Most car sharing plans work basically like short-term rental cars for a neighborhood. But a new "microsharing" plan in Stockholm is a little different: Three or four friends or coworkers all use the same car as a group, aided by an app and technology that automatically recognizes who's driving.
The program, run by Audi, lets the group choose any car to share for a year or two. Drivers can reserve the car or check the gas tank from their phone. When someone gets in the car, the system reads a beacon on his or her keychain to track the drive and split the monthly bill accordingly.
Audi, along with digital design studio Kram/Weisshaar, spent a year prototyping the new system in Stockholm with drivers. "We knew that it had to work in real life," says Clemens Weisshaar, one of the founders of the design firm.
"In the beginning, our biggest fear was what if two people want to go somewhere at the same time—what happens then?" he says. "Interestingly, it never happened. During testing, it became evident that people are just able to sync their schedules in a very smooth way."
Audi plays matchmaker for drivers who don't show up with a group of friends. "There were some unlikely automotive marriages," Weisshaar says. "People with different lives and different schedules find it much easier sharing a car. One person might take the kids to school every morning, while the other person's still crashing at 11."
Like other car sharing programs, it aims to eliminate the annoyance of owning a car—the service takes care of things like insurance, maintenance, a monthly car wash, and, since it's in Sweden, winter tires. "Those things just happen for you—you don't even think about it," says Weisshaar. "It basically takes out all the complexity in all of these aspects of vehicle ownership."
Audi chose Stockholm for the pilot because of its reputation as an innovative city. "The Swedes are very tech-savvy," Weisshaar says. "And there's also a tradition of sharing in Sweden. You share a holiday house, you share a sauna. It's part of the culture in a way. So as a test it was ideal."
It's also a place where people still appreciate car design—even if they don't necessarily want to own a car. "Swedes are into their cars. They don't want a dirty Mini that's just been used by 50 people," Weisshaar says. "They also don't want something with a sticker on the side that says 'car sharing.' They really want a nice performance car."
Audi plans to launch the program in other Swedish cities before moving to other countries. But it's a service that could probably work in any major city, particularly those (like Stockholm) that are trying to cut back on the number of cars by reducing parking and making it harder to drive into city limits.
"Ultimately what it means is that the car doesn't disappear from the city," Weisshaar says. "It simply means that the car becomes part of a mix of a variety of means of transport—but you have one available when you need one."