Saturday, May 13, 2006

Car Sharing Done Right

I have been hesitant to talk about the Honda Diracc car sharing service for the simple reason that it is so good. Like a favourite beach or restaurant, letting everybody else know reduces your own chances of getting in.

About a year ago, I was wandering along Orchard Road when I came across one of those ubiquitous booths selling something. Normally I give these a wide berth, but in this case, it was an exhibition on green technologies, and Honda had a booth displaying their Civic Hybrid. The car caught my attention, and while looking at the specifications, I realized it was part of a fleet of cars offered on a sharing basis.

The sales guy was friendly and knowledgeable, and the next thing I knew, I had signed up for a year long membership. A couple of weeks later, I received a letter inviting me to attend a familiarization session. This took place in the car park of Raffles City and took about 5 minutes to run through the activation system and use of the in-car terminal. With that, a smart card was handed over and I was ready to go.

Honda Diracc works by positioning a fleet of Honda Civic cars at 13 different car parks scattered around the central business district. These locations are called ports. I am lucky to have one port near my apartment, and another near where I work, so it is pretty convenient. A member is able to pick up a car at any port, and drop it at any other port they choose.

I should say that owning a car in Singapore is not something one undertakes lightly. There is a complex and shifting set of rules that result in high costs of ownership and usage. With the amount of travel I do, and a non-driving spouse, there is not much rational excuse to own a vehicle. Taxis are relatively cheap and plentiful, and no amount of limo rides can equal the cost of owning and operating a vehicle.

Unfortunately, while taxis in Singapore are cheap, they are operated by rather perverse individuals who do not see themselves as being in the service industry. Rather, passengers are treated as a necessary irritation to be tolerated in order to earn money.

This results in taxis being almost impossible to obtain when required. The downtown area is barren of available taxis at quitting time. The only vehicles to be seen are cruising around with "On Call" or "Shift Change" signs. To get a taxi, one has to call a booking number, wait on hold for an operator, then wait on hold again while she dispatches the job and waits for a driver to respond. The fee for booking, CDB surcharge, and peak hour surcharge turn my trip home into a lengthy and expensive affair.

Enter Honda Diracc. By clicking on the web site, I can instantly check to see if a car is available at the port beside my office. 90% of the time (holiday eve an exception) a car is available. I stroll over to the car park, wave my smart card at the window, and the doors unlock. Once inside, I enter my PIN on the LCD screen mounted on the dashboard, select the port where I will drop the car, hit enter, and the ignition key pops out of the ignition lock.

And that's it. No paper work, no need to re-fuel before dropping off, no hassle. I have to say this is one of the best engineered, best functioning systems I have had the pleasure to use. After a year of event-free usage, I remain a happy customer. I even managed to recover a cash card that I had inadvertently left in the ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) terminal by calling the office which arranged to fetch it for me.

Economically, a car from my office to home is actually cheaper than a taxi, even without all the booking charges. The Diracc charges are calculated on time and distance (the chart of charges is here), with gas, insurance, and parking at ports all included.

The other car sharing schemes in Singapore all require either advance booking and/or paper work and re-fuelling. They also tend to be positioned to serve those in the HDB heartland rather than those living in the downtown areas. BusinessWeek recently carried an article about a similar service in North America, called ZipCar, which has locations in 8 cities including Toronto in Canada.

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