Daimler has big plans for car2go, a Smart car rental program that debuted last week as a six-month pilot in Austin, Texas. It also may be a way to reignite interest in the microcar.
"The vision is to revolutionize transport and to make a large-scale business out of this," says Robert Henrich, CEO of car2go GmbH, a Daimler subsidiary in Stuttgart.
Under the pay-as-you-drive program, registrants get a membership card with a microchip that is used to unlock and rent Smarts not in use. The user enters a personal identification number on a dashboard computer, and use is charged to a credit card. Vehicles also can be reserved online.
Cars can be used for as long as the registrant wants and can be returned to a special metered spot or other designated area in Austin. If fuel is low, the driver uses a prepaid credit card in the glove box to fill up, and 10 minutes is taken off the rental time.
Discussions to expand car2go are being held with dozens of U.S. and European cities, says Henrich, who didn't name any. Car2go already is running in Ulm, Germany.
About 13,000 Austin city employees will participate in the pilot, which will use 200 Smart ForTwo two-seaters. Business use is free, but employees must pay for private use -- 35 cents a minute, $12.99 an hour or $69.99 for the day.
The city is not paying for use of the cars but is providing free meter and lot parking.
This month Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche cited the program as a way to boost interest in the Smart brand. The car went on sale in the United States in January 2008 and initially exceeded expectations. But sales have declined steadily this year, hitting a low of 661 cars in October -- 70 percent below October 2008.