Smart Idea: Cars for Rent, From Almost Any Curb

Want to rent a Smart car for 19 cents a minute? Just flash your driver's licence at a device by the windshield, and off you go. That's the essence of a pilot project starting in the German city of Ulm on Friday.

Rain is crashing down and you are late for work. The bus is late and there's no taxi in sight. Why not rent a car? It sounds insane, but it will soon be possible for citizens of Ulm, the focus of a pilot project by Daimler, which wants to make car rental as "easy as using a mobile phone."

The company plans to make a fleet of 50 blue-striped Smart cars available in Ulm to customers who sign up for the project. It will work like car-sharing in Europe and North America, but without the designated parking spots: Customers can unlock a car using a driver's license outfitted with an electronic chip, then type in a PIN code, and drive off. When they're finished, the car can be almost left anywhere in Ulm, waiting for the next driver.

European bike-rental systems already work on the same principle. They've been hugely successful, at least in good weather. Daimler thinks the Car2Go scheme will cater to changing attitudes toward car ownership.

"Having your own car has now become a burden for many city dwellers," said Daimler manager Robert Henrich to SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Especially among young people, cars are now less important as a status symbol."

The Ulm project starts Friday. At first only employees of the Stuttgart-based company will take part. But if it goes well, the program will open to any visitor or resident of Ulm in 2009. Users will be billed at a basic charge of 19 euro cents a minute (about 25 US cents), which includes fuel and insurance. The maximum hourly rate for Car2Go is €9.90 ($12.75), and a whole day will cost €49.90 ($64).

In contrast to other car-sharing schemes, Daimler doesn't plan to charge a membership fee. Customers have to locate the nearest car on the Internet. A few parking spaces will be reserved in busy areas like train stations, but the overall goal is to make sure a car is never more than a short stroll away.

Daimler will be able to track each car and even learn, remotely, whether it needs gasoline. Parking tickets are addressed in the contract: They will be paid by the customer.

And Ulm, a mid-sized university town of some 200,000 residents, not far from Stuttgart, is welcoming the project. Mayor Evo Gönner has said optimistically, "Car2Go will make a triumphal procession from Ulm to the wider world." But whether it works is still open to question. The project will be closely watched from many quarters -- not least by local taxi drivers.

jas -- with wire reports

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