I lost my wee car to an engine bay fire just before Christmas. Rather than buying a new one (I don’t drive alot anyway so I couldn’t really justify the expense), I’ve joined a car club instead. So I thought I’d do a review of my initial car club experience.
Car club membership has been shown to decrease your carbon footprint (compared to owning a car). While you still have access to a car and do drive, generally the mileage of car club owners is lower (typically 57% lower). Because of the large fixed costs associated with car ownership (typically in excess of £1,000 a year before you’ve even driven a mile) car owners tend to drive everywhere. However freed of those fixed costs, public transport often works out cheaper, encouraging its use.
Also there’s a large carbon footprint associated with the construction and final disposal of a car. And cars spend a lot of their time idle. Consider that even if you drive your car for 2 hrs every day, that still means the car spends 92% of its time sitting idle by the side of the road (and most people in Europe drive their cars a lot less frequently than that). A car club spreads the ownership out, which means less cars. And less cars means less traffic, less air pollution, more parking spaces, etc. So if you can’t give up your car completely, its a useful half way house.
Its worth discussing the loss of the last car however. The fire occurred while the car was idle and had been parked up for about a week. The vehicle was in good repair, MOT’d about 6 months ago and due for a service in a month or two’s time. Engine bay fires in an internal combustion powered vehicle, while uncommon, it certainly isn’t unheard of. The breakdown, recovery, garage mechanic and loss adjusters had all seen such fires before. Spontaneous vehicle combustion is a rare but very real phenomenon. In fact, there was a large fire in a multi-story car park in England recently, which destroyed 1,400 cars, which was started by just such an engine bay fire (so I’m lucky it was contained within my engine bay!).
A point I bring up because some will often try to raise safety concerns about the fire risk posed by lithium-ion batteries or hydrogen fuel tanks. While certainly there is a fire risk here, it has to be put in context that all petrol powered vehicles are essentially self moving petrol bombs. As alternative powertrains are in their infancy its difficult to say whether they are worse or better. Some evidence suggests the risks are lower. I’d argue the main problem is likely to be a lack of familiarity. Both users and mechanics just aren’t used to these new powertrains and that’s probably where the danger lies. Once standards catch up and everyone gets a bit more familiar with these new powertrains, they should be no less dangerous (or a good deal safer) than existing vehicles.
But back to the car club. The way it works is that there are small batches of cars strung around the city at various designated parking spots. Which in itself is handy, as it means you’ve got a guaranteed parking spot and don’t have to go hunting for one. Currently as I write this there are 2 small hot hatches (Toyota Aygo’s), a hybrid car (Yaris), a medium sized hatch back (Ford Focus) and a van available within 5 minutes walk from my house, with an electric car (Nissan leaf) about 10 minutes walk away. Cars can be booked by the hour (£3-4) or by the day (£25-45). In order to book the vehicle I can do so over the internet, or via a mobile phone app. Cars can be booked only minutes before (theoretically while you are walking towards the car) although obviously the longer in advance you book the more likely you’ll get it (otherwise someone else might have it booked already).
When you get to the car you’ve booked, you can unlock it with a swipe card, then after entering a code the car is unlocked and you can use the keys to drive/lock it for the duration of your hire. In addition to the booking fee it costs a certain amount to join per year (works out at about £10 per month, which includes insurance & breakdown cover) and a certain amount per mile (about 10p per mile roughly for the petrol powered cars, electric car is a bit cheaper than that, but I’ve not got the exact price to hand) although on the plus side you don’t have to pay for the fuel (there’s a fuel card that comes with the car).
So the advantages are you’ve got all the benefits of owning a vehicle, without any of the hassle. No need to worry about taking it to the garage, or arranging insurance, an MOT, paying VED, etc. All that gets taken car of for you. And having just gone through the process of writing off a car, I can tell you that there’s a lot of hassle involved, even when the insurer is backing your version of events and willing to pay you.
Also, as noted, I can alter the vehicle I chose. I want to take friends on a camping trip, we reckon we need a bit of extra room, we can take a hatchback. I want to go somewhere within the city, lots of stop/go traffic, I can take the electric car. I want to move some furniture, I can take a van. Its like owning your own fleet of vehicles. And better still, my membership carries over to other cities. If I go down to London, or up to Inverness, I can use their car club too. So I can get there by public transport and then drive on from there to my destination. This eliminates the need to undertake long journey’s by car, which also eliminates one of the main disadvantages of electric vehicles.
Of course there are downsides. You have to book in advance and depending when you book, you may not be able to get the car you want. But so long as you are flexible, or book well in advance, that shouldn’t be a problem. Another issue is that its not your car. So all the stuff I’d carry in the car while winter driving for example (snow shovel, de-icing gear, breakdown kit, bit of carpet, etc.) I have to carry to the car when I pick it up. Also the first few minutes of driving you feel like an alien, as you are in an unfamiliar vehicle (different clutch, gears, handling, vision, etc.).
And while paying out £25-40 a week to borrow a car here and there is fine if you don’t drive regularly. But it could be a bit pricey if you drive every day. That said, if they could set up the schemes (as is already the case in some cities) where you don’t have to drive A back to A, but A to B, much like how those bike sharing schemes work, then that would change things considerably. It would mean commuters could potentially hire a car for an hour, drive to work. Leave the car at a spot near to work (where it would go back on hire till evening time) then hire it again for an hour and drive it home. This is a concept that would work very well with electric cars. Indeed, I reckon car clubs and electric cars could combine to form a whole new paradigm.
So its an idea that could well have legs. We’ll have to see how it pans out. Certainly thought my other reason for going for a car club was simply that now is a bad time to be buying a vehicle, unless you are willing to invest a lot of money (and given how little I drive, I couldn’t justify that level of expenditure). Given the innovations coming with regard to alternative powertrains and driver assist features (although I still think fully driverless cars are some way off), there’s a lot of cars on the roads that will become obsolete pretty quickly.