No longer just for kids: Wheelz competes for SF car-sharing territory

If you live in San Francisco and don’t want to deal with the hills, you have no excuse for walking anywhere. You could take public transportation with BART or MUNI, hail a cab on the street or with apps like Cabulous, don a helmet and hit up a bike lane, rent a traditional rental car, rent a Zipcar or City CarShare, call an Uber or Lyft car, go long-distance ridesharing on Zimride, rent your neighbor’s car via RelayRides or Getaround, or even pick up an electric scooter near Caltrain. As a hotbed for transportation tech, San Francisco has plenty of options.

So when a company like Wheelz, originally known for its car-sharing program on college campuses, decides to break into the city market of car-sharing for non-students, it’s worth asking: Can they really compete in the local market? And what are they doing differently to stand out? The company plans to open up its service Monday to the general population, starting in San Francisco.

Wheelz screenshot cars available San Francisco

Cars available for rent in San Francisco.

Company executives acknowledged the breadth of transportation options in San Francisco right now, but said they view their product as complimentary to Zipcar (which invested in the company in February), and ultimately quicker and simpler to use than the other car-sharing companies currently on the market. It’s unclear if their assumptions will hold true, but they do make the case that even in a transportation hotbed, there could be untapped markets for a new service to target.

It’s a bold stance, and although Wheelz hass been successful working at Stanford since September 2011 and expanding since then, and said they’ve perfected the customer service element that makes the product run more smoothly than its competitors, those competitors have done well too. Getaround, a similar company, has raised funding from the likes of Marissa Mayer, Ashton Kutcher, and Eric Schmidt, and RelayRides has raised $13 million from GM, Google Ventures, and others.

Miller and Platshon said they expect Wheelz to bridge the gap in areas of San Francisco where Zipcar is less prominent and neighborhood driveways are full of idle cars, in areas like the Dogpatch or Richmond neighborhoods, and they said users should be able to book and pick up a car in less than five minutes.

Wheelz iPhone app“It can become the de facto car-sharing out there,” Miller said. “Our cars are in people’s driveways.”

Rates per hour are set by the car owners, who update their schedules to indicate when their cars are free to drive, and then approve people who can drive their cars. Car borrowers can build up credentials over time to prove that they’re likely to return cars on time and in good shape. The company has a customer service team that can track cars and make sure reservations take place on time, and notify owners if renters will be late returning the cars.

Unlike Zipcar, Wheelz has no annual subscription fee. Drivers pay for gas, but aren’t required to fill the car up unless it gets below a quarter tank — the company tracks the miles you drive, and charges you directly for the related fuel costs. And like Zipcar, Wheelz cars are provided with gas cards for renters to use if they do need to fill up on the fly.

“We’re offering a trasnsporation service as convenient as Zipcar, but it’s more community-based, which means the cars can be closer to where you actually live. And because we don’t need to purchase vehicles, we can put more cars out there,” said Jeff Miller, Wheelz founder and CEO.

And when it comes to the company’s peer-to-peer competitors that are already entrenched in the city, they (expectedly) think they come out on top.

“When you try to rent a car through Getaround or RelayRide, the reliability isn’t there,” said Aaron Platshon, who heads up marketing at Wheelz. “They have more cars in San Francisco, but if you try to get one, it’s 50-50 at best, because they’re requiring you to meet up with the owner,” he said, pointing to the DriveBox located on every car that allows passengers to unlock with a card or smartphone rather than go through a key exchange, and the company’s $1 million comprehensive insurance policy.

“When you want one, you just get it. When you book a car with RelayRide or Getaround, you may not get one,” Platshon said.