Buy or borrow? Which way will people prefer to go for a second car in the future?

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. is now searching for the answer with demonstrations of car-sharing systems, a sophisticated, high-tech approach to urban transportation problems.

The concept is not new. In Europe, motorists have been sharing vehicles for the past 52 years with more than 200 organizations currently in operation, while nine groups are active in the U.S. and Canada. Yet, so far, only a few people have signed up — around 100,000 in Europe and 1,000 in North America.

Car-sharing has never really caught on for several reasons, ranging from inconvenience to inadequate technology. Today, however, as traffic congestion steadily worsens, Honda engineers believe the time is ripening for a major change in urban driving habits.

“Our goal is to advance the quality of transportation with a limited range system that complements what's already in place and adds environmental benefits,” explains Ben Knight, vice president, Honda R&D Americas Inc.

Honda's first “real world” demonstration of car-sharing ended last November after a 10-month operation in the San Francisco Bay area. A second demonstration, underway in Riverside, CA, for the past year, will continue for another year or even longer.

IntelliShare, a joint research program between Honda and the University of California-Riverside, College of Engineering, uses 15 Honda EV-Plus 4-seat electric vehicles (EVs) running between two ports on campus and a third at a nearby mall.

The EVs are in use from 7 AM until 6 PM on a first come-first serve basis by 220 faculty, staff and student employees driving between the ports or on brief errands. Special “smartcards” rather than keys allow registered users to access port kiosks, log on for trips and drive the EVs. Computers monitor all vehicles at all times, whether in motion or parked in reserved places at each port.

Usage — nearly three hours per EV every 11-hour day — compares favorably with the typical privately owned car, which studies indicate usually sits unused for 23 out of every 24 hours.

The Riverside fleet currently makes 100 trips a day with 30% of the participants accounting for 75% or more of these trips. The first hour is free and a charge of $5 per half-hour thereafter discourages joy riding.

Another 30 drivers are being enrolled this summer in the IntelliShare project, which has run relatively trouble-free so far. Technological glitches have cropped up and been eliminated, but the main complaints have been about queues at noon peaks.

“It's easy to acquire a fleet of cars and sign people up. The difficult part is supplying them with cars when they need them,” says Michael Todd, a development engineer at the College's Center for Environmental Research who is helping run the demonstration. Three people are employed to relocate vehicles among the ports when necessary as well as keep them charged.

Cost of the Riverside demonstration is estimated at $1 million a year, with Honda contributing $500,000 plus the 15 vehicles and insurance for them.

Further north, 60 residents of the San Francisco Bay Area participated in CarLink, a demonstration centered on the Dublin-Pleasanton station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system that encouraged use of public transportation and provided 12 natural gas-powered Honda Civic GX cars to shuttle participants from the station to their jobs. Partners in the CarLink project, including Honda, University of California-Davis, BART, LLNL and the California Dept. of Transportation, underwrote the cost of about $1 million.

The two “real world” demonstrations have been a learning experience for all concerned.

“CarLink users reported commuter stress was drastically reduced,” says Robert Uyeki, a Honda R&D Americas senior engineer.

Mr. Todd adds candidly, “The only reason people use IntelliShare is because it's more convenient than alternatives.”

Honda planners report the choice of vehicle for car-sharing depends on the application. EVs are working well in Riverside for day users making short trips, whereas a broader choice of vehicles, with more range, may be desirable in places such as Dublin.

“There's no one simplistic answer. You need to get airplanes, trains, buses and cars working together and the concept may not work in every location,” explains Robert J. Bienenfeld, American Honda Motor Co. Inc.'s sales and marketing manager-Alternative Fuel Vehicles.

IntelliShare will continue into 2001 or “when the money runs out,” says Mr. Todd, who would like to see expansion to an eight-station system, including a residential location now that significant parking problems have begun to appear at U.C. Riverside.

He expects the two systems Honda has been testing eventually will merge but the introduction of a commercial car-sharing system of some kind is still somewhere in the future. “More research is needed. One year from now we should have a much better idea of a timetable,” says Mr. Knight.

Project managers hope a commercially viable car-sharing system can be devised that is financially self-sustaining but at this point no one knows — or can know — whether subsidies will be needed.

“We should be able to cover operating costs but recovering start-up costs would be difficult,” explains Mr. Todd.

So far, there's no lack of enthusiasm among users and managers.

“The car-sharing concept adds a new option, enhancing transportation systems,” says Mr. Bienenfeld. “The time may be coming when Honda's vision makes practical sense.”