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Wheelz launches car sharing for college campuses

Yet another way to send your car on its own adventures while you're not using it.

Another car-sharing service is launching today. Wheelz does the same thing as RelayRides and Getaround: If you have a car that sits unused from time to time, it lets you rent it out to other people, like AirBnB can do for an apartment that you leave vacant.

Wheelz is more focused than its competitors. It's designed exclusively for college and university campuses. The service is going live initially for Stanford students and employees.

CEO Jeff Miller made it clear to me that his company has learned from the hit that AirBnB took when one of its members' homes was ransacked by a renter. The Wheelz service is restricted to contained campus communities. With it, you rent from buddies, dorm-mates, people you know. There are no anonymous transactions: Renters see the face of the person whose car they're renting when they make a reservation; car owners know exactly who's using their vehicle. The site requires both a verified campus e-mail ID to sign up as well as a Facebook account for log-in. "We are going places where community already exists," Miller says.

A 1996 Luxobarge. Now that's a car you can't find on Zipcar. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

The service's software back-end verifies renters against DMV and insurance records before letting them in, and the company carries insurance that effectively replaces the owner's car insurance during the times a car is rented.

Miller is also proud of the custom "Drive Box": hardware that the car owners get installed in their vehicles. The whole system can be controlled over the Web or by iPhone app (there's scarce need for an Android app on the Stanford campus, he says) and the car control units have cellular radios. There are also RFID card fail-safes to make sure owners and renters are never locked out if they should wander beyond cell range.

Now playing: Watch this: Wheelz launches campus car sharing

Car owners set their own prices to rent cars, from about $6.50 to about $20 an hour, depending. Wheelz takes a 40 percent cut of the transactions, and Miller says about half of that is used for operations. Still, the business is solid on paper. "It's Zipcar without capex," he says.

It's also college administrator-friendly. "Every college wants a green solution," Miller says, and he notes that people who use shared cars drive less than they would if they had their own cars, but still have the freedom to get around when they want to. Miller is into saving the planet through efficient automotive technologies. His previous employer was the electric car company Better Place.

Rafe's rating: 5 by 4

  • Product quality: Five out of five stars. Looks like a solid user experience, and the redundant hardware design is important in an automotive setting. The focus on campus communities seems apt. It certainly worked for Facebook.
  • Business quality: Four out of five. Like most rental companies, it's a question of managing the overhead (mostly insurance), but without actually having a fleet itself to maintain, since your customers do that for you. Serious competitors include city-car rental companies like Zipcar, but I think the Wheelz model will work better on campuses.