Last month, I wrote about the upcoming Seattle launch of car-sharing service Car2Go. It’s now hit the streets, with a fleet of distinctive blue-and-white Smart cars flung about town. So of course, I tried it out (and if you live in Seattle, you should too – you can sign up now and get the initial $35 fee waived, along with 30 free minutes of driving, using the promo code “SOUND”).
The core concept of the Car2Go service is a little bit amazing. It’s like ZipCar, but without the designated parking spots or need for all trips to be round trips. Which means that if, say, you ride your bike to work but need a different way to get home, you can pick up a car downtown, drive it home and simply leave it in any public parking spot within the Car2Go home area (Car2Go has a deal with the city, covering all parking, even in pay and zoned parking areas).
I approached the service with a fair bit of skepticism, assuming the home area would be a tightly-defined area in Seattle’s more densely-populated areas. I didn’t expect it would cover my residential corner of Capitol Hill, but figured I could walk from the edges of the home area. So I was surprised to see that the home area is almost all of Seattle (and 100% of Capitol Hill). I could leave the car right in front of my house! Hell, I could leave one in the leafiest corner of Washington Park. That made the service far more interesting to me.
The cars are all Smart cars. I hadn’t driven one before, but it’s kinda fun. Like a riding lawn mower with more pick-up, or a go-cart. But despite the diminutive size, the car has a surprising amount of headroom, and room in the back that could probably hold four bags of groceries. I wouldn’t want to drive one down I-5 to Portland, but it’s perfectly fine for tooling around town.
Finding cars is easy, using either the Car2Go website or the mobile app. You can grab any available car you happen upon, or reserve one up to 30 minutes in advance.
Once at the car, it unlocks similar to a ZipCar, using your Car2Go prox card. Unlike ZipCar, there’s an interactive touch screen and pin required before motoring away. Once the trip begins, you’re charged $.38/minute, with an hourly max of around $14. More expensive than ZipCar, sure – but the fact that I could grab a car downtown and leave it behind parked in front of my house was huge.
Or it would be, if I could have left it in front of my house. And this is where we get to the not-so-good. Car2Go has a few bugs to be worked out the system.
For starters, the website. It looks like something you would have encountered in a Barcelona internet cafe, circa 2002. Car2Go is a European company that has only just recently made its entry into the US market, and it shows. Let’s just say that the US remains several steps ahead of Europe when it comes to website UX. The Car2Go site struggles with geolocation, and is fairly difficult to navigate. But I’m sure they’ll improve, and it’s really a minor annoyance.
Ending a trip, however . . .
One of the really appealing things about transport services like ZipCar and Uber is how smoothly the process of ending a trip goes. Everything happens in the background. With ZipCar, hold the prox card over the external reader in the windshield for two seconds and you’re done. With Uber, collect your bags, thank your driver and you’re off. Or Capitol Bike Share – find a station, park the bike, look for the green light and that’s it.
It may seem a small thing – and lord knows this is a first world problem – but it’s a major part of the user interaction design that these services remove nearly all of the transactional friction at the end of trip. This is also one of the appealing things about mass transit – just step off the bus.
With Car2Go, you’ve got to deal with the interactive touch screen again to end your trip. And it needs to acquire a cellular signal and confirm back to you, presumably to ensure the car is parked properly and to confirm the trip is ended. But for me, this process took upward of a minute, and – far worse – required my trying 3 different parking locations before I found one that could acquire a wireless connection. That’s a big problem, particularly when users are paying by the minute for short trips. It probably added 7 minutes onto what was a 15 minute trip. That’s an unacceptable level of friction.
Now, I may have gotten a bad car, or perhaps Car2Go is using a small number of proprietary wireless transmitters. But it’s an issue they’ll need to clean up – perhaps by using GPS to confirm that a trip ends in the home area.
(**UPDATE: I did have a balky unit. I’ve since used Car2Go a half-dozen or so times and the “end trip” process has been smooth, hassle-free and hasn’t taken more than 5-10 seconds)
That said, Car2Go is certainly a welcome entrant into the Seattle transport scene, and further reduces the chances that we’ll become a multi-car family again anytime soon (at least until my kids start driving). Now, bring on Seattle bike share!