July 22, 2005

Article at Wall Street Journal

Set for Life: Learning to Share

FOR KAREN TOK, it's important to have a set of wheels handy. One day late last year, in a rush, she drove a car full of exhibition materials across town for an event. She kept the car at a nearby parking lot all day, but she paid no parking fees. At day's end she drove the vehicle back to another parking lot, near her office, and left it there, knowing that again no fees applied.

Ms. Tok knew another thing as she walked out of the parking lot: She would likely never use or see the car again, and complete strangers would soon be driving around in it. Ms. Tok isn't living in some experimental commune with relaxed property rights. Quite the contrary: Ms. Tok, 34-year-old director of regional life-sciences headhunting concern Scientec Consulting Pte. Ltd., works in the middle of Singapore's business district, one of the most expensive places in the world to have a car.

Instead of having the expense of vehicle ownership, Ms. Tok sees a car-sharing service. For an annual membership fee (she got a special deal, but the standard rate is about US$70 a year), she gets instant access to a fleet of cars waiting in designated parking lots all over Singapore, many in the heart of the city. Honda Diracc, the company behind the service, insures and maintains the cars, which are mostly Civic Hybrids. Ms. Tok pays only for the time and distance she drives, even if it's only for 20 minutes. If she fills the car with gas, she doesn't pay for that either: Honda Diracc is automatically charged by the gas station.

The concept of car sharing, more than a decade old in parts of Europe and growing quickly in the U.S., is now emerging in Asia as well. The numbers still are low; Singapore, which leads the region, is just shy of having 10,000 members. But as the service spreads across Asia, more people are starting to hop aboard, especially in urban areas where vehicle ownership can be a bureaucratic -- and expensive -- headache.

For Ms. Tok, using a car-sharing service means considerable savings: She used to spend about $1,065 a month on a car, by her reckoning, which included parking, insurance, maintenance, repair, registration fees, installments, petrol, and speeding and parking fines. Now, she spends as little as $3.50 a month.

With car sharing, paperwork also is kept to a minimum. Because Ms. Tok is a member, when she needs a car she can do everything on her own, with no forms to sign or counter attendants to deal with. There's no need to book ahead. She simply goes to a Honda Diracc lot, places her hand against a car's window to activate an access system, swipes a security card across the windshield to open the locks, then enters a code on a dashboard-mounted touch-pad device so that a key pops out of the ignition. And then she's off. To return the car, she parks it in the same or another Honda Diracc lot, pushes the key back down, swipes the card across the windshield to lock the doors, and walks away. She can check via the Internet or SMS text message to make sure cars are available in a particular lot before she walks over to it (for a fee, she can also use these channels to book a car ahead of time).

"I used to have a car," says Ms. Tok. "But I don't need one anymore."

It should be noted that each car-sharing operation has its own way of doing things. "There's no one fixed business model," says Lewis Chen, general manager of NTUC Income Car Co-operative (a not-for-profit set up to spur the industry in Singapore). His company, for instance, allows customers to drive into Malaysia; Honda Diracc doesn't. Tyoinori Club in Osaka sets the minimum rental time at 30 minutes, compared with 15 minutes for Linkul Car Sharing in Nagoya. Small differences like these abound, but all the operators offer short-term rates, multiple pick-up points, quick access and considerable savings over owning a car.

NTUC Income Car Co-operative, which has more than 5,000 car-sharing members, plans to expand to Hong Kong and Malaysia. Its projects in those countries could be operational within six to 18 months depending on regulatory approval and other factors. The co-op also has been in talks with potential partners in India, China and Taiwan. CEV Sharing in Tokyo and Yokohama, with about 550 members, plans to expand through the rest of Japan with a franchise model.

If you need a car only occasionally for short periods and car-sharing hasn't reached your area yet, another alternative to ownership is to look for a rental company that leases cars on an hourly basis. These are hard to find -- most rental companies charge for a minimum of one day no matter how long you use the car -- and they have neither the convenience nor multiple ports of a car-sharing service.

Here are some other car-sharing services around the region:

Singapore: NTUC Income Car Co-operative, http://www.carcoop.com.sg; CitySpeed, http://www.cityspeed.com.sg; Honda Diracc, http://www.hondadiracc.com.sg; WhizzCar, http://www.whizzcar.com

Tokyo, Yokohama: CEV Sharing, http://www.cev-sharing.com

Osaka, Kobe: Tyoinori Club, http://www.ekiren.com

Nagoya: Linkul Car Sharing, http://linkul.jp

Melbourne: Flo Carshare, http://www.flo.net.au

Sydney: GoGet, http://www.goget.com.au

(A translated list of car-sharing operations in Japan is at http://tinyurl.com/72k4b.)