Car-sharing iPhone apps unlock potential

April 19th, 2010 by Sandra Barron

carlock

Considering that the monthly rent for a strip of asphalt to park a car can cost as much as an entire apartment in other places, it’s not surprising that car-sharing services are making inroads as a more affordable, more eco-friendly alternative to owning a car. As the number of services grows, companies are competing to differentiate themselves by going online and mobile — one has an app that can find a shareable car and pop its locks.

Car-sharing memberships are increasingly being offered by condominiums, car rental companies (Orix) and  parking lot companies (Park24).  Orix is the largest with about 6,500 members. Drivers pay a monthly fee of around ¥3,000 or ¥4,000 and then usage fees of a few hundred yen for driving increments as short as 15 minutes.

There are over 20 car-sharing companies in Japan now — and about half of them started up just last year, according to Japanese site car-share.net. Companies and government programs have been experimenting with the idea in Japan since as early as 1999. Mazda car rental, which was recently taken over by Park24, started one of the first widespread sharing programs in 2006, followed by Orix the next year.

The companies tout lots of pluses: no need to worry about gas, repairs or cleaning. They also push the environmental benefits of not owning a car (hence the green fonts and leafy cartoons on so many car-share Web sites). Orix even includes electric cars in its lineup: the i-MiEv from Mitsubishi and Subaru’s Plug-in Stella. (Sidenote: another money-saving, eco-loving car trend is car pooling, which is also called car sharing in Japan. Confused yet?)

Great. Saving money, elbow grease and the planet all at once. So how to find a car when you need one? The cars are going mobile in a twenty-teens way, as car sharing companies put out iPhone apps to get people into the shared cars faster.

Orix and “Car Sharing Club” Careco (pronounced ka-re-ko) both launched free iPhone apps this month. Both let members find locations and rates for available shared cars near particular areas or train stations and make or change reservations. Orix’s version has GPS as well as augmented reality navigation to the “car station” where the car is waiting.

Careco’s app includes photos and rental rates, and it even has a futuristic feature it claims is an industry first: it locks and unlocks the car doors. (Take that, Remote!) Future updates that include searching by GPS and push notifications are planned.

It’s been said Japanese love of car ownership could be an obstacle to widespread adoption of car sharing here. After all, 愛車, read “ai sha,” is in Japanese dictionaries, meaning something like “beloved car.” The unassuming English words “my” and “car” were even fused into a culturally defining concept. It remains to be seen whether the “ai phone” can replace the national love of the “mai-kaa.”

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