American Honda Motor Co. has launched a project with private industry and government to expand car-sharing research.
In Honda's experiment, called CarLink, 60 San Francisco Bay area residents share 12 natural-gas-powered Honda Civics instead of using their own vehicles.
The goal: To learn whether consumers can be satisfied with limited access to a shared vehicle rather than owning or leasing it.
Businesses working with Honda include Bay Area Rapid Transit; the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis; the California Department of Transportation; and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a national security research and development center.
'Our purpose is to see if consumers are really interested in this type of technology,' said American Honda spokesman Art Garner. 'This also gives us a chance to test the natural-gas vehicles as a future mode of transportation.'
The project began in mid-February and will continue at least through August.
Honda Motor Co. has experimented with car sharing since 1994, when it announced plans for its Intelligent Community Vehicle System. That system combines electric-powered vehicles, intelligent transportation technology and radio communications to help people move through congested urban areas.
Last October, Honda began public testing of its community vehicle concept in Tochigi, Japan.
In the California study, Honda provides the vehicles and pays for maintenance and insurance. The university helps with research. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., serves as the test area for the program since it has a large work force, many of whom commute around the Bay area by private car.
Participants may choose to be one of three types of vehicle users.
1. 'Homeside' users drive CarLink vehicles to and from the Dublin/ Pleasanton rapid-transit station, east of San Francisco, and on household trips on nights and weekends. They take the vehicles home with them.
2. 'Workside' users take Bay Area Rapid Transit to the Dublin/Pleasanton station and drive a CarLink vehicle from the station to their jobs at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
3. 'Day' users drive CarLink vehicles on work or personal trips to and from the lab.
Drivers use automated teller machine-style cards to access the vehicles. Participants pay user fees that range from $1.50 an hour and 10 cents a mile to a flat $200 a month.
The program has many advantages, said Susan Shaheen, a doctoral candidate at the University of California's Institute of Transportation Studies who is researching the project.
Personal vehicles usually sit in parking lots or garages most of the day, Shaheen noted. And when in use, they usually carry only one person.
Through the Honda program, businesses need fewer parking spaces because at least three people use each vehicle every day.
CarLink also promises environmental benefits by encouraging people to use the transit system, which should reduce traffic.
Car-sharing also may comfort commute-weary Californians. Parking is difficult even for Bay Area Rapid Transit users, acknowledges Victoria Nerenberg, the transportation system's manager of technology and business alliances planning, research and development. Since most people drive their vehicles to the transit port, parking spaces tend to fill up by 6: 45 a.m.
Roy Florey, a 'homeside' user who drives a CarLink Honda to the transit system station for his morning commute, said the program gives him a chance to have a third vehicle at about half the cost of buying one.
'I have a 17-year-old son. The extra vehicle is convenient for us because now he can drive, too,' Florey said. 'It's really cheap. For $200 a month, you get the car, plus insurance and maintenance.'
Shaheen estimates that leasing a comparable vehicle and paying for insurance, fuel and maintenance would cost a customer about $400 a month.
If the program is successful, Shaheen said, it will be expanded to offer more than three types of usage. In the meantime, Honda and the other organizations involved are studying ways to put CarLink into other communities.