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[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John's weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

Last year Zipcar, the world’s largest car-sharing company, really got my goat with its “Sometimes you just need a car” ad campaign, featuring images of people looking miserable while pedaling to a meeting or riding the bus to a music gig. Fact is, my friends and I do these things all the time, and cyclists and transit users make up a big chunk of the company’s customer base. Why insult your clientele?

But Zipcar did have a point. Even sustainable-transportation blackbelts can use an automobile now and then for road trips, hauling cargo or giving rides to friends and family. Zipcar and I-GO, operated by the local nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology, provide a great service to car-free Chicagoans by allowing us to include driving in our toolbox of travel options.

The new breed of peer-to-peer car-sharing companies takes a different approach by helping individuals rent directly from private car owners. This model may actually be a bit more eco-friendly, since it eliminates the need for the company to purchase a fleet of new vehicles and lease off-street parking spaces for them.

The peer-to-peer service Relay Rides, founded by Northwestern University grad Shelby Clark and based in San Francisco, opened in Chicago earlier this year and now operates in nineteen U.S. cities. Its competitor Getaround, also headquartered in San Francisco, launched here in September and currently serves Austin, San Diego and Portland, Oregon, as well. I recently called cofounder Jessica Scorpio to learn how the wheels of fortune spin.

In a nutshell, tell me how Getaround works.

Getaround is a marketplace for sharing cars. We connect car owners with people who need access to a car. Getaround provides the technology and the insurance to make it easy and fun to share.

How did you get the idea for it?

I came up with the idea about two-and-a-half years ago at a school called Singularity University. Google founder Larry Page challenged us to come up with an idea that would positively impact a billion people in ten years. We decided to focus on a problem that we call “car overpopulation,” the fact that there are a billion cars on the planet that sit idle twenty-two hours a day.

Do you think Getaround might replace traditional car sharing?

We see Getaround and traditional car sharing as being complementary. Our goal is to see hundreds of thousands or millions of cars shared around the world. Our model works in a lot of areas where traditional car sharing doesn’t work, and where traditional does work we’re another option. What’s nice about Getaround is that it’s free to join and there’s no annual fee. You can find a really broad variety of vehicles, anything from a Tesla Roadster to a Prius, or the newest E.V. [electric vehicle].

Why would someone want to trust a stranger to drive their car? Wouldn’t there be worries about your car being abused, or what happens if they crash? Maybe there are also some issues from the renter’s perspective. How do you guys address those issues?

Trust and safety is really important to us. Before launching we knew we had to address these issues. First and foremost, we provide primary insurance during the rental period. So there’s absolutely no risk to the owner’s policy and the renter knows that they have full insurance during the rental.

The second part is it’s really community-based so owners rate the renters and the renters rate the owners. If someone has a car that shouldn’t be on the site, that will come up through the ratings. And we tell both sides of the marketplace that if for whatever reason you don’t feel comfortable renting to someone or you don’t feel comfortable renting that car, absolutely do not; we’ll find an alternative. We’ve been pleasantly surprised that most of the cars on the site are nicer, newer vehicles.

Also we do pretty rigorous ID verification and driver screening so anyone actually renting through the site has a very good driving record. What it comes down to is, people have these cars that cost them a lot of money, and the fact that they could earn $350 to $1,000 a month is actually really helpful.

In general people love it. They say that they get to meet their neighbors or help out people in their community. And I think the fact that we provide twenty-four-hour roadside assistance really helps people as well.

How many Chicago car owners are sharing their cars at this point?

We have 350 on the site so far. The response with Chicago has been great. It’s really all over the city, including areas that have never had car sharing before, and there’s a huge variety of cars.

We’re also beta testing a new service called Getaway in Chicago and San Francisco. If you have a car you won’t be using at all, say you’re in the military or working abroad or studying abroad, you can give it to Getaround for six months or more and we’ll manage it. We guarantee $1,000 for the first three months.

How does the compensation structure work for regular rentals?

Owners set pricing so literally it could be anything from $3 an hour to $50 an hour, $15 a day to $250 a day, but on average you can find a good car for $8 or $10 an hour and about $40 to $50 a day. In terms of the revenue split, we take forty percent commission.

