An Advanced Car-Sharing Concept That Could Assist a Phased PRT Areawide Deployment Project

by Daniel Luke

Daniel Luke envisions this concept as being able to provide an interim system that could assist the development of an areawide PRT network which would have to be built in several phases over several years. It could, of course, become a system that was so successful that no PRT network would be needed. Either way, it is a set of ideas that deserve careful consideration by all persons interested in finding better ways of providing high levels of cost-effective mobility in metropolitan areas

Scheduling (broadly defined as making a reservation, keeping it, and returning the car according to an earlier agreed upon time) is why people have proven to be so resistant to carsharing in any form.

Scheduling introduces a rigidity that people accustomed to the perceived convenience of private vehicle ownership will find hard to abide.  In the course of one's day, unforeseen events invariably intervene that require a certain degree of flexibility to negotiate.  This flexibility is largely removed, if one uses carsharing as the dominant mode of transportation, when a car needs to be returned to a certain place at a certain time. 

That people do it all must indicate that there is some interest in alternatives to private ownership.  In fact, most car share organizations are fairly effective in signing up members, even with very limited advertising budgets,  It's just that many members wind up being merely "paper members" after they fully appreciate the extra effort required to make use of the service.  A service not encumbered by the severe limitations of carsharing as it now exists would have, I am confident, a much broader appeal.

Scheduling is meant to be a convenience.  The member can schedule out weeks or even months in advance with the assurance that a car will be at the location she specifies when she specifies.  But, as with many things, the further into the future a projection is made, especially of human activity, the less accurate it is.  As such, what seems like a convenience is actually an acute inconvenience.  When plans change, not only does the member have to remember the existing reservation, she must cancel it (perhaps incurring a fine if it is close to the hour of rental) and then make another reservation, (with all of the trouble that that might entail), hoping that plans don't change again.  This problem is exacerbated all the more so by the fact that, to ensure access, there is an incentive to schedule for anticipated use: better to schedule just in case, even if there exits the possibility that plans might change.

Carsharing is a tantalizing idea, but it has been tested in its current form for over ten years in an environment where conditions for its success could hardly be more favorable. Though a business success, Mobility Switzerland, the largest carsharing organization in the world, claims among its membership no more than 1% of eligible drivers.  Until carsharing's fundamental flaw is addressed, it will appeal only to a small, niche market.

Scheduling, as big a problem as it is, is a built in assumption in the carsharing world.  The problems that are created by it are not addressed in any of the available literature on carsharing.   Perhaps this is so because, until recently, it has not been (practically) possible to conceive of carsharing without also automatically including scheduling.  I wish to explain how it is now possible to dispense with scheduling and thereby make possible a much more convenient and economical alternative to private vehicle ownership.

The Zone concept: One might take an ordinary map of a city and, based on demographic information, parking regulations, travel patterns, etc. delineate a zone.  Within the zone enough cars would be placed to ensure that no one would have to walk more than a short distance, perhaps 0.25 miles to find a car.  Cars could be picked up and returned anywhere within the zone.  The zone could be any shape, and could in fact quickly change shape, either contracting or expanding as demand varies and traffic patterns are better understood (there would be a tremendous amount of data flowing in at all times as each car would be tracked taking out a lot of the guess work where traffic patterns are concerned etc.).  I have included (below) a narrative that describes the way I envision it working.

Using scheduling technology, shuttles could also be included in the zone to do nothing more than ferry people to cars when they were more than a certain distance.  This would probably be necessary to counteract the distribution problem that would surely arise, especially when there were relatively few cars in the system.  Many shared use vehicle systems bring cars to people (intellishare, zevnet, carlink), but that seems backwards. 

Mapping technology, GPS, and telecommunications are already sufficiently developed to make all of this possible right now.  They only need to work in concert for this wholly recombinant technology to become a reality.  What was the first airplane anyway but a motorized bicycle with wings?

The zone might start off encompassing 25 to 30 square miles which would mean that 150 to 200 cars would be needed to begin with.  This amount of area, carefully chosen, could easily encompass the necessary number of people required to make this viable.  I conservatively estimate that between eight and ten thousand members (max. 200 cars, and 50 members per car) could fill the membership rolls within two years or less.  Scheduling would not exist.  Members would merely "snag" available cars, and billing would begin forthwith, (possibly after a brief delay), much like hailing a taxi. 

The information obtained regarding the impact on driving habits, advertising, and traffic might be so valuable that this idea might stand on its own merit even as an experiment.  How many vehicles do global automakers expect to sell in places like India, China, and Africa etc.?  Is it a reasonable expectation that any of these countries would be able to construct the infrastructure required to permit private vehicle ownership on a mass scale?  Are the automakers of the world content just selling products designed for Western markets to a few who happen to attain the necessary wealth to obtain them?  The third world has and is getting telecommunications and consumer electronics.   This could enable global automakers to sell one car for every 100 Chinese or Indian citizens.  I think this would be attractive to Ford and GM et al.

