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Personal car-sharing is a new twist on auto rentals

Reporting from San Francisco -- Emily Castor’s metallic gray Honda has been driven by dozens of people she’s never met.

They treat it well, pay any tickets they get and do the dirty work of finding a legal parking spot when they return it to her neighborhood near Golden Gate Park.

Castor, 29, is pulling in hundreds of dollars each month through one of several personal car-sharing companies that have burgeoned in the Bay Area over the last year. For $8 an hour or $45 a day, renters can climb behind the wheel of her Civic. Insurance is included.

The Bay Area has become a laboratory for personal car-sharing, as well as the broader “collaborative consumption” movement. Rooms in private homes, outgrown children’s clothes, parking spaces and more can be rented, borrowed, bartered or gifted through a burgeoning number of Web-based ventures.

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Unlike companies such as Zipcar that finance and maintain a fleet of vehicles, personal car-sharing networks are possible wherever enough owners and renters sign up. There are nine operating in the U.S. — at least one of which has plans to expand in Los Angeles— and 25 globally, said Susan Shaheen of UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center.

For renters, the main advantages of the arrangement are cost, convenience and variety.

Lisa Gansky, author of the book “The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing,” has tracked more than 5,000 companies around the world that focus on access rather than ownership. Both a renter and investor in RelayRides, Gansky said that although she can’t justify owning a convertible, “I’d be happy to pay to have it on a weekend. Likewise, I certainly don’t want to be driving the Exxon Valdez, but having an SUV for a half-day of hauling is helpful.”

The business model was born one bone-chilling day in 2008, when Shelby Clark found himself bicycling through the Boston sleet to get to the closest Zipcar. As he pressed on, he recently recalled, he noticed how many cars were parked along his route, just waiting to be used.

Clark launched RelayRides in the summer of 2010 and by the end of the year had moved the headquarters to San Francisco.

The company Castor uses, Getaround,debuted in the Bay Area in May and now operates in San Diego and Portland, Ore. Wheelz — a campus-based company — rolled out at Stanford University in September, expanded last week to UC Berkeley and plans to begin rentals at UCLA and USC within the month. Another venture, JustShareIt, has added boats to the mix.

Vehicle owners typically set their own rental rates and the companies take a percentage of up to 40%, a good chunk of which goes to cover insurance.

The companies vet driving records and set standards for the vehicles they accept. Getaround asks renters to fill the tank, while RelayRides and Wheelz track mileage electronically and charge users for gasoline accordingly.

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A California law that went into effect last year has guaranteed additional owner protections: Insurance carriers can no longer drop customers for participating in car-sharing networks.

Evolving technology allows renters to access vehicles without a face-to-face key swap. But for some companies, the process has not always worked smoothly.

Zachary Worthington put his Mazda Miata MX5 on RelayRides in October and has earned $700 — enough to make his final two car payments. But Relay’s remote-access feature has been balky in his North Beach neighborhood, leaving Worthington and his renters unable to turn on the ignition.

As soon as he gets the Relay kit removed, Worthington said, he will switch to Getaround.

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And although renters have left Cheetos crumbs in his Miata, the arrangement doesn’t “leave a bad taste in my mouth,” Worthington said. “I knew this was a new thing and I really think it’s cool to transition into more of a sharing economy.”

Another car owner, Emmanuel Zamora, has had problems with Getaround’s equipment, which allows renters to unlock the car through a smartphone app. Instead, he put a lockbox on the door of his Mission District flat so renters can get the key.

Both companies say they are working on improvements.

Customers with the Wheelz network use a system that lets them see which cars are available with the touch of a smartphone. Hitting the “Dude, where’s my car” link causes a locater map to pop up. Another swipe of the finger opens the car door. The key is inside.

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“With these technologies, you have the means and motivation to make the switch,” said Neal Gorenflo of Mountain View, who rents a car about twice monthly through Getaround and publishes the online magazine Shareable. “It’s really costly to have a car.”

Trust is a trickier barrier to overcome. Several independent online companies are developing reputation-rating systems that will let those who share cars and other assets know whether a particular person has proved unreliable in the past or has a stellar record.

In the meantime, Wheelz came up with another solution — launching on campuses, where “there’s an embedded level of trust,” said Chief Executive Officer Jeff Miller. A stanford.edu email address is required to sign up, as is a Facebook account. If an owner doesn’t already know the renter, chances are that a Facebook friend does.

(One student’s Honda Accord, named “Simba,” rented 11 times last weekend. His girlfriend’s Accord, “Night Fury,” lagged with five rentals, but her saucy description of her ride as “an elusive combo of sporty yet practical, sort of like Mila Kunis’ blend of cute and sexy,” may lure more takers.)

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Someone with experience as an owner and renter is Carl Spanoghe. His smart car is included in the RelayRides stable. So when he needs a more spacious vehicle, the 30-year-old software developer from Oakland reserves one online.

He recently took some out-of-town-guests for a spin through Napa in a Prius — and left a bottle of wine for the car’s owner when he returned. He stocks his car with CDs from his favorite electo-industrial band as a perk for his renters.

Despite such niceties, Castor misses the face-to-face contact. So she’s planning a party for her renters.

On a recent Saturday, she also arranged to meet a regular she had texted and emailed for months. Brendan Lin turned out to be a 19-year-old who lives near Union Square — where parking is impossible — and works at Jamba Juice.

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Getaround sets renters’ minimum age at 19, allowing Lin to avoid the hefty premiums that traditional rental companies demand from young drivers.

“Before Getaround I did Hertz on Demand,” said Lin, who often takes Castor’s Honda to Davis to hang out with friends. “But it was $13 an hour.”

Personal car-sharing, however, isn’t for everyone.

Castor once left a pair of crutches and a doll in the trunk — she had taken a load to Goodwill, which would not accept those items — and one of her renters wrote a blog post describing the discovery as “creepy.”

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“It’s car sharing,” Castor said, “it’s not a sanitized corporate experience.”

lee.romney@latimes.com


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