From Sharing Power Drills to Sharing Homes, so Why Not Cars?

A couple of weekends ago, I spent Saturday at the house of a Hollywood film-maker. He is not a household name, but he is certainly known around the EV community. My family and I had dinner in his garden, enjoyed the view, sat on his couch, watch parts of a movie on his big projector screen, talked with some friends about his Tesla, parked outside... the interesting thing is that the director and I don't know each other. As a matter of fact, he was not even there; one of my best friends was simply celebrating his wedding reception at this house.

Renting houses for movie productions is nothing new in Los Angeles. The production company sends the owners to a nice hotel, the crew comes in, shoots for several days (or weeks), and after restoring the place to its original condition, wires a nice check to the homeowner. They are professionals, and they know what they are doing. Last Saturday, on the other hand, we were almost one hundred civilians, celebrating.

The day after the wedding, I happened to read the chapter in the book Nudge where the authors discuss framing, and how the way we ask questions invariably tints the answers we get. Our experience the previous night seemed a perfect excuse to do a little framing experiment, so I asked my wife:

- would you rent our beautiful house in the hills (if we had one) to over ninety perfect strangers (including a few kids), plus a catering crew, knowing that they will be celebrating: eating, drinking, dancing, possible smoking cigars, drinking some more, with access to your pool, garage, bathrooms? How much would you charge?

Her answer, predictably, was no way.

I then tried an alternative framing:

- would you mind spending just one Saturday a month away from home, knowing that that single day will pay for the monthly mortgage, leaving some extra money to spare?

After a long pause, her response was, also predictably, quite different.

This is just a long setup to introduce a subject that has not left my mind since a first heard about it a few months ago from itMoves' friend and RelayRides' COO Dave Brook: peer-to-peer (p2p) car-sharing.

In p2p car-sharing, the fleet is composed of privately owned vehicles, whose owners willingly share them when not in use. The owner gets paid after the p2p organization takes its cut. The newer (or better) the car, the higher the rate. Lastly, the very important detail of insurance is taken care of by the p2p company, so owner and driver have nothing to worry about.

I know what you are thinking... whaaa?? my own car? to a stranger? You are not alone. That was my reaction too, the very first time I heard about the concept. But that was also my wife's reaction to the first question regarding renting our own house for weddings... Let's look at the economics of it:

Let's face it, privately owned cars are engineering marvels cruelly underutilized. We pay for them, (dearly, $9,500 a year on average according to the AAA) but we only use them about one hour per day. The economics of car-sharing are not favorable as home sharing, so a one day rental will never take care of an average $400 car lease payment. However, if we assume that a successful, well run program should allow to rent the vehicle say once a day for $10 (1 hour, only on work days), then the car owner could easily recoup more than half, with no real effort on his/her part. Decades of conditioning by the car industry (remember, they invented consumer credit, branding, etc) force us to think about car use and car ownership as one and the same, but it doesn't need to be that way. Once we remove the emotional attachment (car guys should not apply), a car is just an expensive, rapidly depreciating asset. I guess one could say the same about big screen TVs, but at least we use them 4.7 hours a day.

These are early days, I admit. We have been trained to buy and show off, not to share, so the framing of the question would you share is very important. But the trend to pay-per-use rather than per-object makes economical and environmental sense, and that is why it is growing. The current hard economy is only going to help cement this new kind of consumer behavior.

P.S. - During the days I was writing this post, I was fortunate enough to attend a presentation by NeighborGoods' CEO Micki Krimmel (last Thursday at MindShare LA). Her company, following the steps of French pioneers Zilok, allows people to share their stuff online (anything from power drills to chickens, including cars) for a small fee, sometimes free. Her goal is to bring people together and create a sense of community, while helping each other save (or make) a few bucks in the process. Her pitch was fun and inspiring: what's one of the first things your parents taught you when you were a toddler? You-have-to-Share... Exactly.