Deutsche Version

Flexible Rural Carsharing with Container-based Fleet Logistics

■ Initial situation: Vehicle sharing systems everywhere except where you need it

▼ Basic variant: container-based sharing and charging stations and vehicle redistribution
▼ Optimized division of labour between carsharing, scheduled public transport and demand-responsive public transport
▼ Potential extension: Synergetic use of vehicles and drivers for demand-responsive public transport
▼ Potential extension: Synergetic interim use for scheduled public transport
▼ Potential extension: Application of narrow, tilting three-wheelers
▼ Potential extension: Saving space through lower container frames
▼ Potential extension: Additional offer of four-seat compact vehicles

Initial situation: Vehicle sharing systems everywhere except where you need it

Carsharing is often mentioned as a key element of a transition of the transportation sector towards sustainability: It should facilitate multimodal mobility with the targeted use of shared motorized vehicles only on that trip sections, that can't be covered well by foot, by bicycle or by public transport. This would not only lead to less kilometres travelled by car, but also less energy consumption per average car-kilometre as a single person would not necessarily use a car designed for 5 passengers and 130 km/h for a short trip. Furthermore, there are less vehicles required and for the most trips less range too. Thus, less energy and less raw materials for the manufacturing of cars and their batteries is required.

In practice, vehicle sharing systems met these expectations only to a very limited extent: Very flexible sharing systems for cars, bicycles or electric scooters developed dynamically in big cities, where it was quite easy to get around without a car already before. Outside urban agglomerations, carsharing is offered rarely and only under the condition that the vehicle must be returned to that point where it has been taken. Therefore, for many trips it is either impossible to cover only the "last mile" by carsharing unless the user pays an inadequately long rental period compared to a very short trip length.

An important reason for the lack of flexible carsharing in rural and suburban areas is the unsolved challenge of the redistribution of vehicles which is necessary to make them reliably available in the whole territory covered by the system. In central urban areas this problem is less significant as various origin-destination pairs with different trip purposes are rather compensating each other concerning the distribution of vehicles. If inequalities in distribution and availability of vehicles arise, public transport and taxis are always available. In rural and suburban areas the requirements are completely different: Carsharing must promise much higher reliability and massive use by commuters would lead to shortage of vehicles during the day in the outskirts and during the night in the centre of the respective region.
▲ Initial situation: Vehicle sharing systems everywhere except where you need it
■ Basic variant: container-based sharing and charging stations and vehicle redistribution

▼ Optimized division of labour between carsharing, scheduled public transport and demand-responsive public transport
▼ Potential extension: Synergetic use of vehicles and drivers for demand-responsive public transport
▼ Potential extension: Synergetic interim use for scheduled public transport
▼ Potential extension: Application of narrow, tilting three-wheelers
▼ Potential extension: Saving space through lower container frames
▼ Potential extension: Additional offer of four-seat compact vehicles

Basic variant: container-based sharing and charging stations and vehicle redistribution

Redistribution of conventional sized passenger cars is much more complex than redistribution of bicycles or electric scooters: One option is the use of big car carrier trailers with time-consuming loading and unloading procedures. The other option is redistribution by teams of two drivers: one is driving the vehicle being relocated, the other one follows this vehicle in order to bring then the first driver to next vehicle that shall be relocated.

The efficiency of vehicle redistribution can be increased by a sharing system based on two-seat light electric vehicles that are shorter than the width of an ISO container. On such vehicle, the Renault Twizy is already on the market and Microlino/Karo are announced to be introduced soon.

Within the length of a 40' container it is possible to park 8 Twizies in such way that every second gap is wide enough to step in or out of the vehicle. In this case it is better to park rearwards in order to facilitate access from the sidewalk, not from the driving lane:

Within the length of a 45' container it is possible to park 9 Microlinos resp. Karos, but only if they are parked alternately forward and backwards. These vehicles are accessed through the front, so 4 out of 9 vehicles must be entered from the driving lane.

The total mass of the parked vehicles is in both cases less than 5 metric tons. Similar to many bikesharing systems, vehicles can be taken and returned only at rental stations but the system offers the flexibility to return the vehicle at another station than that where it has been taken.

