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The ‘AirBnB for cars’ that could forever change the way New Zealanders drive

Consider this: while you’re at work, slaving away, putting in hours for The Man, your car is sitting at home doing a whole lot of nothing. Like some apathetic teenager it sulks in the garage, taking up space and contributing basically nothing to the household finances. No more! With Yourdrive, a peer-to-peer car rental service, you can put that beast to work, renting by the hour or the day to users across New Zealand. Desperate to get to Ruatoki, Don Rowe takes Yourdrive for a spin.

My car was born five years before I was, driving off the lot in the dying moments of 1989. It currently sits beneath a tree outside my house, unregistered since February, with a timing belt ready to snap and a few gauges (fuel, temperature, revs) completely out of operation. It’s an eyesore, an embarrassment and it’s completely unreliable. And so when the time came to drive 600-odd kilometres to Ruatoki and back in the name of journalism last month, I desperately needed another option. Something flexible, easy and quick. Something modern, like an AirBnB for cars. Something like Yourdrive.

Gliding down State Highway 2 that afternoon in a 2009 BMW I thought of Big Salmon, rusting away under the tree. That’s my real life, grungy, broken-down and probably going to get worse, but just like scoring an AirBnB with a bath, this was a glimpse at the good life. I’d picked up the car that morning, making a reservation on my phone, nipping over to Grey Lynn in a $6 Uber, collecting the keys with a quick ‘kia ora’ and – once I figured out how to use the push-button – fleeing the city like some great migratory bird. It was easier than a TradeMe transaction.

South I went, through Paeroa, Waihi and Tauranga. Onwards still through Papamoa, Pukehina and Pikowai. Along the east coast further still until, four hours later, Ohope, New Zealand’s ‘most-loved beach’. I’d booked into an AirBnB, the final stage of my shared economy experience, and found the home as comfortable as the car. In bed I reached for my phone to sort a curry or something off Uber Eats Ohope. “Shit,” said I. There is no such thing.

Chewing on a complimentary banana, I thought back to my conversation with Yourdrive founder Oscar Ellison. He’d made reference to the synergistic nature of the shared economy, of how trends towards minimalism and a vagabond lifestyle meant consumers could pick and choose the services that best fit their needs. No longer is it necessary to own a car, to book a hotel, to pick up your own food. And when all of those services combine, living lightweight is easier than ever. But Ellison is looking at the bigger picture, and he’s positioning Yourdrive to be there when the real shifts happen. He hopes the rest of New Zealand will start thinking about it too.

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Don Rowe talks to Yourdrive founder and CEO Oscar Ellison.

How many people are just hiring a BMW for the afternoon?

We’ve got over 400 vehicles on the site, of those a good chunk are unique. This is something we’d like to grow because we’ve seen those vehicles do well. I think that’s an advantage of the model, because you can get the variety – a van for moving, a people mover for moving people, or you can get the fancy sports car.

That’s something I thought about. If you look at Yourdrive, it’s kind of like AirBnB for cars, but obviously you can’t rent an AirBnB for just an afternoon, whereas you can certainly grab a car for two hours and head up to Matakana or whatever. Where did that come from?

It was a personal frustration for me actually. I moved to Auckland for university and I worked here for a few years, and I just had trouble with owning a car, the parking and the constant maintenance, when I wasn’t using it that much. I thought that I’d love to get rid of it, and there must be a lot of people with excess vehicles, so how can we do this better? I was constantly using Bookabach during that time, going away for the weekend, and we’ve got this massive excess fleet just rusting away basically. There must be a better way.

I use my car for honestly about 20 minutes a week. It’s ridiculous.

Get it on Yourdrive.

Ahh it’s a 1989 Holden Commodore, I think I’d have to pay people to drive it. But in a place like Auckland we’ve got pretty average public transport and it makes something like Yourdrive a much more feasible option. Could good, efficient public transport ever be competition for what you’re doing?

