car sharing

Blocking a home-grown Uber

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Rural Germany leading the way on car sharing. Source: Door2door.

Seen from Berlin, Freyung is in the middle of nowhere. In the southeast of the Bavarian Forest, right next to the Czech border, a little backwater town with barely 7,000 inhabitants. There is one train station, but it operates only in summer. It has Bavaria’s second most attractive hiking trail and its first folk music academy, according to the tourist office.

Freyung is also a digital trailblazer. It was the first place in Germany where the town council had unanimously voted to test an intelligent mobility solution. In practice, it amounts to share taxis that take old people to the doctor’s, moms to the market and young people to where they meet. The taxis are summoned by an app. An algorithm ensures that the taxis pick up other people along the way who want to go in the same direction. In that way, the ride is supposed to cost not much more than local public transport.

One of these days, as the village elders envision, the cars will be driving themselves. It is a little bit like Uber, with the difference that the platform isn’t owned by American financiers but a Lower Bavarian municipality. The software is leased from a German startup named Door2door.

Door2door is in fact based in Berlin, but it struggles there as passengers are not willing to pay what it costs to operate the service and local authorities will not allow subsidies.

Germany needs to get to grips with the future of mobility

In fact regulation is the single biggest problem for most car sharing services in Germany.

Gunnar Froh, the founder of Wundercar in Hamburg, was unable to get approval for his idea to let commuters share a car. He had to emigrate to Southeast Asia to grow his company. Clevershuttle, a startup partly owned by Deutsche Bahn, has approval to operate in Berlin, Leipzig and Munich, but is only allowed to have ten vehicles on the street in each city.

Despite all the rhetoric suggesting otherwise, Germany is still skeptical about startups. Sure, we would all like to see the next Facebook coming from here. But until we know just which company is going to hit the big time, we don’t want to take a chance on it. Germany needs to get to grips with the future of mobility.

Anyone who has ever waited in line late at night at the taxi stand at Berlin-Tegel airport for longer than 20 minutes knows that ride sharing isn’t the worst of ideas. No more traffic jams, less exhaust fumes, no searching for a place to park, wider sidewalks or larger front lawns.

An OECD study estimates a fleet of self-driving taxis could replace 90 percent of the private transport in cities – provided they are integrated into the existing local public transport.

That is what they are now doing in Duisburg. The transport authority of the western German city is the second customer nationwide planning to test Door2door’s software to take its customers home from the terminal stations in days to come.

Will it work? Who knows? Maybe Door2door will soon be history. Maybe at some point Uber will be driving people to the folk music academy at the edge of the Bavarian Forest. The place doesn’t even have a working train station in the winter, but it does have courage to at least try.

Miriam Schröder is based in Berlin and covers the city’s startup scene. To contact: m.schroeder@handelsblatt.com

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