This idea would be beneficial even though it might be seen as putting more cars on the road.  As a municipal object, the automobile is far less likely to be seen as a status symbol which means that efficiency and durability would be primary considerations.  Also, I believe that different forms un-pave the way to different modes.

Mobile Carriers, OEM's (GPS, hand-sets, and telematics), content providers, and advertisers would also likely have a strong interest in the development of this application.

Unlike carsharing organizations of the past, it would be impossible to set this up on an anemic budget or as a grassroots endeavor.  Participation and or funding would also probably signal the acceptance of changes that the automotive industry will inevitably face.  It might also signal the awareness of great opportunity.  The challenges would be great, but so too would be the potential rewards for industry, yes, but also for ordinary people.

I have talked to a few intelligent people involved in carsharing and other car related industries about this idea, and so far it has been very well received.  I am very interested in getting more opinions and comments. They will be very much appreciated. My e-mail address is:

How it might work - a narrative

One sunny Sunday morning Ann finds herself enjoying coffee at a neighborhood café with her friends, Amy and Steve.  “I’m selling my car”, she suddenly announces.  “I’ve discovered that I don’t need to own one anymore”. 

“You’re selling your car?  You don’t need to own one anymore?  How is that?”  Ann’s friend Steve asks.

 Ann is excited about her new discovery: an innovative suite of services that, for the first time ever, provide a viable alternative to having to own a car.

“Only this,” Ann says coyly, showing them what looks to be an ordinary PDA.  “If you don’t have the latest PDA yet, it’s just about as easy to do via the internet on your home PC, or even by making a regular phone call.  GPS serves as the cornerstone that makes it all possible.  Buses, trains, and taxis are now easy to accurately locate.  But there is also a fleet of brand-new cars dispersed throughout the city in several locations near work, shopping and residential called zones that just about anyone can use for private, temporary use.  It’s called Carousel.   It’s really quite amazing.  Let me show you how it works.” 

 With Amy on one shoulder, and Steve on the other, Ann taps through a few screens to bring up a map with different colored dots on it.  At the top of the map there is a legend describing what each color means.  “Since the PDA has GPS, it knows where we are.  It compares our location to the location of nearby cars and transit”.

 “I’m looking at a map with a bunch of dots on it,” Steve observes.  “Which one are we?”

 “The user’s position is always in the center represented by a small black plus sign.”  Ann says, “And these blue dots with numbers represent buses.  You can see that the number seven is just turning onto 23rd Avenue.”   Steve quickly realizes that the bus in question should be coming in to view from where they are sitting within a matter of moments.   He cranes his head around to look.

 He hears the bus before he even sees it.  When it is in view he says to Ann and Amy, “Hey!  There it is! It’s remarkable how well this works.”

 “When you know where the bus is, and how long it will take to reach you, it really takes the worry out of the wait.”  Ann says.

 “Well, it looks like we missed that one, but we could snag a Carousel car if you’re finished with your coffee.  It looks like there’s an available one about two blocks away.”  Ann taps on an orange dot with her stylus, which brings up a detail of the car.  Ann reads the display out loud: “Blue 2003 sedan, license plate number RGH-346T. Reserve now?  Press OK”.  Ann looks at her friends with her eyebrows raised, “OK”?  She asks.  Amy and Steve nod.   Ann taps OK, and within moments her PDA displays instructions and a route overlaid onto the map which clearly shows how to get to the vehicle.

 The trio decamps and crosses the parking lot and an intersection.  “It’s up one block and over two.”  Ann says.  “Right on Myrtle it looks like.”  Myrtle is a residential street.  They arrive within a few minutes.

 “There are a lot of cars on this street,” Amy says.  “Which one is it?”

Ann presses a pre-set on her PDA, and about thirty feet away they all observe headlights flash.   “It looks like that’s the one.”  Ann says.  They walk up to the car and notice how clean, stylish and new it looks.  Ann presses another pre-set, and the car unlocks.  They all get in.   “Here comes the really cool part” Ann tells her friends.  Ann enters her PIN number for extra security into the on-board computer, and suddenly a disembodied voice is heard:   “Welcome, Ann.  Please wait a moment while the car is adjusted to your preferences”.  They then hear the barely audible whine of small, electric motors.  Ann feels her seat move up slowly.  The car senses the presence of two other occupants.  “Because Carousel encourages ridesharing, you will be receiving a 10% discount today.  Also, be sure to check out the satellite radio!”  In addition, the centrally located, dash-mounted computer screen lights up and displays a map of their current location.

 Ann’s friends are astounded.  “There’s a lot more to see.”  Ann tells them.  Ann directs their attention to the computer screen mounted within clear, easy view.  It shows a map of the entire city divided in to four portions.   The display screen is touch sensitive so that by touching the appropriate quarter, and then through a few more screens, a person can easily find information about restaurants, movies, shopping, etc. nearby. 

“One feature I really like is the satellite radio.  Each car has it, and whenever I get in, each car already knows my pre-sets.   I also can use my PDA to change them from anywhere,” Ann explains as she turns on her radio.  “Satellite radio brought to you by The Daily Grind.  Come to our drive-through in a Carousel car with a passenger, and receive one free small coffee.”

