LOS ANGELES - Audi is dipping its toe into car sharing, but with a premium twist.
Audi has quietly begun two pilot programs in Europe - one in Stockholm and another in Berlin.
The Stockholm program, Audi Unite, works something like an automotive time share. Three or four people essentially share a specially designed vehicle lease. Group members use a smartphone app to schedule who gets the vehicle when, and each person's monthly payment is adjusted based on how much he or she uses the vehicle.
The Berlin program is called Audi Select. Instead of several customers sharing one vehicle, one customer has access to several Audis and rotates among them over 12 months.
Audi isn't the first luxury carmaker to experiment with car-sharing business models, as automakers increasingly see their role as providing mobility rather than merely selling vehicles. But whereas Daimler's Car2Go one-way rental service and BMW's DriveNow electric-vehicle sharing venture cater to city dwellers for whom owning a vehicle is either too expensive or impractical, Audi's two programs point to another potential market for car-sharing services: luxury car customers who demand versatility in their vehicle options - and can afford to pay for it.
"We will not fill up the mass market like Car2Go," Audi AG CEO Rupert Stadler said last week on the sidelines of the Los Angeles Auto Show. "We're looking for something a little more premium with a little bit more intelligence."
Audi Select challenges long-standing models of car ownership and even leasing. If a customer is willing to pay a premium, "why should I drive the same car for three years in a row?" Stadler said. "Could we maybe have three different sorts of cars - maybe an SUV in the winter, a cabriolet in the summer or a sporty car whenever I would need it? This is what we are looking for and are aiming for."
Stadler says the automaker is seeking car-sharing ideas from its regional markets, and that Audi of America is ready to step in.
Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America, says the brand is readying car-sharing pilots for two U.S. cities to be announced in the next two months. "We will announce two pilots, some of it dancing in this area," Keogh said. "The technology is in place. The infrastructure is in place."
Each city's service will be unique, he said, though he declined to be more specific. Audi later said that the U.S. programs will differ from those now offered in Europe.
"The interesting dynamic, if you look at most of the research, it says that this is going to drive down sales," Keogh said. "That's not what ends up happening. We don't see a negative impact on sales. What we do see is an opportunity to jump into some new segments of business."