Why the road to a low-carbon future still includes cars

Why the road to a low-carbon future still includes cars

[Editor's Note: Carpooling.com is Europe's largest ridesharing network. As CEO of carpooling.com, Markus Barnikel shares his views on the economic and environmental benefits of ridesharing.]

Technology news site PandoDaily recently issued a call to build a future without cars. The widely circulated blogpost said the basic technology that goes into manufacturing a car hasn’t changed since Karl Benz rolled his first Motorwagen off the line, concluding that we are worse off for continuing to be slaves to this 19th century product.

But until someone like Peter Thiel helps build and finance the first flying car or a jet-powered Segway, we should rather change how we view the car. As CEO of carpooling.com, I think one way to do this is through ridesharing.

Carpooling is as American as apple pie and the flag, except for one problem: Nobody carpools anymore. Carpooling has become to transportation what jazz is to music: invented in the U.S., but mostly appreciated everywhere else.

Carpooling began as a way for Americans to save money during the pre-World War II recession and has been in and out of vogue since then. As gas prices across the country remain north of four dollars per gallon, the question again presents itself: As the country that gave the world carpooling, can America regain its place as a leader in ridesharing?

For now, Europe holds this position. Countries like Germany are home to a number carpooling companies like carpooling.com and Mitfahrgelegenheit.de. These companies connect millions of ride-sharers each month, leading the peer-to-peer mobility space and changing transportation as we know it. Big name companies like ADAC — Europe’s largest automobile club —Deutsche Bahn and Eurolines are promoting carpooling as a way to ease both traffic and lung congestion. Even well-known German car manufacturers like Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen are getting in on the act -- all three launched car-sharing programs last year.

Granted, Europe is very different from the U.S., starting with the lower gas price. But there’s no reason ridesharing can’t be as wildly popular and successful here as it is across the Atlantic, especially at a time when reducing America's dependence on oil is so crucial. So many of the nation’s vehicles remain empty, each representing another car that could be taken off the road. There’s also an economic incentive — ridesharing could save the average American driver as much as $5,000 a year.

Americans tend to be resistant to turning the wheel over to someone they don’t know, out of fear of an accident. But the fact is that you do that every time you take a taxi, bus or subway, not to mention that even when you’re behind your own wheel, you are always at the mercy of other drivers. If carpooling is done right, you’ll likely have a better sense of the person driving a rideshare vehicle than you do a bus or taxi driver, and can even forge a relationship with them.

If Americans could arrange ridesharing as easily as they could check email or Facebook, you might see a shift. For carpooling to be successful, Americans need a rideshare network similar to the vast social networks that have sprung from the epicenter of innovation: Silicon Valley. The rideshare boards on Craigslist simply won’t cut it anymore. Zimride is a great resource in the U.S., but has such a strong focus on university and corporate campus ridesharing that it misses hundreds of millions of Americans driving solo, resulting in a lot of empty seats. 

Germany and Karl Benz may have invented the automobile, but it was America and Henry Ford that popularized the vehicle through mass production, and it was through America’s eyes that the world learned to fall in love with the car. This is the country that gave us Route 66, On The Road and American Graffiti, not to mention a car-obsessed "autopia" like Los Angeles. By taking another automotive concept from Germany and applying it with its usual exceptionalism, the U.S. can help the world fall in love with the car all over again.

Photo of green bus with passengers by robert mobley via Shutterstock.