I’m really excited by the changes that we’re seeing with transport – electrification of rail, walking and cycling facilities and ridesharing apps like Uber – because that’s making people think differently about vehicle ownership. I see Yourdrive as filling a slightly different niche, but a really well functioning transport system provides choice, and those others public transport modes work for certain trips, but if you need to pick up a fridge, or you need to get to the Coromandel, that’s where we’re positioning Yourdrive to fit in as part of that wider system.

But regardless, people in New Zealand do have a real obsession with owning their own cars. If public transport is de-calcifying that, it would potentially make people more willing to try Yourdrive, right?

There’s some unique challenges to this model due to that infatuation we have with our vehicles, and that’s a bit of a generational divide, but it used to be back in the 70s and 80s that the idea of leaving high school and buying a car was your ticket to freedom. Now with models like Yourdrive and other transport options we’re changing that model and it’s about access over ownership, having a smartphone in your pocket and being able to get where you want, when you want. You’re not constrained if you want to go out after work and have a bottle of wine. You can cycle to work and never have to pay for parking. You can take a Yourdrive to Piha in the weekend for a surf.

Outside of the main cities you don’t really think about things like Uber, but when you’re here and all these options open up, you’re definitely more willing to try things like that, and not worry about your car. Did you foresee having to overcome that ideological fixation with car ownership?

I’ve always thought about transport and I think I was thinking about it before a lot of these start-ups were. Even in Auckland watching Britomart being built, and seeing in the early 2000s that train numbers were around 4 million, and now it’s around 20 million – there were some of those trends emerging. I was probably in my bubble a bit too much and didn’t expect it to be so hard to change people’s attitudes but I think more and more they are changing, and you can see even this election cycle how there are different transport policies being bandied about and people are talking about transport more and trying to figure out what option is the best.

When you look forward right now you’re the middleman – you require someone to have a car to loan in the first place. With the rise of autonomous vehicles, is there a way in which that might impact what you do?

Autonomous vehicles are really interesting and I think in general people don’t understand how close they are. I’ve been in a tester in New Zealand and it’s a weird sensation but the likes of Uber are really looking to start rolling this out. It’s only four or five years away and we’re going to see autonomous vehicles on our roads. That’s where I think Yourdrive is really interesting because when you have a fully-autonomous vehicle it’s going to drive around and pick up people and it’s a shared ownership model. People need to start thinking about shared ownership now and start having that conversation and moving away from car ownership. Because if you think forward to say 2030 when all the vehicles are autonomous, the idea of your own personal car is just going to be out the window.

Are there different challenges you face in rolling out your service to different parts of New Zealand? Geographic challenges and demographic challenges?

We’re in ten cities so far, with a primary focus on Auckland then Wellington and Christchurch. The reason for that is that those are the dense, suburban populations with great public transport backbones – they’re the people who are less beholden to their cars. That’s why we’re so supportive of alternative transport because we’re just a part of that model.

That’s interesting because initially I thought you’d be in direct opposition to public transport, but it’s really not. They’re complementary. But there is one last hurdle which is actually getting to the car. Say I need a vehicle but it’s in Howick, and I’m in Kingsland. Then what?

It’s about getting more people involved and building density. We’re growing at 400 per cent a year at the moment and so the availability in suburbs like Ponsonby has become much better. A year ago if you searched there’d be one vehicle within a kilometre, now there’s ten. So the more vehicles we bring on board the better it is for renters, and the more renters we bring on board the more money that owners are making, so it’s really about just making it denser and denser.

Part of the costs for an owner involved in something like AirBnB is the time cost of meeting with a person, giving them a key to the house, and so on. Is there a plan to get around that to the point where a car owner doesn’t even have to interact with the renter?

There’s some smart technologies out there around remote-unlocking and we’re experimenting with that and looking at it from a development point of view, but for the moment we really like the sense of community. We like the human interaction. And when you compare us to a traditional rental car model where you have just awful service time and time again, there’s a much more interesting experience here. Especially if you’re a tourist, you’re getting local knowledge, local itineraries and so on.

