Summary:

If you own a car but don’t use it much, growing numbers of startups are itching to help you rent it out. One of the latest ventures is Getaround, which aims to set itself apart with a recipe involving Facebook, smart phones, and green cars.

Getaround-iPhone

If you own a car but don’t use it much, growing numbers of startups are itching to help you rent it out to other drivers — like Zipcar, but member’s provide the fleet. One of the latest ventures to join the fray, San Francisco-based Getaround, aims to set itself apart with a recipe involving Facebook, smart phones, some easy-to-install hardware and cool green cars.

Getaround, along with a spate of competitors including RelayRides in San Francisco and Boston, SprideShare in San Francisco, WhipCar in the UK, and CityzenCar in France, fits into the larger trend of using the web to help people share “stuff.”

How to Get Around

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: To sign up as a driver in Getaround’s Beta launch, you enter some basic information on Getaround.com, including date of birth, gender, zip code, and whether you know how to drive a stick shift. To complete the signup, you log in to Getaround using your Facebook account, granting it access to some of your Facebook data. Before you can rent a car, Getaround also checks your driving record.

For the car owner, Getaround seeks to provide “a lot of flexibility and control” over who can rent the vehicle and how. “You can choose to share with one or two people, or the whole neighborhood,” said Jessica Scorpio, co-founder and business development chief for Getaround. “We’re the marketplace to make it happen.”

The owner of a Tesla Roadster Sport in the program, for example, only considers requests from drivers who are at least 30 years old, and she requires a minimum 2-hour rental period (at $25 per hour). Drivers can “bundle” requests for up to five cars for a given rental period, and then the car owner who responds first wins the gig. Owners set the rental rate, and Getaround takes a 30 percent cut of each transaction.

Requiring users to have a Facebook profile helps Getaround verify identity, said Scorpio, and also encourages good behavior. “If drivers know you have access to their real Facebook profile,” she said, “they’ll be more cautious.” Down the road, Getaround plans to integrate more closely with Facebook, enabling users to rent their vehicle only to existing network connections, for example.

Once a driver and owner have agreed to a rental, Getaround generates an email confirmation that will allow the driver to locate, honk, unlock the car using a smart phone, thanks to the “Carkit” device that owners can have installed on their vehicle for $200. Currently Getaround offers an app for the iPhone and it plans to release an Android app in the near future, but the browser on a smart phone can also do the job, according to Scorpio. Car owners who prefer to meet the renter and hand over keys in person can skip or delay the hardware installation.

Getaround accepts only vehicles from the 2000 model year or later with no more than 100,000 miles on the odometer, and the company hopes to recruit a large number of “green vehicles,” including more all-electric models. Scorpio said Getaround currently has 60 cars active throughout California, mainly in the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego, where the University of California has provided funding for a small-scale trial project. At least 40 additional vehicles are moving through Getaround’s approval process. In all, Scorpio said “a few thousand” people have signed up to use Getaround.

While the 12-person company is focusing most of its efforts on proving its model in San Francisco, said Scorpio, Getaround can support peer-to-peer car sharing anywhere in California. Next year the ambitious startup hopes to expand across the country, and within five years it aims to go global.

Peer to Peer Car Sharing

It’s not mere coincidence that distributed car sharing services are sprouting up in California. In September legislation called AB 1871 passed in the state that paves the way for distributed or “peer-to-peer” car sharing programs. The legislation established rules for when a vehicle owner’s insurance policy stops applying, and when a commercial policy held by a service provider like Getaround kicks in.

Getaround “did as much as we could” to encourage passage of AB 1871, said Scorpio. But the company’s origins trace back to a 2009 group project at Singularity University’s 10-week, $25,000 summer program in Mountain View, Calif. Created by futurist Ray Kurzweil and X Prize chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis, Singularity University’s courses and programs focus on “exponentially growing technologies in order to address humanity’s grand challenges.”

The group’s concept for an iPhone app that facilitates “peer-to-peer” car-sharing won the “best money making app” category in a hackathon competition at Yahoo headquarters in July 2009. By September three of the team members — Scorpio, plus Sam Zaid and Director of Engineering Elliot Kroo — had officially founded the startup now known as Getaround.

Given its Silicon Valley roots, it’s no surprise that Getaround considers itself a technology company. But at the end of the day, Getaround’s success and growth will depend as much, if not more, on the company’s handling of low-tech issues like auto insurance, legislation and customer service. Streamlining the hardware aspect will be crucial for the company to achieve its vision of a global footprint.

As Spride Share co-founder Sunil Paul put it in an interview, Spride’s distributed car-sharing platform (which unlike Getaround, requires a key fob for entry) offers an example of a greentech venture that’s enabled by technology, yet fundamentally is not a technology play. “This is not going to be the whiz bang app, or the whiz bang anything,” he said. Rather, Spride’s success will hinge on catching policies up with an opportunity and capitalizing on what Paul sees as a general trend toward cars in “reasonably dense settings” becoming a shared resource.

Mobile Phone Tech As Enabler

During a rental session, Getaround tracks location data via users’ smart phones as well as the so-called Carkit installed on each vehicle. The company allows vehicle owners to set when and where other Getaround users can view the location of their car when it’s parked. And according to the company’s privacy terms, the vehicle owners also “may be able to see the location” of their car during the rental period. “Other than that,” says Getaround, “other users will not be able to see your movements….unless you choose to enable ride-sharing features.”

Might Getaround partner at some point with a smartphone-based ride-share service, such as Zimride, Carticipate, Avego or Daimler’s Car2gether? According to Scorpio, the company is interested in partnering with car sharing companies, municipal transportation departments, universities, and “P2P companies,” which she described as “anything that helps you share assets.”

According to Scorpio, Getaround does not actively monitor driving information in real time. Rather, she said the company is more interested in patterns (for example, if you speed during every rental session) and being able to track down a stolen vehicle. “We want to know if it’s going 100 miles an hour toward Mexico,” she explained.

Getaround has built a device called a Carkit that allows this data collection, and also makes keyless entry using the company’s iPhone app possible. The device, according to Scorpio, is “as non-invasive as it can get,” plugging in “very easily” to a car’s ODB-II (on-board diagnostics) port. Currently Getaround picks up vehicles from new members and brings them to professional mechanics for the Carkit installation. This is a clunky, costly step for a startup trying to build a web-based global service, so Getaround is working to simplify the process and hardware.

Scorpio expects 2011 to be a big year for the company. Getaround has raised seed funding from Redpoint Ventures and Powerset founder Barney Pell. The startup not hurting for cash at the moment, said Scorpio, but it plans to seek Series A financing this year.

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