How a lack of community undermines the principles of the sharing economy in the mobility space
This article originally appeared as an article at Human Future Studies
The car-sharing industry, as designed today, is far from being human-centric. The current user experience of free-floating car sharing services is flawed by the shortcomings of a non-sustainable business model that does not genuinely embrace the principles of the sharing economy. Fostering overly individualistic and egoistic user behavior by default, the experience is compromised for everyone. While car sharing is certainly one of the futures for automobility, we argue that the key to a sustainable business model and a better experience lies in the crafting of community, the social institution of mutual responsibilities, and the emergence of accountability among users. This can only be achieved when companies embrace a perspective we call “radical human centricity,” according to which they design services not just in empathetic collaboration with their customers, but turn the dialogue into an ongoing and evolving shareholder-type relationship.
To start with, the main promise of the sharing economy is a compelling one: durable yet pricey goods (that can be very expensive for a single owner) are shared among a group of users when needed. This prevents owned individually and privately, big-ticket items from sitting idle and underutilized, merely depreciating and collecting dust. In a sharing economy, however, people rent the product for the actual duration of use, which is intended to save them acquisition cost, maintenance, and storage space. The users, in turn, must ensure the shared good to remain in a condition that allows for continuous circulation, maximum utilization, and an equally good user experience among all who share.
What may work in a face-to-face community shaped by personal accountability, generates a range of unresolved problems in the anonymous sphere of digital sharing economy platforms. Car sharing services, such as Car2Go and DriveNow (joined under the ShareNow umbrella), Sixt Share, WeShare, and Miles Mobility each run by automotive manufacturers and large rental car companies, all suffer from the same, entirely unresolved pain point: self-centered users with a blatant disregard for the practices of sharing a product with other people.
This pain point, however, is home-made by the industry itself. Free-floating car sharing providers have not yet done the work necessary to actually have a viable sharing economy system that excels in user experience. We argue that these mobility services are not designed for the reality of the situation and that people are not ready to have nice things just yet, such as a changing array of readily available BMW, MINI, Mercedes-Benz, or VW vehicles in front of their doorstep. The fact that Car2Go and DriveNow just announced their exit from the North American market (NYT, 2019, December 18), also cutting their presence in Europe, indicates the limits of the business model’s viability. But let us have a closer look at the social aspects of the problem at hand:
THE PHENOMENON OF SHARING WITHOUT CARING
Individuals who are using these shared mobility services in cities such as Berlin, London, Montreal or New York City have surely encountered at least one of a dizzying array of possible user-induced issues. This list ranges from the results of careless behavior, such as dirty passenger cabins filled with trash or tobacco smoke from the previous renter, to legal infractions, such as scratches and fender benders that have not been reported, vehicles parked on private property to prevent others from using them, and even reckless driving that endangers road participants and puts unnecessary stress on the vehicle.
Since the emergence of carsharing in dense urban environments, several journalists have voiced their anger about “illegal racing with the rental car” (SZ, 2015, August 27), and “reckless and overwhelmed car-sharing drivers” (Zeit, 2017, December 15), asking “Does car sharing turn us all into road hogs?” (Bild, 2019, December 18). While they are expressing their discontent from the perspective of fellow road participants or car-hating urban inhabitants, what is missing is a critique from a first-hand user experience perspective.
After having frequently used various free-floating car-sharing services in Germany, the US, the Netherlands, and the UK, one gains the impression that some people treat free-floating fleet vehicles in a careless manner that excludes the crucial aspect of sharing them with others. With their egotistic and self-centered behavior, they disregard that succeeding customers may wish to use the same service without running into unpleasant surprises. More importantly, these types of users not only handle the vehicles as if they had the exclusive right to do so; they treat them worse than they would treat their own possession. Embracing the mindset “Don’t be gentle, it’s a rental,” these shared vehicles are transformed into common goods built for abuse and exploitation.
ANONYMITY AND LACK OF CONTROL DIMINISH FEAR OF CONSEQUENCES
It seems relying solely on human decency to ensure a collectively embraced sharing economy etiquette is foolish, and not enough to provide the best experience for all. All mobility sharing providers have established binding terms and conditions as well as control measures that are meant to deter and capture user misbehavior. Users are required to immediately report even the smallest fender bender via the mobility service app or a phone hotline; and every user who commences a vehicle sharing session is responsible for meticulously checking for unreported damages, heavy soiling, and other inconveniences.
