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Small cars changing San Diego in a big way

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Imagine someone selling off his or her everyday commuter car, and trading ownership for the privilege of being able to use another car at any time, but never having to perform maintenance on it. More precisely, imagine someone doing that in favor of a number of cars, but ones that are powered only by electricity, won’t cost a cent in gasoline and will leave them feeling like a steward of the environment.

Such a thought isn’t all that imaginary. Not in San Diego, anyway.

On Nov. 19, 2011, car2go North America LLC, a subsidiary of Daimler North American Corp., made San Diego the first city in the world to host an all-electric car-sharing fleet, beating out the company’s Amsterdam location by just one week.

San Diego car2go location manager Mike Cully said he has customers who have turned what was an interesting thought into something real, pointing out at least a couple of people he knows who have dumped their old cars and gone completely with the car2go lifestyle. That might not be feasible for everyone, but the past few months have shown that car2go has become a preferred option, at least in a more limited sense, for thousands of other San Diego drivers.

Customers pay an initial membership fee of $35. Then for 35 cents per minute, or $12.99 per hour, customers can hop in any of the company’s available Smart ForTwo cars around the city and take care of their business for up to 24 hours, be it a quick drive across downtown or a longer drive to La Jolla or East County.

Blue and white electric Smart cars seem to be ubiquitous on San Diego's streets nowadays, especially in downtown. Developed by Daimler, the vehicles are part of a car-sharing service provided by car2go. Photo courtesy of Daimler AG

Many of his customers, Cully said, tend to use them for short trips.

“Most people just use it by the minute — they need to get from the trolley station to a meeting real quick, so they jump in … or you live downtown and just want to get to the beach,” Cully said.

Car2go customers also never need to worry about parking fees. The company pays the city for metered parking for all car2go customers. Cully said there are more than 100 Blink EV charging stations around town that can be used for battery re-charging, noting that more seem to appear daily. Charging stations have recently been added at the Omni and US Grant hotels and there are large clusters of them in Balboa Park, downtown and at schools like San Diego State University and Point Loma Nazarene University.

The car2go business model was developed in Germany in 2008. From there, it spread across much of Europe, and made its way across the Atlantic by 2009. Headquartered in Austin, Texas, the North American arm of the company has fleets active in Vancouver, British Columbia; Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore; and Washington, D.C. The Portland and Washington, D.C. locations were just opened in March.

Even the car2go offices in downtown San Diego were designed with the environment in mind. Located in the East Village — because of the area’s accessibility by foot within a central area of downtown — the car2go building itself is a converted factory, with nearly everything inside reclaimed from a previous existence, such as the steel conference room table designed artfully out of what used to be a road construction street plate.

But downtown isn’t the only area car2go serves. The local office’s service territory covers 30 square miles, reaching north into Pacific Beach, south into Point Loma and southern downtown, and east to Friars Road in Mission Valley. The cars can be driven outside the service area, but customers must drive back to anywhere within the service area to park the car and end the rental.

With a swipe of the car2go-provided member card over a card reader installed on the windshield of each of the cars, the reader verifies the validity of the car2go card. If a car’s user has parked the car but locked it for continued use, the car can’t be opened by another member. Before the car is allowed to start, a series of questions is asked by the onboard interface, which requires an account number to gain access.

Anyone passing by one of the vehicles parked on the road can see on the card reader display if it’s available or reserved. A key visible inside the car’s head unit, comparable to the ignition switch, is also a giveaway of a car’s availability. But the easiest way for customers to find available cars near them is to look on the car2go website’s availability map or download one of the third-party smartphone applications that track available cars.

In a recent check, the preponderance of available Smart ForTwos was in the Uptown areas — Hillcrest, North Park and University Heights, but Cully said the availability pattern changes daily.

Re-fueling is also covered by car2go, as is insurance coverage at no extra charge. When a customer signs up, their driving records are pulled from the Department of Motor Vehicles, and as long as there is nothing more than a minor ticket or two, a customer is approved. Anything that happens to the car while in use, even if it’s involved in an accident, is covered completely by car2go.

“It’s pretty turn-key,” Cully said.

But don’t think that car2go is less than concerned about its property. Each Smart ForTwo in the fleet is equipped with a management system that keeps track of where it’s been around town and how it’s being driven.

“It’s kind of like big brother stuff, but not really,” Cully said. “It’s just to keep track and log their usage.”

San Diego car2go has a membership list that is 6,000 people-long now. The list is growing, and while that can squeeze availability at times, Cully said it’s a good problem to have. Unlike when the San Diego office opened in late 2011, an available car will rarely stay put for long, he said.

“That’s kind of been the problem,” Cully said. “It’s a good problem, but it’s kind of been the issue lately, that people have been coming in, grabbing the cars. And they’re just going. So they’re always in use.”

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