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Roaming for car-sharers on the horizon as ‘access economy’ accelerates

Your car-sharing membership could extend to another provider when you're away from your hometown thanks to new software under development. Image credit: Flickr/ mariordo59

People who use car-sharing services could soon be able to roam with different providers when travelling, much in the same way as people do with their mobile phone networks, thanks to a new piece of software which its inventor says will also help make car sharing economically viable in smaller cities and rural areas.

It’s part of the continued expansion of the sharing economy – also known as the access or collaborative economy – in which people share access to resources such as accommodation, housing and professional services. The size of the EU’s sharing economy grew from EUR 10 billion in 2013 to EUR 28 billion in 2015, and it is expected to grow 10 times faster than the wider economy over the next 10 years.

João Félix is the founder of Portuguese company Mobiag, which has received EU funding to help develop the roaming capability for car sharing. Like many innovations, he says the idea stemmed from personal experience.

‘I was in London (UK) and I was a member of one of the existing providers at the time. Quickly I figured out that mostly I needed the other guy’s car. It didn’t make any sense - why couldn’t I use two cars that were very similar with similar technology? Half of the supply was blocked off to me.’

The idea of the platform, known as MobiCS, is to make all shared cars available to all end users, as long as they are registered with a car-sharing operator in the network. The result from the user’s point of view is that people who use a car-sharing scheme in one city have access to cars in another city or country, without having to sign up for another app and account.

Costs will depend on customers’ current rates plus deals done between different operators behind the scenes, much in the same way as mobile phone roaming is charged today.

Félix says this option to roam across different cities and countries with one car-sharing membership will help provide additional incentives for people to use such a service.

‘This principle of the access-based economy, I think that’s very much a case which will stay with us.’

Prof. Christian Fieseler, BI Norwegian Business School, Norway

‘We will only use car sharing if it is functional. It can be the cheapest option, it can be the most eco-friendly, but at the end of the day it will only overcome traditional vehicle ownership if people know there is a car there when they need it.’

However, he says that roaming is not the only way that the new software could change the car-sharing market.

Because the platform can be used by companies that have cars for use but do not currently have their own sharing scheme – such as rental companies – as well as companies that have a membership base but no fleet of cars – such as utility companies – it means that car-sharing services can be provided by organisations for whom it is not a core business.

The company demonstrated their software by setting up a brand called Citydrive in Lisbon, Portugal, which pulled together fleets with client managers such as autoclubs, universities and utilities to create a familiar car-sharing platform for users without owning any vehicles of their own.

Félix says this ability to help different players sell car-sharing services under their own brands means the service can be extended to more users.

‘We realised that this could be the idea that takes car sharing up to the next level. Car sharing at the moment is only financially viable in larger cities with high densities. With this market organisation we can extend car sharing outside of the big city. We can extend it into smaller cities … we can even bring it to rural areas using the same players, or even peer-to-peer networks.’

Access to resources

While the idea of sharing access to goods and services is not new, the past few years have seen the sharing economy grow from ad-hoc bartering and swapping into a default behaviour for many people, thanks to the rise of platforms such as Airbnb, Uber and TaskRabbit.

Professor Christian Fieseler from the BI Norwegian Business School sees the current momentum continuing. ‘You could argue a little bit which business model will be successful in the end … but this principle of the access-based economy, I think that’s very much a case which will stay with us and which will … increasingly become part of more standard business models.’

He says that the sharing economy is a big shift which has implications beyond economics. ‘The big difference in the last five, six years is that there are new intermediaries in the middle, those platforms which facilitate the trust that people are willing to share their belongings with people … they essentially don’t know.’

Prof. Fieseler has received funding for a year-long project, starting this January, to look at some of the issues that are being thrown up, such as how the sharing economy affects our concept of privacy and how people who are unable to participate - for example by having poor internet access - could be left behind. It's one of a series of EU-funded projects that draws on the social sciences and humanities to understand how developments in digital technologies are affecting society and to promote responsible research.

By surveying and interviewing people who are active and inactive in the sharing economy, Prof. Fieseler and his team will also investigate who profits from the sharing economy, the impact on workers whose employer is a platform, and the set up of the platforms themselves.

‘The larger question is who is essentially profiting from this whole development. Some scholars and activists (ask) why … are we using platforms that are owned by shareholders, why don’t we make up our own cooperatives?

‘Uber, Airbnb and so on, they tend to take around 20 % to 30 % of the overall transaction value and you could argue why is that really necessary when the work is done by the users? This is just an argument but something that we want to look at.’

By the end of the project the researchers aim to have produced guidelines for companies in the sector to ensure they are aware of these issues.

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