However, these systems are flawed and unrealistic in day-to-day practice. They mainly depend on users self-reporting their own bad behavior or reporting the carelessness of a previous customer. Gauging the actual risk of getting caught and avoiding potential consequences, many users do not report their misbehaviors and hope to remain undetected. Once the short-term rental session is completed and the vehicle is out of sight, it becomes out of mind. Under the cloth of anonymity, the responsibility is covertly transferred to the next user who might not even become aware of it, but potentially becomes liable for the previous renter’s misconduct if another succeeding renter eventually decides to report a complaint.
LACK OF RESPONSIBILITY IS FACILITATED BY THE CURRENT NATURE OF CAR SHARING SERVICES
The current nature of free-floating fleet vehicle services facilitates a lack of responsibility in user behavior, highlighted in seven issues: First of all, many users merely glance over the terms and conditions when signing up for the service, not fully grasping their actual responsibilities, liability, and accountability. A recent study by the German Consumer Report equivalent Stiftung Warentest (2019, July 13) showed that many car sharing services have cut-throat deductible regulations, which, if studied in depth, would make any user think twice about signing up. And let us be honest, when was the last time anyone has ever personally scrutinized the terms and conditions of an app they installed on their smartphone?
Second, a drivership-oriented service mentality prevails among users that is entirely decoupled from the responsibilities of ownership. They are paying a fee for the opportunity to drive the motor vehicle, while not being responsible for cumbersome chores such as maintenance, refueling, parking fees, and cleaning. These classic aspects of ownership remain the responsibility of the service provider who is the vehicle’s actual owner.
This leads us to the third issue, which is one that seems, at first, to be a semantic one: the mobility service examples described above are not actually car sharing services, despite their name and claims. They are, in fact, short-term car rental services offered by large corporations that are dressed in the much hipper clothes of the sharing economy. Critical values of sharing, such as equality, honesty, mutuality, openness, empathy, and ethics of care (see John, 2013), are neither facilitated by the drivership mentality nor the terms and conditions of short-term car rental. The implications of this are clear: businesses operating with this model have not yet advanced into what can be truly considered a sharing economy. For this to exist, it is necessary to foster a culture of sharing and mutual respect. This is something that is not often easy to do within the boundaries of contemporary business. Yet it is the next logical step.
Fourth, while traditional rental cars are usually cleaned and repaired when necessary before handed out to the next client, the logistics of a free-floating fleet in which vehicles may change multiple hands per day does not allow for such frequent maintenance intervals. To maximize the time these vehicles remain on the road, users would need to play their part in collectively keeping them in impeccable condition. Therefore, it is fair to attest that there is a mismatch between aforementioned drivership mentality and the practicalities of the service provider actually being able to fully embrace their ownership responsibilities.
Fifth, people who are renting free-floating fleet vehicles are usually in a hurry. Most providers, with the exception of Miles Mobility, charge by minute, which encourages users to minimize the rental period as best as they can. This not only encourages speeding, as pointed out by several German news outlets (e.g. MoPo, 2017, October 20; NW, 2019, March 11), but users often remain ignorant regarding the actual condition of the vehicle. In an attempt to reduce rental time, they are not taking the effort to go through the damage history of the vehicle or check for pre-existing damages the previous renter caused and failed to register.
Sixth, a free-floating fleet of similar vehicles makes them appear replaceable. They are not regarded as individual physical products but collective infrastructural assets. Vehicles are mostly picked depending on proximity and availability, which is why users do not commonly identify with the product beyond short-term usage. While these vehicles each have a unique license plate and sometimes even a nickname displayed in the app, the fact that they are frequently moved across the entire area of operation by multiple users within a single day does not necessarily allow for deeper emotional attachment. In other words, the chances are low that users will encounter exactly the same vehicle in front of their door over and over again.
And seventh, the way free-floating fleet car sharing is currently set up makes it an entirely anonymous affair. Initial registration does not even require any interaction with a live human being anymore. The actual owner of these vehicles – the service provider company – remains an invisible and impersonal corporate stakeholder from whom one receives, emails, notifications, and invoices at best. Interactions with other users are not intended by service design, either. In stark contrast to peer-to-peer sharing economy services, such as AirbnB, Turo, or Drivy, the feeling of responsibility and accountability towards another human being thus remains low among users if they never get to personally communicate with or meet someone affiliated with the shared good.
