Renting a Smart car by the minute

Daimler's Car2Go program will allow users in Austin Texas to rent the tiny Smart car by the minute.

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by Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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The Car2Go program in Austin, Tex. uses a fleet of 200 Smart ForTwos.
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NEW YORK, NY (CNNMoney.com) -- If you could use a car now and again but don't want to buy one, German automaker Daimler has a possible solution for you. At least if you live in Austin, Tex.

For now, the program involves 200 Smart ForTwos and is available only to Austin's 13,000 city employees. The program will be opened to other participants "at some point," Daimler said in a press release.

Austin city employees can rent a Smart ForTwo for cross-town trips for 35 cents a minute. When they're done, they leave the car at a parking space near their destination for someone else to use. The 35 cent-per-minute rate includes gas and insurance. The cars can be used for either work or personal trips.

Daimler, which makes the Smart car, already operates a similar program in the city of Ulm, Germany and, on Tuesday, announced it was starting a Car2Go program in Austin, Texas, the first in the United States.

The program in Ulm, a city of 129,000, has attracted 15,000 participants, according to Daimler.

Daimler plans to expand the program to other cities in 2010.

Customers can join the Car2Go program, then reserve a car by phone or through a Web site. Or, if they happen to see an available car when they need one, they can just use their membership card to open the car, get in and go.

The program differs from other car sharing plans like ZipCar in that the Cars2Go cars need not be returned to the same locations they were taken from. For instance, a car could be taken from a designated Car2Go parking space in one part of the city and taken to another part of the city and left in a parking space there.

During this pilot phase, cars must be picked up and dropped off within the "greater downtown Austin area," an area of roughly 17 square miles, Daimler said.

The program is designed to boost the use of public transportation, said Nicholas Cole, CEO of CarGo North America. In cities like Austin, public transportation can be a good way to get to and from the center of the city, but it's not as convenient for getting around within the city itself.

"One of the concerns people have had is once they get into the city they tend to feel stranded," said Cole.

Car2Go offers people a quick and convenient way to get from place to within the city while still relying on public transit to get from their suburban homes into the city and back, like a drive-it-yourself taxi service.

Also, users will not have to commit to a set drop-off time before getting in the vehicle. Unlike other car-sharing programs, Cars2Go does not offer a choice of vehicles. All the cars are Smart ForTwos. The cars offer good fuel economy -- 41 mpg in city driving -- but relatively little storage space and room for only one passenger.

The tiny size of the ForTwo makes it economical to use for a program like this. Parking is one of the biggest costs Car2Go faces and with the Smart ForTwo, two vehicles can fit into one ordinary parking space, said Robert Henrich, CEO of Car2Go Gmbh in Germany. To top of page

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