“That’s clever,” Amy says, “too bad we all just had coffee.  I wonder if there are any good movies playing?”  Amy touches the “find” button on the display.   The display changes from a map of the city to a list of choices.  She presses “Movies” which brings up another screen with still more choices: “by alphabetical listing or locations” it reads.  Amy touches on “alphabetical listings” and the screen displays all of the movies currently playing in the city.  She touches on “Catch Me If You Can”, and the screen displays locations and movie times of where this movie is playing.  Amy has one more choice.  She can touch the item on the screen that says “Nearest Location.”  By touching this item, the movie theater nearest to her present location with that particular title will display on the screen.

“I’m up for seeing a movie if you guys are,” Ann says to her friends.  Amy and Steve both want to see a movie.  Amy touches the last item on the display, and within moments, the nearest movie theater showing “Catch Me If You Can” is displayed.   Although they are only about a mile from the nearest location, the movie has already started.  Amy touches through “movies” again and finds the same movie playing at another movie theater five miles away in thirty minutes.  The route is shown on the display with directions.  Ann knows that when the car is moving the map will disappear from the display for safety reasons.  If she din’t already know her way, she would study it for a few moments and jot down directions if need be.   When Ann starts the car, the display begins to show a running tally of the charges like a taxi meter.

“I see the meter displaying the charges,” Steve remarks, “how much does all of this cost?” 

“These cars are surprisingly cheap,” Ann says, “especially if you are able to incorporate other modes of transportation -- which is now easier than ever to do.   The main reason I use it, in fact, is because it’s much more economical than owning my own car.”  Car use is billed according to time and distance.  There are also credits for parking near places like malls and shopping districts where many other members would be likely to request a vehicle.  For this particular trip, at $2.50 an hour and $0.40 a mile, the trio would expect to pay less than a dollar a piece.  “Well, that didn’t take long,” Steve says as they pull into a parking space.

“Since this particular theater is within the Zone, we could make it available to other members while we are in the movie,” Ann explains.  We wouldn’t have to pay as much that way since charges stop accruing once the car becomes available within the zone, but we might have to walk a few blocks to find a car once the movie lets out.  I could set my PDA to snag any car that becomes available within a five minute walking distance thirty minutes before the movie lets out.  I’ve found this feature of the service to be very useful.”   If Ann is able to “snag” a car before her movie is over, charges will begin to accrue forthwith.  Because of the way the zone is setup, Carousel cars are almost always nearby, and there is no need to reserve one in advance.  “Parking is almost exactly the same as using your own car.  The only difference is that you must be extra careful not to park in a commercial  or metered space if you are not sure you are coming back to use the car,” Ann explains.  “Just to show you how it works, I’ll make the car available for others to use after we finish parking.  If it is still here when we’re done, we’ll use it to get back to the coffee shop.   If not, I’ll set my PDA to “look” for one thirty minutes before the movie ends.”

“This all makes sense,” says Steve.  “All of this is possible because of the zone.  Could you explain exactly how it works?”

“Sure,” Ann begins, “it’s really pretty simple.  The zone consists of certain higher-density areas within our city, spanning several square miles.  There are several hundred cars within the zone.  The average is 7 per square mile.  It has been determined that it is necessary to reach this level of saturation so that people can find cars easily.   Within the zone, it is possible to make a Carousel car available for others to use once you reach your destination.  This helps to make trips economical.  Take our present situation.  We will not have to pay for the car while we’re watching the movie since we have made it available to other members.  Since the cars are not scheduled, there is a lot more freedom since you don’t have to worry about interrupting your plans to make a return at a certain place at a certain time. 

You can, of course, take a car outside of the zone, but you can’t make it available for other members to use when you do this.  If this theater were outside of the zone, for example, we would necessarily have to pay for the car while we were watching the movie.  This serves to encourage the kind of short, local trips which will keep a certain percentage of cars within the zone and maintain proper saturation.  If someone wants to take a longer trip, they are referred to Hertz or Avis.   What’s great about the zone is that it is always expanding, which means there are more and more places that you can go within it and make a car available while you’re at a movie or restaurant.  Within a few years, all of Portland and Beaverton will be within the zone!  Businesses like it because it provides a great way to advertise and bring customers in.  Cities like it because it relieves parking demand and promotes transit, and people like it because it means that a very large chunk of the $500.00 a month that the average person spends on private vehicle ownership can be saved or spent on other things.  Everyone likes it.”  At this, the trio gets out of the car and heads into the theater to watch “Catch Me If You Can.”   When the movie is over, they walk back towards the parking lot.

“It looks like we’re not going to have to walk very far to find another car,” Ann says smiling.  They all begin to look for the Carousel car they were using when they arrived.

“It’s still here,” Steve says, as the lights flash at Ann’s command.

“That’s right,” says Amy, “except this time it’s red!”

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Last modified: March 12, 2011