Kempner: More ways to drive someone else’s car in Atlanta

Atlantans just got another way to easily hop into a car that isn’t their own.

Car-sharing business Maven officially launched service in Atlanta this week, backed by parent General Motors. It's apparently the first time a major automaker has entered the car-sharing business locally.

That’s car-sharing, not ride-sharing. See how tumultuous the world of getting around has become?

The service, like that already offered in Atlanta by Zipcar and in a more limited way by Enterprise CarShare, lets you essentially rent a car easy peasy for an hour, a day, or whatever. It's supposed to be less hassle than the traditional rental car route.

With Maven you use an app on your smartphone to find, reserve and unlock a new-smelling and loaded GM vehicle parked somewhere close by … if you’re intown. (They have no suburban sites yet and they don’t plan to any time soon.) Prices start at $8 an hour before tax for a Chevrolet Cruze and move up for other options like a Tahoe or Cadillac Escalade. That includes all your gas, plus insurance (except a potentially big deductible if there’s an accident). Zipcars’ rates are pretty similar, except that it also charges a monthly or annual fee.

Contrast that with ride-sharing like Uber or Lyft, which offer an easy way to catch an often reasonably priced ride in someone else’s vehicle.

Tech companies, automakers, rental car businesses and others are scrambling to catch up with fast shifts in how people want to get around. But nobody’s altogether certain where we’ll end up.

Lurking in the background are driverless cars that will likely rock our worlds even more in the not-too-distant future. Then there’s the theory that lots of Americans will simply stop owning cars of their own, at least the way we traditionally think of it.

Which raises the question of whether today’s car-sharing services are the big revolution or just cool niche businesses along the way to bigger, longer-lasting change. I’m betting on the latter.

Consider that Adam Rabinowitz, Maven’s Atlanta general manager, was previously the Atlanta operations chief for Instacart, the grocery delivery company. Maybe that’s a hint that GM is willing to break boundaries.

“We want to enable people in Atlanta to live a car-free or a car-light lifestyle,” Rabinowitz told me.

Remember, this is a guy who works for a car maker.

Other automakers are also digging into car-sharing, including Daimler which has Car2Go. But GM’s Maven, which launched early last year and now offers car-sharing in 12 cities, may have the broadest U.S. network among automakers.

They’re not crazy

Executives of these companies aren’t crazy. Questions remain about whether millennials will be as hungry to own cars as past generations. If automakers’ lunches are going to be eaten, they might as well be the ones doing the eating. Plus, they assume someone will still buy cars in the future, whether it’s the person riding in it or a car-sharing service.

GM also hopes millennials who use Maven, which says 78 percent of members are in that demographic, will like the vehicles and maybe one day buy one — or 10 over time.

Some of car-sharing’s biggest markets are in cities where many residents haven’t traditionally owned cars. That’s not Atlanta.

“It’s a little ominous here,” Rabinowitz acknowledged. “The city is almost built around car ownership.”

Zipcar, which has been in the Atlanta market for years, considers the city a “second car” market. Most customers here already own a car and use the service as a supplement to run errands, take weekend trips or to upgrade and have a special night out.

Zipcar has big backing. It’s owned by rental giant Avis Budget Group. And in Atlanta it has about four times more vehicles and pickup locations than Maven does. It also goes farther afield, with pickup spots at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, College Park, Georgia Gwinnett College and Kennesaw State University.

Maven is starting with 49 vehicles on 25 lots spread around downtown, Midtown, Virginia-Highland, East Atlanta Village and other intown locales. It doesn’t even go as far out as Decatur.

A compact business

Car-sharing is still a small business compared to the overall auto market.

Just 7 percent of people surveyed by Kelley Blue Book in 2015 had ever used vehicle-sharing services. And for most people it appeared to be a substitute for using a taxi or a traditional rental car, rather than a way to skip car ownership. Still, 35 percent of those surveyed said while having transportation is necessary, owning a vehicle is not.

(Kelley Blue Book is part of Cox Enterprises, which also operates The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

Other local iterations on car-sharing include, which connects users with people who offer their personal vehicles for rent.

Bob Tiderington, GM’s senior manager for vehicle sharing, contends the future is clear: “People want to own the service, versus own the product.”

His offices in Michigan are down the hall from GM’s team working on autonomous vehicles.

“Some of the things are coming to market sooner than you realize,” he said.

He wouldn’t elaborate, but the 30-year-old Rabinowitz put it this way: “It’s a cool time in the industry. It’s going to change a lot more in the next five years than it did in the last fifty.”

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