The secret, sordid lives of shared cars
So you want to share your car. You’ve got a plan to rent it out during your off-hours. Good on you: You might help a few of your neighbors get by without owning a car, sparing your city some pollution-spewing, parking-space-hogging trouble. But be warned: Your car will take on a life of its own, and much of it will be a mystery to you.
Think of it as giving your S.O. permission to see other people. In the right trusting relationship, being monogamish (as Dan Savage calls it) can work just fine. But don’t be surprised if your partner car comes home late sometimes, smelling like sex and cigarettes.
For my series on car-sharing, I spoke with a handful of people who rent their vehicles out by the hour, day, and week via the online platform RelayRides. They all reported that they were generally satisfied, if not downright pleased, with the experience, but each one had a story about the time things went wrong. Or weird. Or both.
Erinn Hutkin, a journalist from Chicago, told me about the night her 2008 Mini Cooper came home stanky. “The car just reeked of smoke,” she said. “I took it to work the next day and left the windows and sunroof open, but it still smelled that night.”
The woman who’d rented the car denied having smoked in it, but there was the matter of the ashes and — oops — the cigarette lighter she’d left behind. Hutkin called RelayRides. “They said, ‘Go get the car cleaned, send us the bill.’”
Hutkin also fended off a rip-off artist who contacted her, claiming to be from RelayRides’ “Chicago office.” The person told her that the website was on the blink, and that she should proceed with a rental offline. RelayRides has no Chicago office. “Someone was trying to steal my car,” Hutkin says. Her advice for other car-sharers: “Everything has to go through the website.”
Stories abound about cars coming back with dings and scratches — and the consensus is that RelayRides is great about handling these issues when the owner bothers to report them. The company carries a $1 million insurance policy on all vehicles rented on its site.
But disputes over damages often come down to the owner’s word vs. the renter’s, as in the case of the guy who rented Chicagoan David Iverson’s Nissan Xterra and called just minutes later to report a dent that Iverson says the guy had obviously put in the vehicle while trying to back it out of the parking spot. The man denied having done it. RelayRides would have to play the arbiter.
And there are the nightmare scenarios. Last winter, Iverson rented his car to a young woman who turned the vehicle into “a traveling nightclub” for a week, ultimately getting drunk and wrecking it. “I get to the car and it smells like booze and there’s glitter everywhere,” he says. “She totally tore up that car.”
RelayRides covered all the repairs (minus a $500 deductible paid by the driver), Iverson says. Nonetheless, he had to go to different body shops to get cost estimates. “The car was out of commission for a month,” he says. Thankfully no one was injured or killed.
But perhaps the most bizarre story comes from Paul Supawanich, a San Francisco transportation planner who has rented out his Subaru Outback since 2011. Supawanich got a call early one Saturday morning from a renter who said he’d reserved the car, but it was not in the dedicated spot in the parking garage where it was supposed to be.
A little sleuthing, aided by a GPS tracking device, turned up the car on a parking deck at a local hospital. “I brought an extra set of keys, and when we opened the car, [the renter’s] stuff was still inside,” Supawanich says.
He handed the keys to the new renter, figuring he’d find the first guy and return his belongings. “I emailed him and said, ‘Hope you’re OK. I have your backpack.’ But to this day, I have never heard from him.”
Near as Supawanich can tell, the first renter checked himself into the hospital and … never checked out.
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t share your car. Even the most harried of RelayRides owners I spoke to reported that all-in-all, the experience was a positive one. As Mary Blair Conor of Seattle put it, “It’s a nice way to feel good about owning a gas guzzler.” Just be aware that it’s bound to be an adventure.
And if that’s not the kind of excitement you’re looking for, you can always do what I did. I traded in the extra car for this bad boy:
There’s no risk in this thing blowing its curfew. The only drawback? Every kid on the block now wants a ride.