Summary:

What’s a German car company doing getting into social networking and tech-enabled carpooling? Trying to figure out new business models for an era of accelerating urbanization, declining car ownership and expanding access to the mobile web.

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What’s a German car company doing getting into social networking and tech-enabled carpooling? Trying to figure out new business models for an era of accelerating urbanization, declining car ownership and expanding access to the mobile web.

Daimler announced plans today to kick off a ridesharing pilot project called car2gether in Ulm, Germany on Sept. 18, and in a second German city by year’s end. Developed with partner Scientific Computers (which created the rideshare service Caribo), car2gether will allow city residents to set up a profile on the car2gether website, then begin posting offers or requests for rides to a “live ticker,” which participants can view online or by way of a free smartphone application. Put simply, car2gether will identify and link passengers and drivers with empty seats that are nearby and heading in the same direction.

Updated every 15 seconds, the car2gether ticker will display all offers and requests in short form (Daimler compares it to Twitter). Once a driver and a passenger both agree to a trip, they can view the full details. In the pilot phase, participants will be advised to pay drivers 9.5 cents per minute in cash. Down the road, however, Daimler plans to develop an “automatic, cashless payment procedure.”

Designed to integrate with Daimler’s car sharing program, car2go (users will be able to view and book available car2go vehicles in the car2gether app), this rideshare project comes as Daimler’s latest experiment with what some transportation wonks call “mobility on demand,” or MoD. As envisioned by MIT researchers, a fully fleshed-out MoD system would involve comprehensive network of services in which city residents can rent a car, scooter or bicycle when and where they need it in order to bridge the “last mile” gap in many public transit systems.

Originally launched in Ulm and expanded to Austin, Tex., Daimler’s car2go allows registered members can rent a Smart Fortwo car by the minute, hour or day, and then return it to any unoccupied parking space within a set operation area.

The automaker’s move to link these two MoD services echoes a partnership formed last year between the Zipcar and Zimride, a rideshare startup backed by Facebook’s fbFund. When you reserve a car on the Zipcar site, the confirmation page includes a link to “share this ride,” which takes users to the Zimride interface to enter trip details, such as destination, return time, price per passenger and whether this is a one-time deal or a regular commute.

Both Zimride and Daimler are turning to online social networking as a tool to promote and facilitate their services. Whereas Zimride has sought to tap users’ existing connections and level of trust with Facebook networks (helping to break down barriers to what might otherwise seem like high-tech hitchhiking), Daimler is opting for a separate car2gether network, while setting up a Facebook fan page and Twitter account. Scientific Computer’s Caribo service has chartered a similar path.

Larger trends may make these types of services (which can help slash emissions from the transportation sector and reduce reliance on personal vehicles while cutting the costs that go along with vehicle ownership) an important nut for automakers to crack in coming years. As Ford Motor Chairman Bill Ford put it earlier this year, “We make cars and trucks today, but who knows?” In the future, he said, the automaker may shift at least part of its business to provide mobility as more of a service.

That’s the imperative of a world accelerating toward urbanization, said Ford. The United Nations predicts that about 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities or urban areas by 2050, up from 49 percent today. As Katie noted in this piece about using the web to share “stuff,” that means a growing number of people will be living with limited parking spaces and garages, and easier access to public transportation than in many suburban or rural areas.

In addition, it’s simply becoming more expensive to own a car. According to a recent AAA study on vehicle ownership costs, including license and registration fees, depreciation, insurance, finance charges, fuel, maintenance and other costs, “owning and operating a typical sedan” climbed to about $8,487 per year in 2009 — a jump of more than $390 over AAA’s cost estimates in last year’s report.

This feeds a general trend that Spride Share CEO and greentech investor Sunil Paul recently described as cars in “reasonably dense settings” increasingly becoming a shared resource, “like cloud computing for cars.” In many cities, car sharing services are the most visible evidence of this trend, with the number of drivers using these networks growing 117 percent between 2007 and 2009 in North America, according to a report earlier this year from the research firm Frost & Sullivan.

A number of upstarts see opportunity in the market that Daimler plans to begin testing out with its car2gether project. Companies like Zimride, as well as Carticipate, Avego, Weeels and GishiGo are among the many racing to beat legacy players like Daimler at the game of getting people from A to B.

For more research on the intersection of green and IT check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Car Data As the Next Platform for Innovation

The Real Reason Google Is Buying Wind Power

Beyond the Battery: Building A Better Battery Business

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