car2go, car rental by the minute, arrives in Seattle

I drive, but I don't own a car. Seattle just gained another option for my kind of lifestyle: car2go has made its debut, offering Smart cars rented by the minute.

I've been using Zipcar, formerly Flexcar, for over 6 years. Zipcar rents cars by the hour, some with a daily cap, at a cost which includes fuel and insurance. The cars are parked at fixed locations and reserved for preset times: when I reserve a car, I must bring it back to its home spot before my reservation ends. car2go uses a "free-floating" model: as long as I park the car at an unrestricted parking space in one of many neighborhoods, I can end my reservation at a different point than where I started.

Zipcar and car2go have so many differences that I would consider them complements, not competitors, to each other. car2go, owned by Daimler, only offers the tiny Smart fortwo in a distinctive blue and white livery. Zipcar, soon to be owned by Avis Budget Group, rents 21 different car models including a cargo van and the Mercedes-Benz C300. Zipcar's designated parking spaces make it pretty easy to end my trip, whereas with car2go I have to find street parking, which is in very short supply where I live, before I'm allowed to clock out. Speaking of the clock, Zipcar requires me to plan my trip with a discrete start and end time, with penalties for last-minute cancellation and late returns. car2go lets me hold a car for 30 minutes with no obligation or penalty, and once I've clocked in, the car is mine until I clock out.

I've used car2go 5 times since it launched in Seattle last month. I like that I can see a big map of available cars right away on their web site and mobile app, making reservations very easy. The cars themselves are highly maneuverable and small enough to park almost anywhere, although the 1.0 liter 70 hp engine requires me to floor the gas pedal to enter a highway. Like Zipcar, car2go has a contactless card that I tap against a windshield sensor to unlock the car, but whereas Zipcar usually unlocks within a few seconds, car2go must make a wireless data connection before unlocking the door. I tried unlocking a car2go car yesterday afternoon, and after a minute, I received a "NO CONNECTION" error and couldn't drive my groceries home. This dependence on wireless signal makes me wonder how I would release a car in an area without coverage. (Update: On January 15, 2013, I ran into this issue. I couldn't end my reservation, instead seeing a message to "Please park somewhere else!" while I'm still on the clock.) I also wonder whether cars are manually rebalanced among neighborhoods, since there are times when cars collect in certain areas and are scarce in others.

car2go cars have a touch screen with a customized interface. In theory, this is pretty cool, but in practice, it's frustrating. The touch screen is used to start and end reservations, and for this purpose, it works properly. It also controls the radio and the GPS navigation. Both of these functions would be much better handled with an auxiliary line-in audio jack for my smartphone. The radio has 8 preset stations I can't tie to my account — preset #1 is a country music station I didn't even know existed here. Local favorites like NPR and KEXP require me to tap a soft "seek" button repeatedly. The navigation, which like the web site uses the German address format (e.g. "E Pike St 300, 98122 Seattle"), defaults to California instead of Washington and has a delay of 1–3 seconds to recognize any tapped letter. Because car2go charges by the minute, this underpowered interface costs me both time and money. While navigating, changing the radio station requires so many button-presses and taps that you need a long red light or a passenger to do it properly.

So far, car2go has been most useful for trips of 15 minutes or less when I know I'll find parking at my destination. For a trip to a party or a restaurant, I can stay and drink as long as I want because I can take a taxi (or an Uber) to go home. I plan to use car2go to check out more restaurants, shows, and places that are hard to reach by bus or light rail. For errands that require more storage capacity and more time, Zipcar is still the better option. For trips of a day or more, traditional car rental is usually cheaper still, although it requires a lot more paperwork and time than does tapping a card against a windshield.

In the future, I expect to see more carsharing options as Seattle gets more densely populated. car2go offers only "C-Smart" cars, with conventional gasoline engines, but I would love to start driving the electric "E-Smart" cars available in some cities. The carsharing model also makes some novel designs, like the Hiriko folding electric car, more viable. I like the idea of carsharing as a service that saves money and resources for everyone, and I'm glad to see both local governments and big business making progress to expand it.