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Summary:

Today, just ahead of releasing its 2010 earnings forecast, Daimler announced it will open its Austin, Texas car sharing network to all city residents next month. Dubbed car2go, it demonstrates a service that could play into a larger Mobility on Demand system.

car2go AustinDaimler’s car2go, a car-sharing project that uses Smart Fortwo vehicles with micro-hybrid drives, officially kicked off in Austin, Texas last November — allowing city employees to pick up networked vehicles at stations and designated parking spaces around Austin, and drop them off anywhere within the service area. On Wednesday, just ahead of releasing its earnings forecast for the year ahead, Daimler announced that it will open up the network next month to all Austin residents, and also extend the pilot project with the city to run for a full year, rather than the originally planned six months.

The Austin network offers an example of one-way car sharing, as opposed to two-way sharing networks (e.g. Zipcar, City CarShare) requiring members to return a vehicle to the same reserved spot where they checked it out. In recent months it has expanded beyond city staffers to also let state employees and members of a couple local organizations join the network. Modeled after a similar Smart Fortwo program in Ulm, Germany, the Austin network has been set up as a “barter agreement” reportedly worth $85,000 to the city. Daimler agreed to provide mobility as a service (city workers will get a limited number of free car2go minutes), while Austin designated free street parking spots around the city.

Opening the network up to city residents will push the car2go program beyond what’s been a fairly predictable user base so far — city staffers driving for work purposes while they’re on the clock. So this offers an opportunity to gather data on when, where and how consumers use vehicles on an hourly and daily basis. That’s valuable information these days. Electric vehicle makers, charge point companies and utilities are working to collect similar data for insight on infrastructure needs, likely charging patterns and how an influx of plug-in vehicles will affect the power grid.

While car2go has so far been implemented at a limited scale, it demonstrates a service that could play into a larger Mobility on Demand, or MoD system. As envisioned by MIT researchers including Ryan Chin (who explained the concept to us for this GigaOM Pro article, subscription required), a fully fleshed-out Mobility on Demand system would involve a comprehensive network of services in which city residents could rent an electric car, scooter or bicycle when and where they need it in order to bridge the “last mile” gap between public transit stations and a final destination.

For Daimler, the project offers an opportunity to polish its brand (according to Chin, most MoD services are currently operated by advertisers) and refine its algorithm for managing a fleet in this type of network — which could be an increasingly important tool as we move into the era of Car 2.0. (We’ll discuss networked vehicles at our Green:Net conference in San Francisco on April 29.) In that sense, it supports the strategy message that Daimler tried to drive home to shareholders in its annual meeting Wednesday, as summarized by CEO Dieter Zetsche in a statement today: “We are sharpening our brand profiles, spearheading technological transformation, growing in key markets, satisfying changed customer requirements and boosting our efficiency.”

Related articles on GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Mobility on Demand Takes Aim at Transport Networks “Last Mile”

Location-Based Services: From Mobile to Mobility

Electric Vehicles Give “Mobility as a Service” a Jumpstart

Photo courtesy of Daimler

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