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An Inside Look at Wheelz

Bob Siegel headshotWords by RP Siegel

TriplePundit Sponsored Series

The Rise Of The Sharing Economy

We would be remiss in writing about the sharing economy without talking about Wheelz. And not just because they, as Chief Sharer, have done so much to make this series possible. Wheelz’ innovative peer-to-peer (P2P) business model and their use of technology puts them right out at the cutting edge of this rapidly evolving movement. There is no need to put any extra spin on a company that is already ahead of the curve.

Self-described, not as a company, but as, “a peer-to-peer car sharing community that connects drivers who need a car with owners who want to share their cars with those around them,” Wheelz is serving both college campuses and cities.

Most new ventures start from a basement or back room and try to get from there to a better place. The founders of Wheelz actually started at Better Place (the swappable battery company) and went from there to helping other people get to where they needed to go without buying a car that would only end up sitting still most of the time.

CEO Jeff Miller told me that “one of the things you think about when you’re working on EVs is how often cars are parked, since that’s the only time you can recharge them. It’s a horribly inefficient use of resources. It seemed like there was a real opportunity to make the transportation ecosystem a lot more efficient by applying a similar approach to vehicles and vehicle ownership that Airbnb was applying to homes and home ownership. So we spun this out of Better Place: Aaron Platshon bringing his automotive marketing background from Tesla and Akhtar Jameel who had spent a lot of time at Mercedes Benz thinking connecting automobiles to the web.”

They took that vision and turned it into truly new way of thinking about getting around. The Wheelz P2P platform, together with its DriveBoxTM in-car technology and mobile access, offer a simple, efficient, P2P rental experience that turns idle cars into grocery runs, coffee dates and weekend getaways. As they like to say, “We’re not reinventing the wheel, just how you use it.”

Says Platshon, “When you’re working in transportation, user experience is critically important and one of the areas we’ve focused on is our custom DriveboxTM which gets installed on all vehicles in the program. It makes it more convenient for drivers because they can find and access the car on the go, from their mobile device. You can find it because of the GPS signal and you can unlock it because it wires directly into the car’s door system. You can honk the horn and flash the lights to make it easier to locate, which makes it a much easier experience for drivers. It’s also very convenient for car owners, too, because they can rent their car out whenever they want, and don’t need to take the time to go meet up with the renter to facilitate the transaction.”

Wheelz has raised more than $15 million to date, including a $13.7 million round of funding led by investors Bill Ford’s Fontinalis Partners, and Zipcar, their lead investor, which was recently acquired by Avis.

I asked Miller what the main differences were between Zipcar and Wheelz, in their customers and in their reach.

“I think that peer-to-peer (P2P) is something that can appeal right now, especially in the early phases of its development to a younger generation that’s more familiar with Facebook and Airbnb and have a greater level of trust for these P2P type transactions. As it goes more mainstream, I’d expect that age to increase while more of the older generation is still looking at the options and saying I’m going to stick with Zipcar for now.

Zipcar’s model differs in that they own their cars which you rent from them. Some people, like CV Harquail, have suggested that Zipcar is not really sharing at all, but rather just a really well-implemented car rental service.

Sometimes sharing is co-owning and sometimes it is renting, both concepts which have been around for a long time. The thing that makes it “sharing” in the business sense, or collaborative consumption as it is perhaps more accurately labeled, and therefore new, is a customer experience that is so transparent, so effortless, courtesy of mobile and social technology as to have transcended the boundary that once existed between the transactional and the personal. I mean we share and borrow stuff with members of our own family, right? So the question is can ubiquitous mobile computing make the whole world, one big family?

Not exactly, but in certain cases, it can take us one step closer. Close enough to create what you might call the “economic intimacy,” that I think is really the key to the sharing economy.

Yes, Zipcar is, in fact, a well-implemented car rental service. It certainly goes well beyond what Hertz #1 Gold and their imitators ever dreamed of, in not only doing away with the retail counter, but putting the car right in your neighborhood where you can walk to it, open it and drive away with nothing more than your smart phone and a reservation. The thing that makes it sharing, really, is the fact that according to UC Berkeley, every shared car replaces 13 owned cars. This means that, in essence, by participating in a Zipcar transaction, you are essentially, co-owning that car with a number of total strangers and we have taken one tiny step closer to the world-as-family idea and away from what we might look back on someday as the ownership economy.

Wheelz then, takes this all a step farther, combining all the convenience of a technology-enabled service like Zipcar’s with the community building potential that only peer-to-peer can deliver.

According to Miller, “One way of thinking about this is that we’re in the consumer behavior change business in the sense that most people historically would not buy a new car and share it with complete strangers. What they are wired to do is to share it with people that they already know. What we’re hoping to do is to formalize that and extend it to a broader definition of community than what people currently share with. That will take time to become pervasive. But it doesn’t have to become totally pervasive to have a massive impact.”

Because, he says, “if only 1 percent of car owners were to put their car into a P2P community, that’s 2.5 million cars, which is more than double the traditional car rental fleet and the existing car sharing fleet combined. So with 1 percent consumer adoption, you’ve introduced maybe one of the most disruptive factors in the transportation space, because now you’ve got a car available on every block in every major metropolitan area, that you can access from the palm of your hand, with complete diversity of vehicle choice, anything from a sports car to a truck, no matter where you are.”

What blew my mind, perhaps most of all the things we talked about, was when I, as a more or less traditional business traveler, suggested that airports would remain strongholds for the traditional car rental model for years to come, Miller agreed, but then added, “You can imagine a swapping service where you go to the airport and pick up somebody else’s car and somebody else picks it up yours so that instead of paying for parking you are getting paid for the use of the car.”

If nothing else did, surely that impressed upon me that this is really a whole new ball game.

Photo Courtesy of Wheelz

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.