Car2Go Smart ForTwo in Austin, Texas

Car2Go Smart ForTwo in Austin, Texas

Austin's always been a little different from the state it sits in. More than half of all the Chevrolet Suburbans built are sold in Texas, but Austin might be better known for old pickups and even the odd Volvo or Subaru. Those cars match the vibe of its annual South by Southwest music-movie-internet festival and its freewheeling college-town culture.

So if you're going to launch a car-sharing service amidst the big trucks of Texas, Austin's the place to go. And that's just what Daimler is doing.

This fall, the Smart car's parent company will kick off its Car2Go service in Austin, using just one kind of car: the 2009 Smart ForTwo. About 200 of them, in fact. It's the next step for a program that opened yesterday in Ulm, Germany, following a pilot launched last October.

The goal is to offer "simple, flexible, and cost-effective" transport for driving within the city, says Daimler. Registered Car2Go members will be able to rent the nearest Smart using their mobile phone. They don't have to reserve in advance (unlike competing services like ZipCar), they can drive as long as they need to, and they can return the Smart anywhere within the program's geographical limits.

Austin mayor Will Wynn says the city is "delighted" to be chosen as the Car2Go kickoff site. "Our city is well-known for its commitment to environmental issues, " he says, "and car2go is a perfect fit because it enables us to offer the citizens of Austin an intelligent mobility concept with an extremely positive environmental angle."

Daimler has bigger goals than single cities; consider the Austin launch the beta test for a national rollout across the US--in cities dense enough to make sense. Ultimately, it'll be an international program, but the company needs to understand how people tend to use cars in different cities, create business models that are simple to use and still profitable, and adapt to the different laws in each locale.

Green advocates often overlook car-sharing as a way to cut fuel consumption and waste. The greenest car, after all, is one you only use when you need it. And the success of ZipCar, which merged with its competitor FlexCar in 2007, has clearly encouraged Daimler.

"We made a very conscious decision to go to a North American city," says Jerome Guillen, Director of Daimler's Business Innovation Department. "The car-sharing market in the U.S. is enjoying the highest growth rate in the world, which is why we feel that this is also a very good opportunity for car2go."

ZipCar now operates thousands of cars in 49 US cities--though not Austin--as well as London, Toronto, and Vancouver. It doesn't offer Smart cars, but other services do, including PhillyCarShare in Philadelphia, CityFlitz in Toronto (which cuts costs by covering its cars with advertising), and others.

Smart car used by Philly Car Share, photo by Flickr user Chris Matta

Smart car used by Philly Car Share, photo by Flickr user Chris Matta

[PHOTO: Flickr user Chris Matta]