Altogether, these seven issues contribute to the emergence of careless, egoistic, and irresponsible user behavior of individuals who disregard that succeeding users might want to have an equally pleasant experience with the shared mobility service. While the motto “treat common assets the way you would want others to treat them” seems like a basic social principle, one gains the impression that some users are far from having internalized it. The question now is how to encourage participants of a sharing economy to follow suit.
A SHARING ECONOMY REQUIRES A SENSE OF COMMUNITY AMONG ITS PARTICIPANTS
We argue that a sharing economy service in the free-floating fleet mobility space would improve its user experience for all if participants identified not only with the vehicles they were sharing but also with the people they were sharing them with. A sense of collective identity – a shared conceptualization of ‘We’ – among members ensures mutual responsibility for the careful and respectful handling of goods. We hypothesize that this would significantly reduce user misbehavior, as people would feel personally accountable toward the collective, putting back the ‘sharing’ component into car sharing.
NUDGING USERS INTO MEMBERS OF A COMMUNITY THROUGH SOCIAL DESIGN
To generate a community, it is key to dial back the notion of pure individualism – an idea automotive marketing has successfully hammered home for over a century. Harnessing the tools of social design, the goal is to minimize egotism, elevate a sense of collectivism, increase mutual accountability, and nudge people into becoming responsible users. By instituting social mechanisms that make users realize and become cognizant of the impact of their actions on other users, one could significantly reduce notions of recklessness when it comes to handling shared vehicles.
Moreover, the short-term drivership mentality that is currently rooted in a pay-to-play consumption approach must be reconfigured into a more long-term focused, sustainable usage approach. Such an approach should not exclusively sell the individual ride but place emphasis on the shared mobility concept and the novel context it generates. In other words, the members of the car sharing collective become partially responsible themselves whether or not – and in what form – the service will continue to be available in the future. Their participation actively shapes how the service will look like in the future.
Hence, it is key to define and institute social user conventions which protect everyone’s experience while using shared cars. For these conventions to be respected and mutually embraced by all members of the car sharing collective, it makes sense to have them co-created and updated by the users themselves. To drive compliance, users could be penalized or rewarded by their peers based on their behavior, e.g. via visible social rating systems, as already done on ride hailing services such as Uber and Grab or the accommodation sharing platform Airbnb.
This implies that crafting a new kind of community is needed, and that a new form of customer engagement is required to help build the right conditions for a friendlier experience. Through active participation promoted and guided by the service provider company, users would not just be passive customers but – in their membership role – become engaged stakeholders with an interest in the progression of the service as well as the organization behind it. In short, they would eventually assume a shareholder mentality which transcends the pure drivership model. Local car-sharing initiatives, such as the Kootenay Carshare Cooperative in Canada (ND, 2019, November 29), have successfully demonstrated this approach.
The creation of a car sharing service that feels like a community would also require the softening of anonymity to a certain extent. So far, it is only the car sharing providers who have unidirectional access to crucial user data, such as the number of issued parking and speeding tickets, extensive fuel consumption, reported trash incidents and accidents. Protecting their corporate interests, they tend to keep a lid on that data. However, as long as users do not learn about the impact of their actions, how their behaviors fare against others, and what collectively appropriate drivership looks like, they will find very little reason to transform into more responsible drivers and actual members of a carsharing collective.
In order to create a better car sharing experience for everyone, car sharing services must essentially become more human-centric. Actually, they need to be radically human-centric and advance beyond the limits of the current limited understanding of human centricity. As we tried to show in this article, radical human-centricity is not merely a matter of identifying and filling unmet user needs, but socially designing within and against the constraints of the human condition.
The ultimate goal is to create solutions that are meaningful for a collectivity of people, sustainable for a society, and somewhat idealistic in terms of aspiring a future we would actually like to live in. What it requires is that companies not only try to provide novel experiences for their customers, but also rethink how they work in a social organization with their customers. Car sharing can only improve when everyone improves it together and continues to do so throughout the service’s lifecycle. This means companies must design in ongoing and evolving dialogue with their customers and not just by trying to be “empathetic.”
Author: Dr. Daniel Mai
Daniel is a trained business anthropologist and innovation consultant who is passionate about exploring the socio-cultural dynamics between people, technologies, and brands. He works as an innovation consultant and human insights specialist in Copenhagen, New York, Toronto, London, and Berlin, digging deep into the needs, challenges, and desires of various stakeholder groups in automotive, the healthcare sector, and other industries. Daniel is the author of "Organizational Cultures of Remembrance: Exploring the Relationships Between Memory, Identity, and Image in an Automobile Company".