Part of the rental stations are frames complying to the dimensions of a 40' or 45' container with the standardized corner fittings. The whole time a vehicle is not rented by a user, it is parked on such a container-sized frame, connected by a charging cable to the container frame that is again electrically connected to the stationary part of the rental station. Each rental station includes several slots for such container frames leaving one of them empty at any time. Vehicles are taken and returned that way that there is always just one partly filled container frame, all other frames are either completely empty or completely full. If a rental station is close to running out of vehicles, fleet managers bring a container frame full of vehicles, put it into the empty slot and take an empty container frame in order to relocate it towards a rental station with an overflow of vehicles:

The lifting mechanism for the container handling is integrated into the rental station, perhaps similar to claws grids:

In terms of load-bearing capacity and quick handling controlled from the driver seat a stationary lifting mechanism seems to be more suitable than a truck-based container handling solution as loading cranes or side loaders.

Trucks that are not fully engaged in redistribution of carsharing vehicles can be meanwhile used for the transport of other containers.


▲ Initial situation: Vehicle sharing systems everywhere except where you need it
▲ Basic variant: container-based sharing and charging stations and vehicle redistribution
■ Optimized division of labour between carsharing, scheduled public transport and demand-responsive public transport

▼ Potential extension: Synergetic use of vehicles and drivers for demand-responsive public transport
▼ Potential extension: Synergetic interim use for scheduled public transport
▼ Potential extension: Application of narrow, tilting three-wheelers
▼ Potential extension: Saving space through lower container frames
▼ Potential extension: Additional offer of four-seat compact vehicles

Optimized division of labour between carsharing, scheduled public transport and demand-responsive public transport

A comprehensive carsharing offer for rural and suburban areas is a valuable addition to public transport, but it can't replace public transport for the following reasons:

  1. Long distances should not be covered by carsharing vehicles in order to reduce demand of vehicles, battery capacity and recharging time.
  2. Despite the optimized redistribution of vehicles it would be inefficient to use carsharing for commuter flows that are bundled and clearly unbalanced concerning time and direction: Either there is still a high effort for vehicle redistribution or many vehicles are again used just twice per day.
  3. Despite the fact that some light electric vehicles can be used with an moped licence (category "AM" in some EU countries) there are still parts of the population that have mobility needs but are not allowed or not able to drive such a vehicle.

In order to achieve optimal rural and suburban mobility at reasonable costs for the public we need an optimized division of labour between the publicly accessible components means of transport:

  • Conventional, scheduled public transport is divided into two fields:
    • A network of backbone services, consisting out of railway lines suitable for passenger transportation and bus routes with high demand. These services operate from the early morning to the late evening with trains or buses every hour or half hour in both directions. These lines follow the principle of a network-integrated regular interval timetable (hub-node-structure with optimized interchanging times).
    • In Peak hours, not only the frequency of trains or buses on these backbone routes is increased but there are also additional routes operated only during peak hours, connecting smaller villages to the scheduled public transport network.

  • In this way scheduled public transport relieves the carsharing system from a big part of the journeys in peak direction: in the morning from the periphery to the center, in the afternoon from the center to the periphery. At the same time the flexible carsharing option solves the unpopularity of typical communter buses caused by the fact that commuters have no possibility to get home if they want to stay longer in the city than usually. With the flexible carsharing (without the requirement to bring the vehicle back to the place where it has been taken) commuters can regularly use scheduled trains and buses, but if they return later from work they can use a shared light electric vehicle. The carsharing system offers comprehensive mobility over the whole territory and should be used mainly for those diverse journeys that do not lead in the morning into the cities and in the afternoon back, but tangentially between rural and suburban locations or in opposite direction to the commuter peaks. Beside unusual commuter routes (e.g. people working in a more peripheral location than they live in or working during the night) this includes the mostly underestimated mobility needs for leisure activities, business appointments, shopping, administration, medical care or care for children and elderly relatives.

