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Car sharing was a novel concept in 1997, according to professor Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Today, the sharing economy includes not only other car-share companies, such as Car2go, but shared accommodation, food and parking spaces. Here, Car2go North America vehicles sit in a parking lot in San Diego, Calif., in 2011. Car2go North America LLC is a subsidiary of Daimler North America Corp. (Car2Go)

Car2Go

If we want to look to the future of urban transportation, we could do worse than casting an eyeball on the little blue-and-white cars that are an increasingly familiar sight in North American downtowns.

Car2Go is just the latest in a string of car-sharing schemes, like Zipcar and AutoShare, that have turned up in cities in the past decade or so. But its business model is far different from its forebears, which basically just simplify the traditional process of renting a car. Car2Go is more like a taxi that you drive yourself—and the Daimler-owned service just ticked past the million-member mark globally, with thousands of its trademark Smart cars on roads across Canada.

The nature of car ownership is changing, thanks to a combination of factors: a renewed affinity for city living, the revival of public transit, the fact that today's cash-strapped young people simply can't afford to drive. The bottom line: The number of kilometres driven by youth through the early 2000s fell by 25%. Most alarmingly, at least for automakers, is that car purchases by people aged 18 to 34 fell almost 30% between 2007 and 2011.

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Car2Go might just be part of a transition away from widespread private car ownership and toward a new form of mass transit. Whereas services like Zipcar allow members to rent cars by the hour and pick them up at designated parking spots—to which they must be returned afterwards—Car2Go's cars don't "live" anywhere. Each one is a free-floating node on a network. Customers use a smartphone app to track down the nearest one and are billed 41 cents for each minute of use. When they're done, they can simply park the car anywhere within a designated "home area" and walk away. (The exception is Toronto, where crowded streets mean the cars have to be picked up and dropped off in designated spots, which has crimped Car2Go's flexibility.) Every node on the network is identical and interchangeable. Daimler built the system on Smart cars, which it builds itself; that allows the company to use its own repair infrastructure, simplifying the process of maintaining the fleet.

The whole scheme would be impossible without cheap, widespread wireless networking and portable computing; a decade ago, the idea of renting cars that might be found who-knows-where would have been absurd. The cars also use their built-in networking to signal roving maintenance crews when they need cleaning (drivers can rate the cars' appearance), gas or repairs.

What Car2Go looks like, in the end, is less a way of renting a car on short notice, and more a fleet of drive-your-own taxis. They melt into the urban environment, appearing when they're needed to drop you where you need to go, but otherwise occupying no fixed space, and existing in constant circulation.

It's a short hop from a taxi you drive yourself to a taxi that just plain drives itself. Picture it: Using an app, the customer places an order for an automated cab. The system either finds one parked nearby or queues up a lift from one that's dropping off a passenger in your vicinity. The self-driving car picks you up, verifies your identity (perhaps with the tap of a key card), and sets off, billing your credit card as you go.

All of the pieces of this puzzle are here in the form of Car2Go: the networked cars, the payment infrastructure, the roving maintenance, the fleet infrastructure that floats atop the city rather than carving out space in it. The only thing missing is the self-driving car itself—and that's on the way. Self-driving cars are already plying the highways of California, offering varying degrees of automation, from help staying in-lane to complete self-driving capabilities.

Google, one early leader in the industry, is promising that a self-driving car—though not necessarily its own—will be on the market by the end of the decade. Uber, the app-enabled taxi company, has already declared its interest in the technology—the move would do away with all drivers, not just cabbies. Mercedes itself has been testing a self-driving car technology it calls "Bertha," after Bertha Benz, Karl Benz's wife and an automotive pioneer in her own right (in fact, she was his very first investor).

Autonomous driving systems are still expensive and imperfect, and they still face both regulatory and technological hurdles. But when they do arrive, the automated-taxi market will be one of its first targets. Self-driven car share as we know it today will persist, but only as a cheaper, more obstinate option—the stick shift of urban driving. The question isn't whether millennials will end up buying cars. The question is whether, in 10 years' time, anyone will actually drive them.

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Follow Ivor Tossell on Twitter @ivortossell

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