one of the authorised spaces. It is for this reason that it has earned its nickname “free-floating” and proven so successful that major car manufacturers have also jumped on the bandwagon and created their own alternatives to compete, including Car2Go (Daimler’s subsidiary) and DriveNow (BMW’s subsidiary).

Furthermore, in the last two years a new type of free-floating car-sharing operated by an existing station-based car-sharing operator has emerged. Between 2012 and 2014, Cantamen launched five “free-floating” projects in German cities, including flow>k in cooperation with the Stadtwerke Osnabrück. With the emergence of free-floating schemes, are we witnessing the beginning of the end for urban private car ownership?

Read more about this latest case study example in the next issue of our PTI magazine.


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