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People in Japan are renting cars but not driving them

People in Japan are renting cars but not driving them


‘Traveled no distance’

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Photo credit should read LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images

Most people who spend money on car-sharing services do so because they have a destination in mind. They need transportation, and driving a car is an incredibly popular and efficient method of travel between two locations. (It’s true!) But occasionally, a car is not a mode of travel, but an indoor space in a world where indoor spaces are increasingly privatized and inaccessible to many people.

Japanese car-sharing service Orix discovered this recently after finding out that many of its customers were renting its cars but not driving them. As reported by The Asahi Shimbun, the company reviewed mileage records and learned that a certain number of its vehicles were being returned after having “traveled no distance.” Times24 Co., a leading automobile-sharing service provider with more than 1.2 million registered users, reported the same.

To find out what was going on, both companies conducted surveys of its customers. What they discovered says a lot about our modern concepts of work and private space as well as the ever-present need to charge our electronic devices.

According to Asahi Shimbun:

One respondent to the company’s survey said they rented vehicles to nap in or use for a workspace. Another person stored bags and other personal belongings in the rental car when nearby coin lockers were full.

In the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, rental cars were also used to recharge cellphones.

”I rented a car to eat a boxed meal that I bought at a convenience store because I couldn’t find anywhere else to have lunch,” said a 31-year-old male company employee who lives in Saitama Prefecture, close to Tokyo.

“Usually the only place I can take a nap while visiting my clients is a cybercafe in front of the station, but renting a car to sleep in is just a few hundred yen (several dollars), almost the same as staying in the cybercafe.”

Car-sharing is widely popular in Japan, despite still gathering momentum in the US. The cars are accessible and easy to locate. Customers can reserve them for a few hours or a whole day on their smartphones. It only costs around 400 yen (less than $4) to use one for 30 minutes, and a car can be picked up at one of the firm’s more than 12,000 parking places across Japan.

The idea of using a car as a nap pod, a phone booth, or even a private YouTube studio to record a rap session is fascinating, and it highlights how the primary function of a service is always up for interpretation. The question is: how will the car-sharing companies react? Will they market their cars as a cheap and easy way to catch some shut-eye? It’s unlikely since most companies make money based on how far their cars are driven. So do they charge an extra fee for renting the car but not driving it as a way to deter this trend?

Hopefully not. Most cars spend something like 90 percent of their existence just sitting around, parked, waiting to be driven. Uber, Lyft, and the ride-hailing industry were supposed to fix this problem, but those companies ended up adding more — not fewer — cars on the road. If they’re just going to sit there parked, customers might as well put them to good use. Let the people decide how to use your product, not the other way around.