That’s something I hadn’t considered. Often with an AirBnB that human interaction can add to an experience rather than taking away from it. Is fostering that something you focus on?

Absolutely. That’s the beauty of the sharing economy. There are real people involved. We see it from the other side as well. The way that renters treat the vehicle is a lot nicer than a rental car because it’s more of a human experience. You’re much more likely to take care of a car when it’s not an anonymous hatchback off a lot of 100.

Autonomous cars and ridesharing will obviously have an effect on other transport related issues like congestion. What do you see the greater flow-on of people adopting car sharing and so on being?

With car sharing as it exists today there’s pretty clear research which shows that for every vehicle shared, it reduces the number of cars we need on the road by up to 15 vehicles. The other thing that is more interesting than that is that it changes people’s transport behaviours, because you start thinking about the marginal costs of using the vehicle, and when you look at the broader costs of owning a car, you think ‘OK, I can walk this time’, or ‘I can cycle’, so the people getting involved in car sharing are living healthier lives because of walking and cycling and so on.

With autonomous vehicles you start getting into questions like whether it matters or not that there’s a driver in this steel box moving around town. The great change that I’ve seen in Auckland in the last ten years are things like Wynyard Quarter, these shared spaces that are centered around giving power back to the people. I think New Zealand in general needs to think a lot harder about autonomous cars from both an urban design perspective and in terms of how we want to utilise them. If companies are allowed to just bring them in they’ll work towards maximising profit, going after the rich inner suburb people first. Autonomous cars are amazing because old people can use them, they’ll be safe for young kids, it could actually reduce a whole lot of inequality in our transport but if we don’t work towards that and let companies set the agenda on how they want it to look, they’ll go for the most profitable route.

New Zealand needs to get ahead of this and to start exploring transport and having the discussion around how are we to use these technologies, rather than just waiting.

What would the effect be on Yourdrive if the Auckland Council decided ‘Right, that’s it, we’re pedestrianising the entire central city, we’re closing down Queen Street, no more commuting.’

I think that’d be awesome. Not just from a Yourdrive perspective, I think that’s great fullstop. A lot of the Scandinavian countries have done the same, places like Stockholm and Helsinki have already committed to some of these things, but it would also be great for Yourdrive because this is where Yourdrive would come to the fore in terms of living a totally carless lifestyle, except for when you want to go and enjoy the rest of New Zealand, when you want to go to Matakana, when you want to go down to the mountain for a ski. Someone, somewhere has a car not far away from you.

New Zealand has one of the highest car ownership rates in the world, and Yourdrive is never going to destroy that. But the big autonomous shift will, and if we don’t start thinking about that, we’re going to have a problem. They’re going to drive a huge and very visible shift around the ‘future of work’ conversation. People who own car yards, mechanics, insurance agents, all of these industries are going to feel it. Something like 18 per cent of our GDP is transport and we need to be having these conversations. I say this not just as a Yourdrive founder but as a New Zealander.

What other challenges are there? What have you overcome that’s specific to running a business like Yourdrive in New Zealand.

The fixation with car ownership is the main one, and early on we had some insurance issues, but we’ve got comprehensive insurance and a great partner now. But what I could say is that there are other ways we can solve transport problems and I just wish that people in the public sector would think outside the box. It’s not just Yourdrive, it’s other New Zealand companies like Zoomy that are pushing the boundaries and trying to create change, but then we get political parties wanting to spend $10 billion on roads yet they’re not willing to take risks on something like this. We’re trying to foster innovation.

Do you see an opportunity for that in New Zealand?

I think as an entrepreneur in New Zealand I love doing business here because you can test ideas and it’s that perfect size where you can talk to people and have the right conversations but it’s large enough that you can fully test a concept. People are living more ‘vagabond’ lifestyles, and with the rise of things like minimalism, they’re asking themselves why do we need to own these things?

