Flexcar: Time vs. Money

"Flexcar 2.0" launches this Thursday.  It is a total revamp of the fee structure from before:

  • Instead of a flat rate per hour, cars now have "peak" and "off-peak" rates based on their usage to date.
  • Rentals used to have unlimited mileage, but they will now include 150 miles. Extra miles are 40 cents each.
  • Plans are no longer segmented into "X number of hours for $Y per month, plus ($Y/X) per hour for each extra hour."  They are now "X percent off our regular rates with a minimum usage of $Y per month."
  • Plans cannot be changed retroactive to the beginning of the month anymore.

When I first read the note I was a bit miffed.  Last year Flexcar raised their Seattle base rate from $9.00 to $10.00 an hour.  My plan of "$90 for 10 hours plus $9 for each additional hour" will become "7.5% off our regular rate with a minimum usage of $75 per month."  To go back up to my expected 10% discount, I'd have to step up to a $150-per-month plan.  Flexcar claims their average rates will stay the same, but in effect this means that many of their more popular or more spacious vehicles will cost more than $10 per hour (before discounts) after the upgrade.

When considering this upgrade, it dawned on me that driving a car, in many cases, actually costs less as the car and driver both age.  Assuming a bathtub curve of reliability for cars, as has been my experience, maintenance expenses are low for the middle of a car's useful life.  As I grow older I get small checks from my insurance provider thanking me for becoming less of a financial risk.  Even depreciation tends to tail off assuming the car stays in good condition.  (Flexcar's on-line savings calculator assumes depreciation for a new vehicle, which is as high as it ever will be.)  In practice the only expenses likely to go up are fuel, parking, and administrative fees.  Weighing these against the rising cost of Flexcar is hard to do, especially since Flexcar hasn't even bothered to publish new rates for my area yet.  There's also that assumption that my personal car will stay "in good condition."  If a Flexcar ever seizes up or is involved in an accident, the repair costs and process won't affect me at all.

Nevertheless, the goals of Flexcar aren't just about keeping individual drivers' costs down.  There's also the positive environmental effects of keeping fewer cars on the road and of subtly discouraging unnecessary driving by adding thin layers of bureaucracy and expense to the process.  At the halfway point of the One Less Car Challenge, I haven't driven my own car for four weeks and Flexcar has filled in all the gaps.