There are many ways to describe my experience testing out BMW’s new car-sharing service in Seattle this weekend.
Fun. Exciting. Convenient.
More simply, it was just really cool.
BMW launched its ReachNow program on Friday in Seattle, taking on Car2go with a service that allows people to use one of 370 free-floating vehicles around town to get from Point A to Point B within a “Home Area” that encompasses much of Seattle proper.
While Car2go only offers Smartcars, BMW lets you pick from four types of vehicles: BMW 328xi Series sedans, MINI Coopers (two- and four-door models), and the all-electric BMW i3 (range of 130 miles; BMW takes care of charging).
“We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response,” ReachNow marketing head Dana Goldin told GeekWire this week. “It’s a great service at an affordable price with really fun cars to drive.”
BMW, which operates a similar program in Europe but not in the U.S. until now, describes ReachNow as a “premium” service — and that’s definitely the vibe I got after testing this out.
VEHICLE PERFORMANCE: It’s clear that BMW beats Car2go when it comes to overall car performance and capability. The electric i3 packs a punch with some serious torque and acceleration, while the 328xi is incredibly fun to drive. Even the cramped MINI Cooper offers more space and power than the Smartcars. All have heated seats, moonroofs, Bluetooth/USB connections, and rear-view back up cameras. Whether you’re looking for a better driving experience or just want to ride in style with friends, a client, or a date, ReachNow trumps Car2go. More details about the vehicles are below.
PRICE: BMW is comparable to Car2go, if not a tad more pricey. ReachNow charges 49 cents per minute (41 cents for a promotional period) and 30 cents per minute while parked (you can leave and return to the same car). Car2go charges 41 cents per minute (same for when parked). For both companies, these fees include fuel and parking costs, which is nice. You can see a more detailed price breakdown below — essentially, BMW is 10-to-15 percent more expensive.
APP EXPERIENCE: On the technical side, my experience was quite smooth with the ReachNow app. Aside from a few hiccups, the entire process was easy, from signing up to booking a car to ending a ride. Others have had problems, though.
QUICK VERDICT: I’m not a car-sharing customer — I’ve tested Car2go once — and don’t expect to use ReachNow all that much given that I rely on my vehicle quite a bit. But after my experience this weekend, I can see this really catching on in Seattle and giving Car2go some serious competition. When I’m thinking of heading somewhere but don’t want to drive my own car, this is a legitimate option if Uber/Lyft or public transportation won’t suffice.
HOW IT WORKS:
Now let’s dive into how the entire car-renting process works. Registration was fairly simple and requires you to add some personal information about yourself, including an email, phone number, credit card, and driver’s license. Some people have had issues with a driver license scan feature — which includes having to take a selfie — but the process seemed to work for a few others I’ve spoken with.
Once you’re in the app, you’ll be able to see available vehicles around you and can filter by car type. You can click on each vehicle to see its fuel/charge level. Once you find the right vehicle, you simply press “reserve.” BMW offers you directions to the car if you need them.
It takes BMW’s servers about 30 seconds to confirm your reservation — the back-end technology is powered by a Silicon Valley startup called RideCell — and then a 30-minute timer starts to count down. You have a half-hour to unlock the car before it then becomes available to everyone else again.
The app lets you press “signal,” which will activate the blinkers on your vehicle just in case you are unsure if it’s the right one. To unlock the car, you can either use the app itself, or use a plastic NFC-enabled member card that presses against a sensor on the windshield. It was easier and faster for me to simply use the card. BMW actually recommends this method over the in-app unlock/lock, particularly if your mobile internet connection is spotty.
Before you enter the vehicle, there’s a screen on the app that lets you indicate damage — it’s probably a good idea to walk around the car and check for anything before your trip begins.
Once you get inside the vehicle, you’ll need to enter your personal four-digit pin that will let you “start the trip,” after which your reservation officially begins. You control the system with a knob near the shifter.
In the glove box of each vehicle, you’ll find a short guide to the car’s features, the official car manual, instructions for what to do after an accident, and the car’s registration and insurance.
If you do happen to get into an accident, BMW asks you to call 911, review the brochure, fill out an accident report form, and contact member support. Here’s the insurance policy:
ReachNow maintains the state mandated insurance minimums. For Washington we maintain $30,000 per person, $60,000 per accident and $10,000 in property damage. Members are responsible for a $500 insurance deductible if they are found at-fault in an accident. We maintain liability coverage of $5,000,000 per incident. Anything over this amount would be the responsibility of the member.
If you get a speeding ticket or other traffic violation, any infraction “would be the responsibility of the member,” Goldin said.
I had no problems setting up the Bluetooth in each car with my phone so that I could listen to tunes and take phone calls via the speakers. BMW said it deletes any personal info from the cars after each ride. You can also enter your destination into the app and have the directions automatically sync with the in-car navigation system, which is a nice touch, although the map software is a little cumbersome to use, at least compared to something like Google Maps or Waze on your smartphone. Here are some screenshots from the 328i:
I actually had a slight issue after trying to unlock a vehicle with my smartphone — my reservation was not activating. I ended up using the app to call member support, and after a 10-minute wait, I was able to speak with a BMW representative about my issues.
I used extremely clean vehicles and others that had dog hairs and dirt on the inside of the doors. It’s unclear how often BMW’s fleet team refuels and cleans the vehicles, but Goldin said that it is “constantly monitoring the fleet to make sure they are maintained.”
