Before the year is through, it will be practically impossible to go anywhere in downtown San Diego without spotting one of Daimler’s tiny, zero-emission Smart cars zooming around the city or parked along the street.
That’s because Car2go — a subsidiary of Daimler, the German maker of Mercedes-Benz — will be bringing a fleet of 300 Smart Fortwo Electric Drive vehicles to San Diego for the rollout of its first all-electric car-sharing operation in North America.
Daimler is the latest in a string of global companies to take notice of San Diego’s eco-forward reputation and choose the city for a significant business investment involving electric cars and renewable energy. Other big players to recently make news here include France’s Soitec SA, which has chosen San Diego for the home of its U.S. headquarters and solar factory, and General Electric, which recently became the 100th member of the nonprofit CleanTech San Diego and is a key participant in Smart City San Diego, a program designed to accelerate the rollout of smart grid technologies and a comprehensive electric vehicle infrastructure plan.
“We’ve been able to attract the attention of large multinational companies, and that’s supporting the growth of innovation among smaller local companies that support the clean energy and the EV (electric vehicle) economy,” said CleanTech San Diego President and CEO Lisa Bicker.
San Diego Takes the Lead
Now, with the planned presence of Car2go’s first and only electric car-sharing service, San Diego will catapult “to the forefront of the electric vehicle movement,” said Nicholas Cole, president and CEO of Car2go N.A. LLC, the North American division of Car2go. “You can bet that the world will be watching.”
Cole is based in Austin, Texas, the only other U.S. city where Car2go does business. In Austin, the company also has a fleet of 300 Smart Fortwo cars, although those cars run on fuel, not electricity. “We see about 4,000 rentals per week,” Cole said, of the Austin market. Pricing hasn’t been set for San Diego, but in Austin the company charges 35 cents per minute, $12.99 per hour, and $65.99 per day. Members also must pay $35 to register, although the company is considering initially waiving that fee in San Diego, Cole said.
In addition to Austin, Car2go has fuel-based car-sharing services in two German cities and in Vancouver, B.C. It’s planning a second all-electric fleet for Amsterdam. Cole said rentals are in most cases short and spontaneous one-way trips of less than five miles.
Whether its fleet is gas or electric, Car2go uses a “free-floating” service model through which members can go online with their smartphone or computer to find a car parked nearby, swipe their card to open the door, and then take the vehicle for as long as they need, Cole said. When the trip is done, members can return the car almost anywhere within the service boundaries or “geofence.”
The cars get about 84 miles on a full charge, so running out of battery power shouldn’t be a concern for most users, Cole said. Still, “we want to get as many charge points in the operating area as possible,” he said.
As part of the national EV Project, funded through a grant by the U.S. Department of Energy, San Francisco-based ECOtality Inc. is installing 1,000 to 1,500 Blink electric vehicle charging stations in San Diego County before the end of the year. “We consider that number to be a good start,” ECOtality President and CEO Jonathan Read said, “but eventually there will be even more.”
ECOtality already has started installations, with 10 recently completed in Balboa Park. The company is working with other EV Project stakeholders, including SDG&E, to decide where the other stations should be located. The site selection will play a big role in determining the geofence for Car2go’s car-sharing fleet.
One thing is for certain: Without ECOtality’s commitment to building a robust public infrastructure of charging stations, San Diego would never have been considered for Car2go’s first electric fleet. “That infrastructure is what’s making it possible,” Cole said.
Not only will San Diego have the required car-charging stations in place, but it also has a climate that fosters maximum battery life in electric cars, said Jacques Chirazi, clean-tech program manager for the City of San Diego. “Batteries don’t perform well in the cold,” he said.
Because of all of these factors, luring Car2go to San Diego didn’t require any huge proactive efforts from the mayor’s office, Chirazi said; the city pretty much sold itself.
City Council Support Needed
Yet in order to pave the way for Car2go’s plans to materialize, the mayor has had to propose changes to the municipal code that will allow the Smart cars to be parked legally on the street when they’re not in use and to create dedicated parking spots for the cars, among other things. The City Council is expected to vote on the changes on July 19.
While San Diego’s charging stations, mild weather, and soon, its parking regulations, should be able to handily support electric cars, some industry observers wonder if the city has what it takes to support such a full-scale car-sharing service.
“Car-sharing companies tend to look for densely populated cities where the cost of car ownership is high, which often means places where parking and gas are expensive,” said Fred Lowrance, a car-sharing industry analyst with Avondale Partners LLC in Nashville. “They also look for cities with a good, solid mass transit infrastructure so people can easily get into downtown from the suburbs without a car.”
Taking into account those factors, Lowrance said San Francisco would seem to be a more obvious California city for the launch of a traditional car-sharing program. “San Diego doesn’t seem to have the dense downtown population of some other major cities,” he said, “and parking isn’t exactly at a premium.”
But Cole disagrees about the market potential. Without citing any specific research, he said Car2go was interested in San Diego from the beginning, purely on the basis of car sharing. The city isn’t served by any other car sharing company, with the exception of a very small Zipcar fleet serving college students, so Car2go will not have any immediate competitors.
Lowrance said that Car2go’s success in San Diego could be bolstered by the fact that its fleet is electric — something that will make San Diego residents more willing to give it a try. Indeed, San Diego has been a leader in electric vehicle adoption. It currently ranks third nationwide in sales for the Nissan Leaf, the first mass-market electric car, a Nissan spokesman said.
“This is an innovative city from a technology standpoint and from an environmental standpoint,” Cole said. “It just made a lot of sense for us to come here. Who wouldn’t want to be in San Diego?”