A little bit ago, we ran an article about the idea of Peak Car, and that led to discussions about share cars like Zipcar, and that led to this comment from reader Max_Plays_Music:

Quick Question, Why haven't there been any cars that are designed just for car sharing programs, i.e. easy to clear, repair, i really don't know... not an engineer/marketing guy... but wouldn't the first company to do this reap in the bucks for making an car that could be shared.

... and that led to me. Because, for some reason, I thought this would be a fun auto design problem to think through. What would make for an ideal shared-use car? Shared cars have their own very unique set of criteria, and though most cars could do the job, I can't help but think a custom-designed solution could do the job much better.

The first thing to do is get to the fundamental goals of a share car. It's got to be something that almost anyone can drive, minimizes risk to the driver, other drivers, and the company, can be used for a wide variety of common uses, can absorb abuse with a minimum of issues, be cheap, good on gas, easy to keep clean, and relatively undesirable to thieves.

In addition to those traits on the car itself, people need to be able to pay for the cars and get access to them easily and securely; everyone having a little computer in their pockets at all times helps here, and most car share companies already let you reserve and find cars with you're phone, and that's clearly the way to go. But I think it could go even a bit further.


Okay, so that's the basic criteria. Here's what I'm thinking for the car.

Since most car share happens in cities, I think a smaller car is the way to go. Since I want to help the US economy with my grand schemes and earn some goodwill in my home country, let's try for a car built in the US. And cheap. I'll be modifying the car extensively, so a manufacturer used to fleet sales would be good, since I want to save money by buying a car minus a good chunk of its normal parts.


I think the Chevy Sonic is a good place to start. The 5-door hatch one, since that's a very flexible and useful body design. There's other good options, like the Focus, but the thing that made the Sonic make sense is actually the somewhat odd dashboard design, with its very separate instrument pod thing. That'll make sense soon.

I'd like to get them from GM minus lots of things: lighting equipment, front and rear bumper/fascia, carpeting, instrument pod, and various other trim bits. I'd also flash the engine's brains to detune the output from 138 or so to something more in the 100 HP range or so. This is to keep the engine from ever working too hard (for longevity), better gas mileage, and to make it a little harder for people to get in driving trouble as well.

On the body of the car, I'll be swapping the Sonic-specific lighting equipment for the cheapest, most basic parts I can get. Regular round sealed-beam headlights, trailer-grade indicators and taillights, all that. These would be mounted in rugged plastic housings, and be far cheaper to replace in case of the minor accidents that will, of course, happen. The expensive-to-fix painted plastic bumper assemblies of the production car would be replaced with big ugly rubber units. These would be designed not just to protect the share car, but more importantly to protect any cars or people or horses or whatever the driver may hit. This will help keep payouts lower in accident claims.


Rubber cladding would be on the sides of the car as well, and on the door edges, to keep damage minimal when drivers aren't careful and open their doors into other parked cars. There'd be a well-secured roof rack with integrated, inertia-reel cords to allow safe tiedown of couches and lumber and whatever, because you know some people will be hiring these cars to move or to get parts to build their awesome new loft. I'd even want to reroute the exhaust to exit on the side to let people drive with the hatch open without danger of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Inside, all carpet would be removed, and the floor would be lined with rubber. There'd be a drain in the floor so vomit, urine, and other exciting fluids could easily be cleaned out. The seats would be covered in hard-wearing vinyl, and the back seats would be divided with a central divider to minimize the car's use as a handy mobile prostitute-utilization location.


Oh, and the cars should be painted in a bright, lurid color, to make them easy to spot and be relatively undesirable and/or obvious if stolen.

Essentially, the key here I think is to assume your clientele deserve a safe, clean, reliable and useful car, but that they're also disgusting, filthy, libidinous chimpanzees barely capable of safely operating a motor vehicle. You have to respect their needs and anticipate their worst failings.


For the booking/payment/management side of things, I'd keep it as smartphone-based as possible. I know Zipcar uses a card, but I'd avoid that as well. Your account is all online, a mobile app tells you where to find your car, and when you approach the car, a Bluetooth-based system negotiates your credentials with your phone, and then unlocks the car.

Now comes the part about why I picked the Sonic. When you get in the car, you'll see there's no instruments at all โ€” just an empty housing where the stock instrument pod used to sit. You'll dock your phone in there (it'll have two connectors, one on each side, for iPhones or Android phones โ€” flip your phone to align with the one that fits yours). Once docked, the car will turn on, and the phone's share car app will activate, making your phone into the car's dashboard. It'll have nav (which will show directions to dropoff/pickup points), speed, fuel, and a tally of your account information.

This will save money per car by not having to build any instruments, leveraging the power in everyone's pocket already. It could also, for insurance reasons, repress display of text messages or incoming calls, making sure the drivers aren't texting and driving. Plus, the cars won't need radios or head units, just speakers and amps, with your phone providing your music and entertainment.


The end result is pretty ugly, I suppose, but I like how utilitarian and useful this thing could be. I'd be very tempted to get a used one of these if they existed. Since they don't exist, I'll just have to hope that some share car company decides to produce them, goes out of business, and then sells these super-cheap.

I may need to upgrade my car-daydreams, while I'm at it.