Peer-to-Peer Car Sharing Start-Up WhipCar Is Zooming Down ZipCar's Lane

 

Car-share clubs are nothing new, but WhipCar isn't a car club. Rather, it's a peer-to-peer carhire scheme that launched in the U.K. four months ago and now has over 600 vehicles at its disposal. Relationships are formed between lender and lessee to the point where bottles of champagne are given as thank-yous.

It's a canny idea that, as Vinay Gupta explained to me, came about when he and co-founder Tom Wright were "captivated by excess capacity." They looked at the idea of car sharing and worked out how to take it one step further. "We'd go onto the streets, a little cobbled street in London," Gupta says, "and realize there were probably ten too many cars there, and we [worked out how to] address the problem."

The hurdles—or handbrakes, as Gupta calls them—were many, with the thorny problem of insurance being the key hurdle to overcome. "If you're going to hand over your car to someone regardless of the prospect of making money out of that asset, accidents happen, and you need to be covered." Nine months' work with Lloyd's of London, the legendary insurance company, created the first insurance policy in the world that dynamically protects owner and driver when the booking is placed.

The firm's website is obviously key to their success, as the entire service is Internet-based (with a little help from SMS messages if needed). "We designed the site in such a way that we accept payments so people don't need to worry about that hassle when they collect the cars. We've created a booking platform so that owners can adjust their availability as they see fit, we've created a clever algorithm called Rental Price Guidance that tells you when you enter your registration plate and your postcode who much your car can earn in your neighborhood, based on the kind of car it is, how old it is, and supply and demand in the neighborhood. At that point you can take our guidance price and adjust it as you see fit."

If you think that, at the end of the first week, WhipCar had just 30 vehicles, and now boasts 600, and that's via word of mouth and a basic street marketing campaign, it's not a bad total. The firm, which operates out of London's West End, is expecting to take six months to get to the number of vehicles that the U.K.'s "leading car club" (for that, I would read Streetcar, a subsidiary of Zipcar) took six years to attain.

The cars are also available in Brighton, Bristol, Glasgow, Coventry and Edinburgh, but it's in the rural areas where WhipCar can really clean up, unlike the car clubs. "The issue with the traditional car club model is that it starts to break down in less populated areas because of the overheads—maintenance and securing the fleet, and there's a problem with access. They're free midweek, but never at weekends. They have those kinds of challenge. This is highly scaleable because, whereas it doesn't make sense for a rental firm to be in a small village in Wales, we've already got a car there."

But getting the word out in rural areas is more difficult than in cities. Gupta, however, leaves a lot of the marketing to the owners. "We look at our owners as Avon Ladies. We give them the tools to help them market their vehicles, everything from personalized business cards to posters and flyers that they can put up in their local supermarket or coffee shop. We give them personalized URLs to market themselves on the web, and we've got social tools in development as well." At the moment, it's left to the individuals to market their cars via Facebook or Twitter, although they are in the throes of launching an active campaign. They've also delivered a voucher code that allows owners the opportunity to give discount vouchers to valued customers.

So what about launching abroad? I have a theory that WhipCar is totally suited to the U.K. market—Brits are pretty laid-back about their possessions, and wouldn't be that bothered about the odd scratch on the bodywork, or latte spillage or dog hair in the interior. Would the service go down well in the U.S., which is by nature more litigious? Driving in Continental Europe—as a former resident of both France and Spain, I have first-hand knowledge—is more Lewis Hamilton than Lewis Hamilton's home country.

Gupta laughs. "It's a fair point. With a service like this, it's not a case of one size fits all. Right now, we don't want to take our eye off the ball in the U.K., but we have our eye on other places. As for the U.S., the best way to answer that is, well, the service is designed to keep owners in control. You're not forced to take any booking even if you're on the service, and you can see the person's profile and ask questions before agreeing. It's neighbor renting to neighbor." I think that any expansion in any country will require an assessment of pros and cons. We're looking at what would be the most successful place..."

Sweden, I suggest.

"Yes, the Nordics have a great tradition of car sharing." And a better quality of excuse should some mishap befall the driver. "I'm sorry, but a moose ran into me."

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