Anything else you want to tell me about the company?

The other key element with Getaround is we develop all of our own technology in-house. We have the Carkit, which is our in-vehicle technology that has security features and access controls. It lets the renter unlock the car with just their smart phone.

What’s the coolest thing about launching Getaround in Chicago?

The response from everyone has been great: the mayor’s office, the transportation commissioner [Commissioner Gabe Klein formerly worked for Zipcar], aldermen and community groups. It seems like this is something that’s really needed in Chicago, and people from all walks of life are excited about it.

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  • Lisa P

    So excited about this. I need a car for a meeting in the burbs later this week, and have been meaning to join. This article gave me the nudge, thanks!

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Sure thing. Hopefully it will be cheaper than that time your family and I split a car sharing vehicle for a trip to the Schaumburg IKEA!

  • duppie

    Not sure if this is more ecofriendly than i-Go. I read another review of this site (not sure where), and it quoted an owner who purchased half a dozen vehicles specifically to be rented out to this service. If that is true, than it appears that these services simply shift the capital requirements to somebody else by renting out somebody else’s vehicle.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Interesting! I’m pretty sure that kind of thing is not what the company has in mind.

      • Jason Marshall

        Imagine if everyone in Chicago over 16 owned a car. I wonder, if we tore down every single building and paved over everything would there be enough space for everyone to park?

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/8432336@N08/ BlueFairlane

      I tend to think that from an environmental standpoint, car sharing is a wash. It does have the potential to shrink the number of cars manufactured some small amount, but the energy involved in manufacturing a car is orders of magnitude less than what’s used to run it. And car sharing programs encourage people who for whatever reason–be it philosophy or expense–don’t own cars to make driving trips they otherwise wouldn’t make. To be sure, there are benefits to car sharing programs, but eco concerns aren’t among them.

      • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

        Perhaps the biggest ecological benefit from car sharing is that it allows people to feel comfortable not buying a first or second car. Once you own a car, you tend to drive it regularly. But if you don’t own a car, you’ll tend to use car sharing only when you really need to.

      • duppie

        Not sure I’d agree with that reasoning. From my own experience (I don’t own a car, but rent one a few times a year) I can tell you that I am very aware of the out-of-pocket cost of renting a car and as such try to cram as many activities/errands into one rental with the goal of minimizing the cost.
        I never owned a car, but at times in the past I had easy access to a car. I did find myself driving more at that time, mostly because it was available to me without any immediate out-of-pocket cost. One additional use of the car makes no real difference in the cost (other than additional gas, parking, and tolls)

      • http://transitized.com/ Shaun Jacobsen

        I don’t agree that car sharing programs encourage people to make trips they wouldn’t make, especially if the cost is high enough. For example I have Zipcar and I use it only when I need to do some hauling or feel like picking a friend (and their luggage) up at the airport. That would normally be a hassle on the blue line and bus ride to my place, so $15 or so to get the car isn’t a huge deal for me, but its also expensive enough that I wouldn’t do it for ALL of my friends ;-)

        The last time I used a Zipcar was a few months ago when I had a lot of things to donate to Goodwill downtown. If I had fewer, lighter things, I would’ve taken a bus down there.

        It’s not like I would use the car to go pick up pizza or go grocery shopping.

  • http://www.bikewalklincolnpark.com/ Michelle Stenzel

    Car sharing and peer-to-peer rentals are pretty cool. I think the next big thing we need in Chicago is one-way car sharing like they have all over Europe, and some cities in the US already (like Car2Go). The idea is that you can take the car on one-way trips, you’re only charged by the minute, you’re not charged while the car is parked at your destination, and you don’t have to return it from where you got it, as long as you leave it in a legal parking spot within the defined geographic area. Also, there are no annual or monthly charges, just a low sign up fee.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      That would be useful, since traditional car share gets expensive if you have to pay for the time the car is parked at your destination, before you return it.

  • Eboni Hawkins

    I LOVE RELAYRIDES! If I ever get a car… I’m gonna put it on there. :D

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