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Death and taxes may have been for Benjamin Franklin the only certainties in life, but research firm Frost & Sullivan adds a third this week: a boom in the car sharing market over the next several years. “It is a trend that WILL happen,” the firm […]

Death and taxes may have been for Benjamin Franklin the only certainties in life, but research firm Frost & Sullivan adds a third this week: a boom in the car sharing market over the next several years. “It is a trend that WILL happen,” the firm writes in a new report, “and vehicle manufacturers need to carefully gauge the potential impact on their total sales.”

According to the report, the number of drivers using car-sharing networks increased 117 percent between 2007 and 2009 in North America. Within five years, the firm expects to see 4.4 million people in North America and 5.5 million people in Europe signing up for services like the one from Zipcar, more than tripling membership from 2009.

Car-share providers, which often roll the cost of fuel into membership and hourly or daily fees, are now “actively seeking fuel efficient, low emission, low priced, and trendy vehicles,” Frost analyst David Zhao notes. This presents both a risk and an opportunity for car makers, since car-share providers could turn into big customers, while also driving a decline in personal vehicle ownership (according to Frost, each shared vehicle replaces about 15 personally owned vehicles).

For makers of electric vehicles in particular, car-share networks could help shore up demand in the early days of the technology, with plug-in vehicles expected to make up one in every five new vehicle purchases for car-share fleets by 2016.

What’s in it for consumers? Zipcar claims its members, most of whom drive 5,500 miles or less each year, can save more than $435 per month by driving shared vehicles rather than owning a car (factoring in costs like fuel, insurance, vehicle maintenance, parking and car payments). Frost’s analysis suggests, however, that savings can be much higher for some low-mileage drivers. Drive less than 12,000 miles per year, the firm estimates, and you could save more than $1,834 by opting out of vehicle ownership and paying for a car-share service instead.

Still, as I’ve noted over on GigaOM Pro (subscription required), car-share networks have a growing user base, but they’ve struggled with profitability. Many, like City CarShare in San Francisco, PhillyCarShare in Philadelphia, I-Go Car Sharing in Chicago have taken a non-profit approach, while Autolib (an all-electric network) in Paris has government backing. In recent years, rental giants like Hertz and Enterprise have cautiously entered the car-share game (see our cheat sheet comparing the business models, availability of green vehicles and rates for more than a dozen car-share networks).

Auto makers may be well advised to heed Zhao’s call and pounce on the opportunity of marketing green cars to the car-share market. But challenges also await car-share providers, because it’s not just the market that’s growing — the competition is, too.

Related reports on GigaOM Pro (sub. req’d):Electric Vehicles Give ‘Mobility as a Service’ a Jumpstart” and “Location-Based Services: From Mobile to Mobility

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