On a warm May day nearly a decade ago, Christian Geiss had just a few minutes to convince his boss—the notoriously hard-to-please Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche—to get into the car rental business.
But instead of setting up camp at airports and strip malls, Geiss set his sights on car-sharing. He envisioned a world where smartphones could locate a vehicle parked on a city street and users reserve it and drive it around while being charged a nominal fee per minute. Zetsche liked what he saw—a white Smart Fortwo wrapped in blue graphics and a deck of cards illustrating what screens in an app could look like. The mustached executive gave Geiss the green light, with the caveat that he had six months to get cars on the road.
"There were so many challenges," Geiss told reporters at a recent press event, where he presented his original test car prototype. "Locating a rentable vehicle was the biggest challenge, but smartphones have changed everything."
A decade on, what became Car2Go now serves nearly 3 million users in 26 global cities and gathers data for what Daimler is evolving into a self-driving car-share service capable of predicting when and where you'll want one of its vehicles by as early as 2030.
The Car2Go prototype was named Roller, the German word for "scooter." Its name could prove prophetic, since car-shares of the future may simply scoot up to users on their own when requested.
Building an electric infrastructure
In cities like Seattle, New York, and Austin, Car2Go Smarts have become ubiquitous—but the face of the brand is transitioning because Smart is axing gas-fueled models in favor of focusing only on the Smart Electric Drive. With an 80-mile range and a three-hour charge time, the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive hardly makes sense as an on-demand rental car.
In response, Car2Go is phasing out the two-seaters in favor of Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class sedans and GLA-Class compact crossovers. With their three-pointed stars and swoopy styling, they're ritzy—and they have heftier rental fees to match. In Austin, Texas, Car2Go's American home and its initial launch city, the Mercedes models run $19 an hour, while leftover Smarts cost $15 per hour.
Car2Go's global communications chief, Christian Müller, says that the company's future lineup could consist of both Mercedes and Smart vehicles—but they'll need a better charging station infrastructure here before they consider introducing electric vehicles.
"Europe is more progressive with charging stations," Müller said. "But the future of car-sharing everywhere is purely electric."
Car2Go is working with Hamburg, Germany, to develop a charging infrastructure conducive to a fleet of ride-sharing vehicles. While the city is on the hook for charging stations, Car2Go is doing the research on just where to put them. The company expects that its experiment in Hamburg will be helpful in convincing other global cities to do the same.
Car2Go's future will be in self-driving pods that will automatically relocate themselves when the system predicts demand. Using the example of an Ohio State football game in Columbus, Ohio, where Car2Go currently has a fleet of Smarts, Müller said that Car2Go's vehicles could position themselves in front of Ohio Stadium before the game ends.
With a Car2Go vehicle rented every second and a half globally, the company is already gathering massive amounts of vehicle usage data in order to become better at demand prediction. Today, Car2Go employees relocate cars throughout the day—typically using the opportunity to move them when they may need cleaning or servicing anyway.
Smart Vision EQ ForTwo concept, 2017 Frankfurt auto show
For now, Car2Go floats the idea of the year 2030 as its target for a self-driving car fleet. Level 5 autonomous driving technology is ready for a roll-out, but Müller concedes that it's not yet feasible for car-sharing.
"It's a matter of the technology becoming less expensive," he said.
Car2Go may be a Daimler subsidiary, but its integration into the brand's future is massive. The Smart brand recently showed off a concept car billed the Smart Vision EQ Fortwo set to bow at next week's Frankfurt Motor Show. It looks vaguely like the current Smart Fortwo outside, but its bench seat and steering wheel-free dashboard inside is a stark reminder that future cars will probably pilot themselves with zero driver intervention.
Certainly, self-driving cars weren't on Müller's mind back in 2009, but the evolution seems perfectly natural.