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Using a smartphone app, I was able to rent someone’s car in Seattle — this nice 2008 Nissan Rogue — and drive it around for a few hours thanks to a new service in town called Getaround. (GeekWire photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Over the past decade, we’ve been conditioned to be comfortable with the notion of spending the night in a stranger’s home, or renting out our own living space to random people. The success of Airbnb, now valued at more than $30 billion, changed the way we think about lodging and helped pave the way for other sharing economy business models.

Now that we’re renting out our homes to the world, what about our cars?

Getaround wants to find out. The San Francisco-based startup just launched its peer-to-peer car-sharing service in Seattle and we gave it a test run last week.

My first Getaround experience with “The.Blueberry” started off exciting, but didn’t go so well.

Getaround’s marketplace facilitates transactions between car owners and those needing a vehicle. Everything is made possible with the company’s app, which lets renters find, pay for, and unlock a car. Getaround keeps 40 percent of the revenue for each rental; the rest goes to the car owner, who can make money from their otherwise unused asset.

Getaround, which launched in 2013, is part of a swath of venture-backed startups using the latest technology to rethink car ownership. From ride-hailing giants like Uber and Lyft, to other car-sharing companies like ReachNow and car2go, it’s becoming easier and easier to move about a city without owning a vehicle.

But can the Getaround model work? Here’s a quick rundown and analysis of our test.

Preparing to drive

The sign-up process was smooth. Facebook credentials are required to create an account, which may dissuade some users given the social media company’s recent data privacy scandals. Getaround does this to help verify your identity — given the nature of the business, it makes sense.

Browsing for available cars on Getaround felt like scrolling through dinner options on UberEats. It was visual and slick. The app lets you set basic parameters like location, start time, and duration. It also allows filtering by price, carmaker, category, class, transmission, and a dedicated parking spot.

I liked the big, high-quality photos of each car; Getaround takes pictures for the car owners. Selecting a vehicle brought up more details about the features, location, and availability.

Getaround just launched in Seattle, so there weren’t too many car options available. But I found a blue 2005 Ford Focus nicknamed “The.Blueberry” that happened to be just a few blocks from my home. I entered in my credit card and drivers license info — this is how Getaround checks your driving record, in addition to 18 other points of reference.

I planned to use Blueberry for five hours. My final cost came out to $42.63 — $31.63 for the reservation, a $1 booking fee (3 percent of trip price), and a one-time $10 license fee that covers the cost of driving record processing.

For reference, ReachNow charges $15 an hour, $50 for three hours, or $80 per day in Seattle. car2go charges $19 an hour, $55 for four hours and $79 for a full day.

At about $33 for five hours, not counting the license fee, that’s $6.60 an hour for my Getaround rental — a cheaper option than the popular car-sharing services already available in Seattle.

Once my trip was booked, Getaround showed the car’s exact location. It also provided more detailed instructions from the driver, like information about the gas cap, trunk release, jumper cables, and tolls.

It was time to locate the vehicle and start driving. This was exciting!

Blueberry’s bad battery

Blueberry looking nice in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood.

It was easy finding Blueberry and unlocking her with the Getaround app. The company installs an electronic device in each vehicle that lets renters unlock and lock doors with their smartphone. The 3G/LTE-enabled technology also provides anti-theft functionality and GPS tracking that allows Getaround to monitor driver activity during a trip.

It was a little weird being able to open a random person’s car and get inside. I’ve used ReachNow and car2go, which offer similar car-sharing services with free-floating vehicles on car streets, but they feel more uniform and business-like, for better or worse.

As I was inspecting the vehicle for damage or cosmetic issues — Getaround asks for this — I got an email from the car’s owner who was checking in. This was a nice touch. I also had the option of calling or texting her if I needed that.

For being 13 years old, Blueberry was in pretty good shape and clean. As instructed, I found the key on the visor.

But things quickly turned south when I tried to start the car. Click, click, click. Uh oh.

I sent an email to the owner, asking for help. She unlocked the car from her app, hoping that would activate the engine, but it didn’t make a difference.

Then I put in a call to Getaround support, which answered quickly. The woman was able to assess the vehicle’s status thanks to the installed device and saw that the battery was indeed dead. Poor Blueberry.

Getaround refunded me immediately, gave me a $15 promo code, and offered to help set me up with a new reservation. I opted to find a new car on the app on my own.

Since I was just testing Getaround and didn’t have to be anywhere immediately, this hiccup wasn’t a big deal. But given the low quantity of available cars, if I had been relying on the service in a time crunch, it wouldn’t have been a pleasant experience.

Smooth second try 

I spotted a 2008 Nissan Rogue, named “Cardamon,” on the app that was about three miles away. Ideally, there would be a closer option, but Getaround doesn’t have enough density in Seattle yet.

This time, I requested just two hours of driving. That came out to $13.57, plus a $1 booking fee and $10 license fee (my initial first drive was canceled).

I went through the same process, locating the car on the street and unlocking it with the app. The car was clean and certainly a step up from Blueberry — leather seats, sunroof, and even a cell phone magnet holder. I found the keys in the visor again, and this time, the engine sparked without a hitch.

