It might seem counterintuitive in the middle of a pandemic to see demand for using a shared vehicle climb.
But that's what Free2Move — car-sharing service under Stellantis NV, maker of Jeep, Ram, Chrysler, Fiat, Peugeot and more — saw in the latter half of 2020. As government-ordered restrictions lifted, residents in cities like Washington, D.C., who previously had relied on mass transportation, sought out less-risky alternatives. Soon, Free2Move will expand into its second U.S. city: Portland, Oregon.
"We saw, as with most companies, there was a lull under restrictions conditions and lockdowns, those types of things," said Lynn Blake, vice president of mobility services for what previously was known at Groupe PSA before the French automaker merged with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV in January.
"When we came out of that, people wanted to go out and move again. When the orders were lifted, we saw a real boost in our business. Talking to members, what we're hearing from them is that they feel much safer versus the kind of traditional public transportation."
Unlike ride-hailing providers like Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. that offer a taxi-like service, Free2Move has a fleet of vehicles that customers can locate in its app, unlock and use it for a few minutes, a few hours or for a few days.
Portland rates will be 49 cents per minute, $19.99 per hour and $79.99 per day, similar to Washington's. Customers then park the vehicle anywhere in the service area when they are done. Free2Move also offers other services in Europe, including parking and month-long rentals, which it, too, is expanding.
Competitors have tried and failed with similar mobility ventures. General Motors Co.'s car-sharing service, Maven, folded last summer after the COVID-19 pandemic suspended services. But even prior to that, the venture had struggled, exiting eight cities in 2019. Ford Motor Co.'s financial services arm in 2019 sold its vehicle subscription service Canvas to a California-based car-rental app.
Share Now, the car-sharing service formerly known as Car2Go owned by Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG and BMW AG, early last year exited North America. Such services often require partnerships and significant communication with local government authorities that can prove time-consuming and costly, said Philippe Houchois, a U.K.-based analyst for investment bank Jefferies Group LLC.
"You have to choose your battles in a way," he said. "When you face a major change toward electric and investing in more software, having to pay capital to mobility services may prove too small and premature. The money is better spent elsewhere, I think."
There are also operational challenges with having to rearrange vehicles so they are located in convenient pickup locations: "If you don't have enough utilization, it's hard to make money," said Sam Abuelsamid, e-mobility analyst for Guidehouse Insights.