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Americans Try Renting Their Car to Strangers

Free market solution is designed to help neighborhoods make do with fewer cars

Eric Loebel, of Portland, Oregon, plans to rent his Volvo S80 out to strangers with the help of a car sharing service.
Eric Loebel, of Portland, Oregon, plans to rent his Volvo S80 out to strangers with the help of a car sharing service.

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Tom Banse

Americans love their cars. There are more cars, per capita, in the United States than in any other country - more than eight cars for every 10 Americans, according to recent government figures.

But most of the time, those vehicles sit idle, parked in a driveway or on the street. Now, several startup companies on the U.S. West Coast are helping people rent their personal car to someone else when they don’t need it.

Peer-to-Peer Car Sharing

Eric Loebel is one of those people. For a small price, he wants to let his Oregon neighbors “borrow” his car. It’s a dark blue, model year 2000 Volvo sedan.

The sales and marketing consultant says he doesn’t use it much.

“My wife and I are huge bike commuters and almost don’t need a car, but haven’t quite been able to eliminate that element," he says. "So we have a car that basically sits in front of the house maybe 85 to 90 percent of the time.”

Loebel is one of the first car owners in Portland to list his wheels for rent through a so-called “peer-to-peer car sharing” service called Getaround.com.

The website for car sharing service, Getaround.com, lists the personal vehicles available for hourly rental.
The website for car sharing service, Getaround.com, lists the personal vehicles available for hourly rental.

“Cars are so expensive to own," he says. "This can definitely offset some of the cost.”

The website lets car owners decide for themselves how much to charge borrowers to rent by the hour, day or week.

Collision protection

Loebel is charging $9 per hour or $199 per week. So is he worried someone will wreck his car?

“Ummm... no. My relationship to my car is one of non-attachment.”

And besides, he says the car sharing marketplace automatically includes liability and collision insurance that is separate from his own. That’s an important feature. Most U.S. insurance companies hold the owner of a vehicle responsible for accidents, no matter who is driving, and can raise the insurance premium.

So the Oregon Legislature is considering new regulations to smooth the road for person-to-person car rentals, following an example set by the California legislature last year.  

“Commercial uses of vehicles are prohibited under typical insurance policies," says State Rep. Ben Cannon, a Democrat from Portland. "So we needed to create new law to provide for the possibility that someone could put their car into a car sharing program without violating their motor vehicle insurance policy.”

Cannon’s legislative fix encountered no organized opposition on its way to passage. He enthusiastically endorses personal car sharing as a free market solution to help neighborhoods make do with fewer cars.

Something for everyone

Person-to-person rentals began in Germany a decade ago, and there are a handful of similar companies in Europe and Australia.

The concept caught on quickly in California over the past year, according to John Atcheson, vice president of Getaround, one of four car-sharing startups in the San Francisco area.  

“We have had an amazing array of cars leaping into our system," Atcheson says. "Not just 1995 pickup trucks, but we have had late model Mercedes, Audis, any type of car you can imagine.  We actually have a Tesla Roadster - a $150,000 sports car - that people have put into this pool.”

Atcheson’s company and its competitors screen the driving records of prospective borrowers. Private car owners post when their vehicles are available in a members-only internet marketplace.

The car sharing companies take a commission of 35- to 40 percent of the rental price to cover administration and insurance. Owners and borrowers can police the marketplace by giving each other online ratings.

“So far, we have had surprisingly few issues come up," Atcheson says. "In fact, the only issue I can think of right now that has happened is that someone had a BMW sports car in the system. It was a stick shift. Someone who didn’t know how to drive a stick shift very well took it and burned the clutch down.”

Getaround helped to pay for a new clutch.  

Another service called JustShareIt plans to stand out by going beyond cars. Its founder says the company will offer person-to-person rentals of power boats, dune buggies, jet skis and snowmobiles too.

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