Apr 22nd 2010, 22:09 by L.S. | LONDON
..I wrote a piece for the paper this week on two person-to-person car rental services — WhipCar in London and RelayRides in Boston — and was left with a couple of thoughts.
For one, why are these start-ups having another go at something which has been tried before and never really took off? (See, among others, DriveMyCarRentals in Australia and Spagg in Los Angeles.) Technology now makes the act of renting a car from your neigbour a really smooth experience. It takes WhipCar only seconds to check whether a car owner or a driver is trustworthy, because they can ping databases over the internet. The firm can also calculate insurance premiums on the fly, depending on where a car is for rent and what type it is. RelayRide installs a device that allows cars to be unlocked with a chip card, doing away with the in-person handover (something that many may dread). And more such tricks will certainly make renting a car even easier in the future. I would not be surprised to see a smart-phone app that tells you whether the cars parked in front of your house are for rent.
More important, p2p car rentals are part of a larger trend. Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers, the authors of What's Mine is Yours, call it "collaborative consumption". From their website,
From social lending (Zopa), to car sharing (Zipcar) to co-working (HubCulture), to peer-to-peer rental (Zilok), to collaborative travel (Air BnB), to neighborhood sharing schemes (WeCommune), people are already using the principles and dynamics of Collaborative Consumption — organized sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting and swapping through online and real-world communities — to get the same fulfillment and benefits of ownership with reduced personal burden and cost and as well as lower environmental impact.
But p2p car rentals also suggests that consumers could increasingly become "micro entrepreneurs" by making money on the side. Another example for this is a new iPhone app called Field Agent, which was launched the day before WhipCar went live. It shows users a list of task people or companies want to be completed. As Gadgetwise points out, however, at current prices they are hardly worth the hassle if you are not already right around the corner. Tasks such as checking the price of a product in a store or taking a picture of a product on a shelf will put you $2 ahead.
So the time seems right, finally, for p2p car rentals to take off. What do you think?