Getaround was finally helping me get around.

The Rogue drove well. I parked at GeekWire HQ and held on to the physical key, though I could still lock and unlock the car with the app.

I had about 30 minutes until the car needed to be returned, but I wanted some more time at the office. It was seamless to extend my trip duration by another two hours.

Getaround requires renters to fill up the fuel tank to the pre-trip level, so I stopped at a gas station on my way back. I returned the Nissan close to the original intersection, as instructed by the owner. Total cost for four hours: $28.32, not counting the $10 license fee. The app asked for quick feedback when the trip ended; the car owner also rates the renter, much like the review process used by Uber or Airbnb.


BMW’s ReachNow vehicle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

I like judging restaurants or services or movies on whether I’d repeat my experience. Rather than assigning a certain number of stars, how about a simple question: would you do it again?

I would use Getaround again. But I consider it to be a slightly cheaper substitute to ReachNow and car2go, not something I would always prefer to use instead. Those services also have many more vehicles on Seattle’s streets, and the free-floating nature provides another advantage, allowing users to end their trip at the destination versus returning it to the pickup spot.

Getaround could elevate itself as a more likable option for Seattleites if it gets enough supply onto its platform. The company says car owners can earn up to $10,000 per year. That’s a nice chunk of change for not much work — you’ll just need to be OK with strangers using your car. Getaround does provide $1 million insurance coverage.

One difference — and perhaps advantage — for Getaround is the variety of car quality. Whereas ReachNow and car2go offer a handful of car models for the same price, Getaround attracts everything from a low-end older vehicle that is cheaper to rent, to a luxurious ride that requires a few extra bucks, to everything in between. There is more choice for the consumer.

“Our locally-owned cars can range from Toyotas to Teslas and are available right on your block,” the company wrote in a recent marketing email. “Getaround is perfect for those hour-long errands or last minute road trips.”

#Monday #Macan me crazy 🙀 link to “Le Tigre” in profile☝️

A post shared by Getaround (@getaround) on

While I won’t be relying on Getaround as my only way of getting around town, it does become a legitimate transportation option alongside ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, car-sharing companies like ReachNow, car2go, and Zipcar, and even bike-sharing startups like LimeBike and Ofo. Scooters are all the rage and coming soon, too.

There’s also my personal car, which I love, but has become less of a requirement compared to years past. With the surge of smartphone-enabled apps that have created new ways to go from A to B, the end of car ownership may happen sooner than you expect, particularly when you pair those services with public transit.

“Car ownership, for a long time, has symbolized freedom and independence,” wrote The Wall Street Journal last year. “But in the future, it may be akin to owning a horse today — a rare luxury.”

Getaround CEO Sam Zaid. (Getaround Photos)

Will Getaround succeed? The 125-person company has inked partnerships with giants like Toyota, Ford, and Uber, the latter of which you can now use to rent Getaround vehicles. It just raised investment from SoftBank, according to Axios. And it has big plans to expand across the nation, beyond its 15 U.S. cities, adding to its 500,000-person user base.

Getaround co-founder and CEO Sam Zaid said that the service is seeing faster growth in Seattle than it did in San Francisco at the beginning. There are about 60-to-70 cars available for rent in Seattle.

The startup estimates that the average car sits idle for 22 hours per day. Its research shows that for every one car shared on Getaround, ten are taken off the road.

“The city has tremendous traffic issues and one of the real benefits of what we do is we’re reusing the cars that are normally sitting there parked anyway so we can really help address our congested freeways and take cars off the road,” Zaid said earlier this month.

The company operates a complicated business. Take a quick peek at Getaround’s fee and commission schedule and trust and safety page and you realize all the things that can go wrong when you let strangers rent cars from other strangers. Turo, a Getaround competitor formerly known as RelayRides, found itself in controversy after a fatal accident in 2012 involving one of its vehicles.

“Her experience demonstrates that using the Web to share your car is nothing at all like sharing your vacation pictures or household tools, and that it may be wise to temper the collective lust for innovation by more carefully considering the need for protection in case something terrible happens,” The New York Times reported in 2012 in its story about the accident.

But just as Airbnb faced early criticism from consumers and investors alike, perhaps Getaround will be able to change the paradigm when it comes to using your neighbor’s car — and getting enough vehicle owners comfortable with sharing their valuable asset.

I’ll use Getaround to rent a vehicle in the city. But I’m surely not yet comfortable putting up my own car for grabs on the app. The extra cash sounds nice, but it’s not worth it to me.

Getaround has lots of competition, ranging from traditional car ownership to other new car-sharing services. Turo in September raised a $92 million round led by German auto giant Daimler and South Korean conglomerate SK Holdings. Companies like Silvercar are focusing on specific destinations, like airports. Other upstarts allow consumers to rent vehicles with monthly subscriptions, using business models similar to that of Netflix or Spotify. Even carmakers like Tesla are preparing to roll out their own car sharing programs.

There have been previous attempts to build out the Getaround model, but none have risen to Airbnb levels of mainstream use and popularity. Yet investors have poured $85 million into Getaround, betting that it can carve out its own place in this rapidly-changing transportation world.

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