  • Locations away from the backbone routes of public transport are made accessible for people without driving licence by demand-responsive public transport (paratransit). This service also covers the whole territory, but compared to the carsharing system it is less flexible as users have to book a ride via phone, web or app and have to accept some waiting time.

  • The effort for the redistribution of carsharing vehicles can be further reduced by discounts for users contributing to a more even vehicle distribution e.g. by choosing a departure station with more vehicles and/or an arrival station with fewer vehicles (if different stations are close to the actual origin resp. destination of the user) or by using two vehicles instead of one vehicle if two persones ride together from a (nearly) full to a (nearly) empty station. Incentives should also be provided for the use of public transport instead of carsharing if this leads to a more even distribution of the carsharing vehicles over the rental stations.

▲ Initial situation: Vehicle sharing systems everywhere except where you need it
▲ Basic variant: container-based sharing and charging stations and vehicle redistribution
▲ Optimized division of labour between carsharing, scheduled public transport and demand-responsive public transport
■ Potential extension: Synergetic use of vehicles and drivers for demand-responsive public transport

▼ Potential extension: Synergetic interim use for scheduled public transport
▼ Potential extension: Application of narrow, tilting three-wheelers
▼ Potential extension: Saving space through lower container frames
▼ Potential extension: Additional offer of four-seat compact vehicles

Potential extension: Synergetic use of vehicles and drivers for demand-responsive public transport

For an efficient occupancy of drivers and vehicles it would be very helpful that the demand-responsive public transport is operated with the same drivers and the same vehicles that operate the redistribution of carsharing vehicles. In contrary to the basic variant that relies on light electric vehicles and (electric) semi-trailer trucks available on the market, this extension would require a new type of tractor unit providing some seats for passengers. In order to provide barrier-free paratransit the tractor unit should be extended to the front creating a low-floor space for a wheelchair or a baby buggy in front of the first axle and the entrance, next to the driver. If 40' containers are used, it seems still possible to comply with a permitted total length for semi-trailer trucks of 16,5m:

If the system is designed for 45' containers, such enlargement of the tractor unit for passenger transportation will lead to a total length of more than 16,5m making route-specific permits compulsory (at least under the legislation of Austria and some other EU countries):


▲ Initial situation: Vehicle sharing systems everywhere except where you need it
▲ Basic variant: container-based sharing and charging stations and vehicle redistribution
▲ Optimized division of labour between carsharing, scheduled public transport and demand-responsive public transport
▲ Potential extension: Synergetic use of vehicles and drivers for demand-responsive public transport
■ Potential extension: Synergetic interim use for scheduled public transport
▼ Potential extension: Application of narrow, tilting three-wheelers
▼ Potential extension: Saving space through lower container frames
▼ Potential extension: Additional offer of four-seat compact vehicles

Potential extension: Synergetic interim use for scheduled public transport

More synergy between carsharing, demand-responsive and scheduled public transport would be possible if scheduled public transport during peak hours would be operated by the same drivers using the same tractor units as demand-responsive paratransit and redistribution of carsharing vehicles during off-peak hours:

The required renaissance of semi-trailer buses is more realistic than it might seem at first glance because the requirement of communication between driver and passenger is meanwhile solved by emergency intercom and video surveillance and semi trailer bus operation might anyway be an option to achieve synergy between the decarbonisation of both bus and truck operation.


▲ Initial situation: Vehicle sharing systems everywhere except where you need it
▲ Basic variant: container-based sharing and charging stations and vehicle redistribution
▲ Optimized division of labour between carsharing, scheduled public transport and demand-responsive public transport
▲ Potential extension: Synergetic use of vehicles and drivers for demand-responsive public transport
▲ Potential extension: Synergetic interim use for scheduled public transport
■ Potential extension: Application of narrow, tilting three-wheelers
▼ Potential extension: Saving space through lower container frames
▼ Potential extension: Additional offer of four-seat compact vehicles

