Car2go: a case study for electric carsharing

Electric vehicles still comprise a small percentage of carsharing fleets. But with a year of operating two electric drive Smart Fortwo fleets, Daimler-owned Car2go has plans to more than double its EV commitment.

By Mary Catherine O’Connor

Each week in San Diego, California, around 4,000 car trips are made through the car2go carsharing service.

Because the fleet of 300 cars is purely electric and each trip is between 8 and 10 miles long, that equals nearly 40,000 vehicle miles producing zero tailgate emissions each week.

In Amsterdam, car2go offers another fleet of 300 EVs, and there are plans to grow its electric fleets to other cities around the world.

Daimler, the carmaker whose brands include Mercedes-Benz and Smart, launched the Car2go carsharing service in 2008, with a pilot programme in Ulm, Germany.

The service is currently available in a dozen cities worldwide, although San Diego and Amsterdam are the only two purely EV fleets (there are also 25 EVs in Ulm and a few in Austin, Texas, and Vancouver, Canada).

All Car2go cars are Smart’s Fortwo compact car and most are the gas-powered version, which, outside of the drive train, is identical to the electric version.

But the Car2go network is growing fast, and more EVs are coming. By 2013, car2go is planning to roll out to an additional eight cities, including Stuttgart, Germany, where it will deploy a fleet of 500 Smart Fortwo electric drive vehicles, according to Juliane Mühling, Car2go’s European corporate communications manager.

It’s too soon to tell which other new city fleets may include EVs, says Katie Stafford, who handles North American communications for Car2go. It largely depends on whether the target cities have charging networks available to support an EV fleet.

A ready network of charging stations was a major draw for Car2go to launch an EV fleet – the first such carsharing fleet in the North America – in San Diego, says Stafford.

Plugging into San Diego

“San Diego is one of the top EV cities in the nation”, Stafford says. “People there are really excited about [Car2go] and it’s incredible to think of the number of people who have now have access to EVs in San Diego”.

Within the first 100 days of its launch in November, the city’s Car2go network had 6,000 members. That number is expected to reach 10,000 by late summer, says Stafford.

“They are all part of the whole electric mobility movement in San Diego”, she says.

Car2go not only had a ready population of EV enthusiasts when it entered the San Diego market, it also had the luxury of zero competition.

“This was the first carsharing programme in San Diego”, says Stafford.

That’s not entirely true. Flexcar used to operate in San Diego, but left the city in 2008 after Zipcar acquired the company. But aside from some small university-based carsharing, Car2go is now the only game in town.

The way that the Car2go network is set up also makes it a good fit for EVs.

Unlike other carsharing schemes, Car2go drivers can leave the vehicles parked in any legal street parking space – even if it’s a metered spot – within the operating areas.

In the case of San Diego, that area includes about 35 square miles inside the city. Car2go covers meter fees. Drivers are not required to park the car at a charging station and plug it in before leaving it.

However, drivers who do so receive a 20-minute credit on their account, as an incentive. Drivers can locate the nearest available charging station through the telematics display in the car.

There are around 200 Blink charging stations installed through the EV Project in San Diego and a number of other stations around the city. Car2go also offers 10 dedicated parking spaces around the city.

To locate available cars, drivers use Car2go’s web-based map, which is also available as a smartphone application.

No reservations are required, which makes the process very quick and easy, but drivers can also reserve a car in advance.

When they do so, the Car2go telematics system triggers a red light display inside the car that indicates to passersbys that the car is not available.

Fleet Feet

Car2go maintains a “fleet team” that is dispatched to address issues such as low battery levels.

The telematics system regularly transmits the vehicle’s level of charge to the Car2go system. (Drivers can also select a nearby available car based on how much battery power it has left, since this is also shown on the navigation map.)

“Whenever any car falls below 20 percent charge, the fleet team is notified”, says Stafford. A team member will then be dispatched to the car and bring it to a charging location.

The cars, which have a range of 84 miles, generally need to be recharged every two to three days.

That’s not to say a fleet team member is dispatched for every recharge, because drivers will often plug a car in for recharging themselves. But the team helps steer the fleet clear of dead batteries.

Drivers can also report, through the telematics system, whether a car’s interior or exterior is dirty or is in disrepair and this will also dispatch a team member.

The Long View

Car2go was developed through Daimler’s business innovation unit based in Stuttgart, which is focused on the future of mobility, explains Stafford.

“The world’s population is well over seven billion and half of that number resides in urban areas, and that is only going to increase”, she says.

“As you have more people in metropolitan areas, you have to think about congestion, emissions and quality of life.”

The carsharing model can go a long way toward addresses congestion, since for every shared car put on the road, 15 personal vehicles can be eliminated.

“When you make a fleet all electric, the benefits are even bigger”, she notes, due to the emissions reductions.

When it comes to improving quality of life, she points to the costs of carsharing – Car2go rates in US are 35 cents per minute/$12.99 per hour/$65.99 per day – and says individuals savings can be significant compared to the cost of purchasing, maintaining and fueling a personal vehicle.

This assumes that the higher per-trip cost of carsharing is a disincentive to making frequent, long or non-essential trips.

This year, Smart will introduce the electric drive Fortwo to the North American market, so it will be interesting to watch how sales go in San Diego, where so many car-sharers have had exposure to the model.

Ironically, it’s not in the best interest of Car2go if San Diegans decide to own their own Fortwos rather than car-share them, but once a driver commits to carsharing it’s likely because he or she has forgone car ownership. Either way, Daimler benefits.

As for long-term costs, dynamic pricing – wherein a driver would pay less during periods of the day when the costs of electricity is lower, such as during evening hours – could be another way to lure some car owners out of their cars and into carsharing.

However, Stafford says, “at this point the pricing is structured the same way in each Car2go worldwide, in that members pay only for the exact amount of time that they are using the car, and for the foreseeable future that is the pricing model that will be used.”

Mary Catherine O’Connor ( is an independent journalist, covering transportation and other energy-related topics.

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