Wednesday, November 7, 2012

I Don’t Get Around Much

I know next to nothing about Getaround – an experimental, private car-sharing service being piloted in Portland. But I typed in their website to see what it was all about.

I will start with this disclaimer: I have two cars, and they are both old and ugly. The first is a 14-year old mini-van that grows mushrooms in the carpet; the second, a 4-door sedan with a back seat full kids’ crumbs and dirt clods (and possibly a shriveled french fry or two). I hardly use either of them, but I doubt anyone else would want to use them either.

Both have body damage. Both appear distinctly un-cared for and un-loved. They are not stored under dust-proof covers. They are not buffed and polished once a week – heck, they might get hosed off once a year! My cars are not pampered California cars, sipping premium oil concoctions while getting their tires brushed and rotated at the corner auto boutique. Being a native Portlander, I don’t treat my cars like dependents or pets. They are not members of the family. I don’t identify with them, nor do they convey to the world my personality or my desirability by their make, model or accessories. I may be the coolest chick in town (ask my friends), but you’d never know it from looking at my rides.

My cars get me from one place to another on rainy, dark nights, or when the hills are steep or the distance long. I drive them to retrieve heavy things, to move family members to and from appointments and to get things done when I’m in a hurry. They are purely functional.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a responsible car owner, changing the oil on schedule, fixing whatever clanks or hisses immediately. I count on my vehicles, and make sure that they are there for me when I need them. These two vehicles, as dinged-up and ungainly as they are, are assets, tools in my toolbox that deliver convenience and versatility at a reasonable cost. However, our four-person family puts less than 12,000 miles annually on the two combined (we’ve driven the van about 40,000 miles in 12 years). This is why Getaround piqued my curiosity. These cars could be more productive, generating a small income for me and allowing someone else cheap mobility without a big down payment. It seems environmental and efficient. But what about the risk?

When a friend uses my car, I am always aware of the potential liability I bear. I have never done the research to determine exactly what I could be sued for, but have counted on my friends to be responsible drivers and trustworthy human beings. There is always the possibility that someone could get in my car and end up killing someone, or being killed. This was forefront in my mind as I tentatively browsed the Getaround website. Unfortunately, the site didn’t give many details about their insurance policy other than stating, “Coverage includes liability, collision, property damage, and uninsured motorist protection.” If someone rents my car and slams into a school bus, or loses control in the McDonald’s drive through, can I be sued?

The answer is unclear. In fact, the Getaround website doesn’t spell out much on any topic. The website’s “Tour” uses only 258 words to explain the entire concept. The creators seem to assume that users are either lawyers or simply lacking in prudent curiosity. So, hesitantly, I clicked “Sign up”, reminding myself that I could always back out afterwards if anything seemed unsavory, loose or sketchy.

Registering my car felt like dipping my toes into the dating pool – I felt simultaneously self-aggrandizing and exposed. The app connected to my Facebook account, and my profile picture popped up on my Getaround account so that renters would know what I look like. It asked for the exact address where the car is located, pinpointing my house on a map so that renters can find the car. Finally, it encouraged photos of the car so that renters will know what they are getting. If I had never heard of serial-killers trolling the internet for victims, I would have felt naively safe with the straight-forward process. As it were, I felt extremely uneasy with the fact that my face, my address and photos of my house and car would be available to any random renter. Here I was, purposefully compiling the perfect set of data for lunatic misogynists. All that was missing were my measurements.

The website assured me that Getaround maintains rigorous standards to verify users’ identities and driving histories, but it didn’t mention criminal backgrounds. Can they guarantee that a ‘casual renter’ isn’t just casing me, my home and my family? I felt vulnerable and worried, but in the end, I figured that I could escape at any moment by deleting my account. Or at least that is what I hoped – the website wasn’t very forthcoming about how to delete an account if you changed your mind.

I decided that a good hauling vehicle was something the carless public might appreciate, so I started with my 1989 Plymouth Voyager. I described it honestly and depreciatingly – noting the smell, the moisture, the six-foot scrape along the passenger side. While these kinds of details might deter Happy-Faced-Killer-types (I hoped), they spelled out clearly what kind of a car I was offering. My automotive honesty was the equivalent of telling members that I was fat, stupid and had bad breath.

“If that doesn’t quell the complainers, I don’t know what would,” I thought to myself.

Next, I had to decide on how much to charge. I wanted to make its occasional absence from my driveway worth the trouble, yet price it commensurately with how it would be used. College boys would not be cruising for girls in it. Moms would not choose it to drive the soccer team to the beach. Primarily, it would be used for hauling left over garage sale items to Goodwill, picking up furniture from Ikea, or maybe transporting grandma’s Great Dane to the vet. If it were me, how much would I spend to be able to check those kinds of items off of my to-do list?\

I decided that $9 was about how much I would pay to avoid the unsightly, post-yard-sale, “Free” pile outside my house. Nine dollars was less than a quarter of the $47 cost to have bark chips delivered, but the entire shipping cost for a single sheet of plywood from Home Depot. I shrugged and clicked “Continue”, still holding open the possibility of cancelling the whole thing if it didn’t suit me. I entered the car’s VIN and license and downloaded some photos – I didn’t bother to wash it first. Finally, I was satisfied with the scrappy promotion of my little-ugly-duckling-that-could. Someone, somewhere in Portland would surely find value in a cheap, hauling vehicle that they didn’t even have to clean afterwards. I clicked “Save”.

The website considered my submission and, after a few seconds, responded, “Hey, your car doesn't meet our eligibility criteria—we can only insure cars made in 1995 or newer with less than 150,000 miles. We're working with our insurance provider to offer more options in the future. Stay tuned.”

Oh. I see. Car-sharing is more like online dating than I had thought.

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