Potential extension: Application of narrow, tilting three-wheelers

The light electric vehicles proposed for the basic variant are still significantly wider than the space required for a person plus side walls. This is caused by stability requirements: Four-wheeled vehicles that are high enough for a comfortable seating position and sufficient visibility must not be too narrow, otherwise there would be too likely to overturn in curves. The vehicle width could be reduced and more vehicles could be accomodated within the same length of a container frame if tilting three-wheelers would be used. For parking these vehicles are stable as four-wheelers but at normal speed they tilt in curves like two-wheelers, so there is no need for a wider vehicle for stability reasons.
The reason why this solution is mentioned only as a potential optimization and not as the basic variant is that at the moment there is no suitable vehicle on the market:

Toyota i-ROAD and Nimbus Halo seem to have very similar dimensions, both have roughly this shape:

If every second spacing between the vehicles shall be minimum 50 cm wide it is possible to place 10 of them on a 40' container and 12 of them on a 45' container:


▲ Initial situation: Vehicle sharing systems everywhere except where you need it
▲ Basic variant: container-based sharing and charging stations and vehicle redistribution
▲ Optimized division of labour between carsharing, scheduled public transport and demand-responsive public transport
▲ Potential extension: Synergetic use of vehicles and drivers for demand-responsive public transport
▲ Potential extension: Synergetic interim use for scheduled public transport
▲ Potential extension: Application of narrow, tilting three-wheelers
■ Potential extension: Saving space through lower container frames
▼ Potential extension: Additional offer of four-seat compact vehicles

Potential extension: Saving space through lower container frames

If it is possible to build a sufficiently load bearing container that consists out of a bottom plate and four vertical pillars in the corners only, without upper horizontal beams, less volume must be moved for the redistribution of 8-12 sharing vehicles. This could be used in two different ways for a further increase of efficiency:

  1. By stacking of two container frames above each other it would be possible to relocate 16-24 vehicles at once instead of 8-12. In order to comply to the general (European) height limit of 4m this would require not only a special tractor unit, but also a special semi-trailer with small wheels and low loading area, similar to low-loaders.

  2. The lower height demand can also be used for transportation of carsharing vehicles and passengers in the same semi-trailer: If the container frame for vehicle redistribution is only 1,7 m high the remaining height available for the passenger compartment is slightly more than in a double decker bus with same height of both floors. In this case, the semi-trailer is still a special construction, but a conventional tractor unit can be used because there is no need to accomodate on-demand-passengers in the tractor unit. Probably it is not sensible to compromise travel speed or punctuality in scheduled public transport by additional stops for loading and unloading containers at intermediate stops. Nevertheless, it is possible to carry such a container troughout a whole bus drive from the first to the last station of the line or just to use the same semi-trailer consecutively as a scheduled bus (during peak hours in peak direction) and for the combination of demand-responsive paratransit and carsharing vehicle redistribution (in off-peak hours and in off-peak direction).


▲ Initial situation: Vehicle sharing systems everywhere except where you need it
▲ Basic variant: container-based sharing and charging stations and vehicle redistribution
▲ Optimized division of labour between carsharing, scheduled public transport and demand-responsive public transport
▲ Potential extension: Synergetic use of vehicles and drivers for demand-responsive public transport
▲ Potential extension: Synergetic interim use for scheduled public transport
▲ Potential extension: Application of narrow, tilting three-wheelers
▲ Potential extension: Saving space through lower container frames
■ Potential extension: Additional offer of four-seat compact vehicles

Potential extension: Additional offer of four-seat compact vehicles

A comprehensive flexible carsharing system covering the whole territory would facilitate a significant reduction of the degree of motorization: Many families could own one instead of two or even three cars and people living alone or in pairs would not need a car at all. People who need a bigger car sporadically for moving bulky goods can use conventional carsharing too, offering 5-seat passenger cars or even bigger vans but requiring the user to return the vehicle where it has been taken.

In order to reduce dependency from car ownership and consumption of critical battery resources even more, the flexible carsharing system could be improved by providing not only narrow two-seat light electric vehicles, but also wider vehicles for the transport of more than one child or much groceries. This would require the development of wider vehicles with more seats but anyway a width of less than 2,45m m to be parked transversely within the width of a standard ISO container: