car2go: A chat with their CTO and an exclusive look at their new app

car2goIt’s a problem faced by most of us living in modern urban cities: transportation and parking. Environmentally (and economically) aware urbanites have long relied on mass transit, carpooling, bicycling and good old fashioned walking. In recent years, there have been a number of companies trying to fill the gap between private vehicle ownership, and the public bus. Companies like Flexcar, which later merged with Zipcar, are probably the most commonly known car sharing companies. However, within the last couple of years, another player has slowly, but steadily been entering the market.

Launched in Germany in 2008, car2go made its US debut in Austin in 2010, just in time for SXSW.  Since then, it has steadily been growing in popularity in urban metropolitan regions across the world.  Unlike other car sharing services, no advanced reservation is necessary. But most impressive is that vehicles can be driven one-way and parked on any public street curb. The company negotiates annual parking rates directly with cities, so drivers never have to worry about paying for parking.

How popular is car2go? Here in Seattle, 18,000 members signed up within the first three months of local launch, making it car2go’s second-fastest growing market.  Young professional urbanite, Adam Parnell, recently extolled the virtues of car2go in an exuberant Facebook post, exclaiming “Walked to City Target and ended up buying $250 worth of stuff for my kitchen so I walked less than 100m to the closest car2go and drove home. Forget men; car2go has my heart.” This is exactly the target audience corporate demographers salivate over – young upstart professionals in the “acquisition phase” of life.

Incidentally, Calgary has been the fastest growing market to date, with 15,000 members signing up in two months. (Ironically, both markets are rife with gas-guzzling, all wheel drive SUVs, a far cry from the Lilliputian Smart For Two models.)

Back in Austin, I was in the thick of SXSW Interactive. I had just gotten out of a panel discussion and was rushing off to car2go at SXSWanother part of town for a meeting. My destination was too expensive for a taxi, too far for a walk, and not on the SXSW shuttle route. Ultimately I decided to jump into a car2go. As I entered my vehicle, I was greeted by a friendly face and a glowing smile offering me a car2go swag bag.  (It wouldn’t be SXSW without the swag, after all.)  On a whim, I asked her if I could snap her photo.  She cheerfully obliged and introduced herself as Grace. I asked if I could possibly interview her for Flip the Media. She politely suggested that I instead talk to the car2go Communications Manager for North America.

Much to my surprise, less than an hour later my phone rang. It was none other than the Communications Manager herself, Katie Stafford. She graciously offered a lunch meeting along with another member of her team, Margot Hake, Communications Specialist. Much to my further surprise, she also mentioned that their CTO, Helmuth Ritzer, was in town from Germany and might be able to join us. This is the beauty of SXSW. You never know who you’re going to meet during these impromptu and unplanned encounters.

Within a couple of hours, the three members of the car2go team, veteran flipthemedia.com editor, Patrick Doherty, and I sat down to lunch at Max’s Wine Dive.  It was a welcome respite from the frenetic pace and environment of the adjacent convention center. And thus began our 90 minute delve into the inside magic behind car2go.

Helmuth Ritzer, a twenty-year veteran of Daimler Corporation, recounted the story of being invited to a meeting a few years ago by Daimler’s Business Innovation Unit in Stuttgart.   After being shown three PowerPoint slides on the car2go concept, he was convinced that he needed to join the team.

Revolutionary

While car2go is 100% owned by the Daimler Corporation, they still operate with a start-up mentality.   Though fully funded by Daimler, they’re a much smaller subset and have the luxury of focusing on innovation and new products. Technology is moving fast, and they aim to be revolutionary. It’s about culture and community, though Ritzer admits there is no secret formula for success.  In the beginning, everything was a surprise, and they had to create everything from scratch – from the vehicle tracking system to the website to the mobile apps. Ironically, the idea for a car sharing system came up years ago, but it is only now that manufacturers are jumping on board.  Rather than focusing solely on manufacturing automobiles, they’re now looking at the concept of “mobility” from a product point of view in a much broader sense.

Katie Stafford, car2go Communications Manager for North America, shared the impressive company growth statistics cited above. She also explained the delicate process of getting car2go on board in the various cities. As you can imagine, any topic as touchy as parking and revenue would be a cause for concern for any city council. Car2go positions itself as an opportunity for cities to engage in smart growth, offering transportation alternatives to already congested cities. Here in Seattle, she worked closely with city council transportation committee chair, Tom Rasmussen, who introduced the car2go legislation.

Margot Hake, car2go Communications Specialist, added an interesting anecdotal insight.  In some markets, the car2go brand has become so visible, buyers are walking into dealerships asking if they can buy a car2go, often oblivious to the Smart Car moniker. So far from being seen as a threat to sales by local Daimler dealers, car2go is in fact increasing demand.

Interestingly, car2go doesn’t collect that much user data on its members, apart from pick up and drop off points.  They use heat maps to see where the needs are over the course of a day.  There is also a customer service team in each market, a location manager, and a marketing manager to get the word out about sponsorships, etc.  There is also a fleet team that takes care of the vehicles.

On Competition

Ritzer acknowledged that there was competition in the market, but felt confident that there was room for everyone.  In his native Germany, he admits that many consumers concurrently subscribe to multiple services and use whichever car best meets their needs at the given moment.  “We have to live with the fact that people have choice, and will choose what’s appropriate for them.”

Sneak Preview World-Premier

car2go at SXSWWe got an exclusive world premier preview of a new project they’re working on “moovel“.  It’s a multi-transport method of aggregating data from various sources. It’s a way to respond to users need to go “from here to there”.  With a focus on “mobility” rather than “automobiles” it’s an open marketplace.  Users can even enter bicycle information.

At the end of our talk, they turned the tables on us and asked our opinions on how to make the service better.  I wished for more vehicle availability, while Patrick wished for greater geographic coverage.   They cited some interesting requests, like bike racks on vehicles (unlikely due to insurance issues) to automatic customization of things like digital presets tied to a users account (more feasible).

What would you request? They are an innovative and responsive group. They just might be listening.

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