December 21, 2000, 12:26 PM — THE SINGLE-OWNER automobile is an American way of life, but maybe it's time for change. With a concept called car-sharing, sometime-drivers join a company or co-op that maintains a fleet of automobiles that members can schedule for grocery runs, weekend outings or a trip to the furniture store. According to CarSharing.net, a website that keeps tabs on car-sharing organizations and resources, motorists who drive fewer than 7,500 miles a year and don't need a car every day can save money and have greater flexibility with car-sharing. Members, who can make reservations over the phone or online, usually pay an annual fee and additional fees based on hourly usage and mileage. The concept, which has been successful in Europe and Canada, is just taking off in the United States, and new services wrestle with ways to control vehicle access and track hours and mileage.
Boston's Zipcar, which started last June, has a fleet of Volkswagens, each equipped with a magnetic ID card reader to unlock the doors. A user leaves the keys in the car when returning it to its parking spot in one of the Boston area's densely populated neighborhoods, but the ignition won't start until the next driver swipes his or her card. At City Carshare in San Francisco (www.sfcarshare.org), which hopes to be motoring by December, members will wave a key fob over a sensor mounted on the dashboard, and a short-range radio link will provide communication between home base and the vehicles. Meanwhile, David Brook, president of 2-year-old CarSharing Portland in Oregon (www.carsharing-pdx.com), is eyeing similar prototypes with more security than his current low-tech system: All the driver's-side doors are rekeyed to a standard key. Once inside the car, members punch in a code to open a lockbox containing the ignition key.
Car-sharing enthusiasts hope that organizations with large fleets of cars will develop, use and thus drive down prices of compatible technologies like keyless ignitions or GPS tracking. "All the pieces of the technology exist right now," Brook says. "It's just that no one has packaged them quite like car-sharing [organizations] have in mind."