As people move towards more vagabond lifestyles and become more reliant on the shared economy, you start to realise how synergistic some of these things are. Is there a way in which Yourdrive might complement other services and vice versa?

In general yes. AirBnB is the perfect example. If you’re going down to Queenstown for the weekend and Yourdrive is operational there, you can get the house and vehicle, and maybe someone else has the boat, so there’s definitely this idea of making more efficient use of resources. It’s the smart thing to do. It’s greener, cheaper, it just makes sense.

That’s true. If you take 15 cars off the road, not only have you reduced congestion, but you’ve also taken away 15 cars worth of emissions, 15 cars less maintenance and so on.

A huge amount of emissions come in the construction, maintenance and decommissioning of vehicles, and it’s the same with electric cars too  you still have to construct this giant box of metal and ship it all the way to New Zealand, so walking and cycling more, and using something like Yourdrive when you need it, that helps too.

What excites you looking forward with Yourdrive?

It’s the growth. It’s really exciting, and it also makes the service itself better and better. The feedback we’re getting is that customers just love it, and it’ll only improve from here. I want people to experience that.

We also did a capital raise last year with Jucy. I founded the business and we needed to go looking for funds for expansion and ended up teaming up with Jucy. That’s been a really good partnership because the two brothers that run it, Tim and Dan, are really visionary and they’re starting to think about what the future might look like in the tourism industry as well. There’s just so much great expertise in there that it’s helping us grow as a business as well. We’re still trying to carve out our own business within there, but it’s really helpful. There are similarities, an overlap, but they’re fundamentally quite different. I think of it more as a validation and an opportunity to learn and for them it’s risk mitigation for what future models might look like. It’s really cool to be involved with a business that’s forward-thinking and pushing themselves. They’ve changed tourism in New Zealand with their campers.

Your background is in engineering, and so in terms of entrepreneurship, how valuable is it to have a company like Jucy come on board and have access to their experience?

Invaluable. I can’t put a number on it.The mindset of those guys at the top, and the rest of the team as well, it’s just so cool to be able to have access to that.

How did your mindset have to change moving into the entrepreneurial space? What was that shift like?

It’s a totally different game. I think part of me always wanted to try my hand at doing my own thing. Engineering was great, because the core of engineering is about problem solving, and as a transport engineer I was looking at a problem where the solution in part was starting a business that solved it. But when you start a business, the thing I love is that it’s a new thing everyday. It’s digital marketing one day, staff management the next. A bit of accounting. I don’t struggle to get out of bed because I really do like what I’m doing.

I recently did a series of interviews with businesses based in [startup incubator] the Grid, as well as some others around Auckland, and I might have been trapped in a bit of an echo chamber but it really does feel like there’s this energy around the entrepreneurial scene.

New Zealand is doing well. But we always need more innovation; we have that Number 8 wire mentality in our history, but for me I’d bring it back to autonomous cars –  it’s one of these game-changing technologies that not enough people in New Zealand are thinking about. Be it blockchain or artificial intelligence or autonomous cars, if we don’t up our game and get involved, we’re going to get left behind.

For me, business has always been a tool to create change. We have some of those values pretty entrenched. We’re not a total social enterprise, but our concept is about sustainability. We’re a New Zealand company and we’re here to make money and grow the business of course, but we’re also here for New Zealanders. It’s easier to do business when you know what you stand for and you have those values. We’re a middleman facilitating a transaction between two people, so our customers are our business, and we’re constantly thinking about them and what their wants and needs are. All businesses do that, but in a sharing economy it’s even more important because you have to create those conversations and have that empathy. And it needs to be real.

Yourdrive is New Zealand’s car sharing service. Got a car? Earn money by renting it out. Need a car? Rent one from a real person nearby. Yourdrive.co.nz

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