On one of my trips, I was hungry, so I stopped by a Wendy’s drive-thru. Was eating allowed in this BMW? I didn’t see anything prohibiting this. I do wonder how BMW will make sure its cars stay clean and comfortable, though. By the way, for whoever rented after me, I did my best to keep any bun crumbs out of the car.
Getting accustomed to each vehicle is another issue that may affect a user’s experience. The learning curve can be a little steep if you’ve never driven a BMW or MINI Cooper, so perhaps ReachNow can do a better job of educating its customers on the basic controls — it does, at least, show you how to start the vehicle after entering your pin number.
When you’re done driving, you need to find a legal city parking spot in BMW’s “Home Area,” which can be found in the app or via the in-car navigation system.
When you turn off the engine, you’ll have the option to either park the car and come back — you’ll be charged 30 cents per minute parked, versus 49 cents while driving — or to end the trip altogether. You lock the door with the app or your card and give your experience a review on a 5-star scale.
As far as the vehicles themselves, the 328i was by far my favorite. The acceleration is excellent and I loved listening to the engine purr. The all-wheel drive handling was awesome; the ride was super smooth and quiet; the sound system bumped; and the headlights were insanely bright — a really enjoyable car to drive.
In fact, by the time Sunday evening rolled around, I found myself looking at used BMW 3-series cars on Craigslist — this is likely another benefit for BMW, as the ReachNow program also acts as somewhat of a test drive service for its newer vehicles.
The four-door sedan is also the roomiest of BMW’s fleet, so if you’re riding with more than one other person for an extended period of time, this is probably the car you want to use.
That being said, the i3 and 4-door MINI Coopers vehicles do have space in the back seat, but it’s a bit cramped — particularly the MINIs.
The i3 is one of the more unique vehicles I’ve driven, both inside and out. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is the regenerative braking system, which essentially slows the vehicle when you lift off the accelerator. It takes some time to get used to, but once I got a feel for this, it was nice not having to really use the brake at all.
Fun fact: The carbon fiber threads that are part of the i3’s outer shell are produced at BMW’s Moses Lake plant in Washington.
Nothing about the MINI Coopers really stood out for me — some people really love driving these cars, but I was pretty indifferent. It’s definitely a cozy fit, but the interior is posh, which is nice.
MORE PRICING DETAILS:
Pricing details: If you plan on driving for longer periods of time, here are the price cap breakdowns. Once your counter reaches $50 — which is about 102 minutes of driving — BMW basically stops the “clock” until you reach 180 minutes, or three hours.
For every minute thereafter, BMW again charges you the 49 cent rate — so if you drive for 51 minutes, you’ll be charged $50.49, plus taxes and fees.
There is another automatic price cap at $80, up to 12 hours. There is one more at $110, for up to 24 hours. BMW charges $0.45 per mile after you reach 200 miles on a single trip.
Car2go, meanwhile, uses a $14.99 per hour price cap, and a $84.99 per day price cap. It charges $0.45 per mile after 150 miles per trip.
Both companies charge a $1 fee — Car2go says it’s for “driver protection,” while BMW calls it a “shared asset fee.”
Also, ReachNow charges a $39 registration fee (waived for a promotional period). Car2go charges $35.
One note: BMW has clause in its fine print that allows the company to use dynamic pricing for its rates.
As I drove around in my ReachNow cars, I also noticed several others parked on the streets of Seattle. I wondered: Does adding 370 additional vehicles actually increase congestion in the city, rather than decrease it?
Goldin, the ReachNow marketing chief, cited data from the Seattle Department of Transportation that showed how in 2015, car-share users gave up around 9,100 vehicles, with 4,550 of them “related directly to the availability of free-floating car share services,” according to SDOT.
“We are starting to see evidence that having access to free-floating car-share vehicles reduces the need for personal vehicle ownership,” she said. “We believe this is a trend that will continue to increase in the future.”
Goldin added that with urban populations continuing to expand both in Seattle and elsewhere, we’ll get to a point where not everyone can own a vehicle given the existing infrastructure.
“If we can have cars on the street that multiple drivers can use, versus just one driver using a single car, that’s a lot more efficient,” she noted.
In the end, having ReachNow in the Seattle market seems to be a net positive for people who can afford the service and want another way to get around a city that’s seen traffic continually increase over the past several years, in large part due to the growing tech industry. It will also force Car2go, which calls Seattle its largest market with more than 75,000 members using 750 cars, to stay on its toes — another benefit for consumers.
BMW has more plans in the works for ReachNow, from a chauffeur service that will be a direct competitor to Uber and Lyft, along with a parking lot at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport as a way for people drop off their vehicles before flying somewhere, or for arriving passengers to get home. It also plans to launch ReachNow in three additional North American cities this year, eventually offering service in 10 cities.
“We are moving car-sharing to the next level,” Peter Schwarzenbauer, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG, said at Friday’s launch event.
BMW, which is certainly not the only carmaker thinking of innovative ways to promote car-sharing, seems to be on to something in Seattle. As long as it can keep its vehicles maintained and clean, provide a seamless app experience, have its members follow parking rules, and expand into more neighborhoods, I expect the service to not only catch on here, but thrive, much like Car2go has already done in the city for the past three years.