Share your own cars with RelayRides

NOTE: This piece on a new car-sharing model is cross-posted from Jonathan Takiff's Gizmo Guy blog.

What's environmentally friendly, socially responsible and can make you money? RelayRides, putting a new spin on "car pooling"  and today  hanging out its virtual shingle nationally  at

Like ZipCar and regional deals like Philly CarShare (now owned by Enterprise Rent-a-Car), RelayRides operates on the principle that many people only need a car on a "spot" basis, for a couple hours now and then. 

But RelayRides  adds a big twist. The cars being rented out by the hour or day don't belong to a big consortium. The vehicles belong to the community  of members who've come to realize (and maybe feel guilty) that their transporters are sitting idle 90 percent of the time.

 Hitching A Ride: When joining online (no membership fees here), RelayRides asks if you have a car to rent and, if so, its' age and condition (clunkers will be excluded). A picture is requested for posting. 

As owner, you name the hours when you're willing to share and set the hourly fee. In the San Francisco and Boston markets where RelayRides has been tested,  the rental range has been $5 to $15 an hour, with $7-$9 dominating.  RR takes a 40 percent  cut for site maintenance, billing and support services - including  a million bucks (per vehicle) in insurance, roadside assistance, dealing with parking tickets and even paying to have a car cleaned if some slob done you wrong. Even after  deductions, car owners have  been  "pulling down about $250 month, $3,000 a year" said RelayRides founder Shelby Clark, with  vehicles "on the average about six years old. "

 Safety Net:  RelayRides performs due-diligence on all who want to join up, either as a borrower or lender (or both.) License, address and credit card are validated, driving history checked. To participate, you can't have had more than one accident or moving violation in the last two years.

The GM Connection: Boasting  $14 million in venture capitalization,  RelayRides has won an especially strong ally in General Motors, as both a tech partner and financial backer. (Google Ventures is also on board.)

You know the OnStar remote connectivity system built into millions of GM cars and trucks? The technology will make these vehicles especially friendly to RelayRide use, after a soon-coming upgrade of the OnStar software.

Here's how it works.  You've arrived to the rental car. Text a special code on a mobile phone to OnStar and the concierge service remotely  unlocks the door (the keys have been hidden somewhere inside.)  On return, you park the vehicle in roughly the same spot, within a maximum two block zone. Exit the vehicle and enter another text message. The car locks and a report on your use - hours, miles, gas consumption and the car's current location  - is automatically sent to RelayRides for appropriate billing. The car's owner gets  a "car returned" alert instantly and his/her money once a month.

Making A Different Connection: For cars jumping into the pool without OnStar,  a person-to-person key exchange  is the basic way to conduct business. An owner can turn down a renter who seems intoxicated or otherwise unqualified to drive.   Another difference from the OnStar scenario  -  the borrower is honor-bound to return the car with the gas gauge needle at the same spot where he/she found  it.. 

 The Big Picture:  RelayRides  is part of a national trend/movement in property sharing, a mindset dubbed "The Mesh." It's been sparked partly by the recession but also the growing realization that  "access trumps ownership," says movement evangelist and author Lisa Gansky. 

 RelayRides' Shelby Clark  sees potential here (likewise Ford CEO  Bill Ford) to radically reduce the number of vehicles crowding our city streets. Peer-to-peer car sharing also saves renters thousands a year in insurance and maintenance, promotes public transportation use, introduces neighbors to each other  "as most  who're borrowing a car live nearby" and keeps money in the community, said Clark. 

When RelayRides switched on its national site this morning, the venture had exactly zero cars registered locally, though a big bunch I could borrow 260 miles away in Boston! 

Feel like planting the first seeds, here 'n there? There really is some truth to the axiom "Mighty oaks from little acorns grow."