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Peer-to-peer car rentals set to debut at SFO

Image: FlightCar valet
With FlightCar, a new peer-to-peer car-rental service, travelers forgo shuttle vans for personal car delivery by green-vested employees.FlightCar

The way Rujul Zaparde sees it, there are two kinds of people in this world: those who’d let complete strangers drive their cars and those who wouldn’t.

As the CEO of FlightCar.com, a new peer-to-peer car rental company, Zaparde clearly believes there are enough of the former to build a viable business on. Set to officially launch at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) on Friday, the company promises to provide significant savings for both car owners and renters.

“Every day, thousands of people go to the airport and pay to have their cars sit there idle while thousands of other people are paying to rent cars at really high prices,” he told NBC News. “It just didn’t make sense to us that those two parties were not being connected.”

To connect them, Zaparde and his partners invite owners to create listings for their cars — make, model, type of transmission, pet-friendliness, etc. — along with a photo and their expected travel dates. In return, those owners receive free parking for the length of their trip at an off-site lot.

If their car is rented, they also receive a gas card. Owners of compact and economy cars receive a $10 card; owners of larger cars earn up to $10 per day that their car is rented.

On the other side of the transaction, renters enter their preferred rental dates and personal information. (The company will check your driving record.) The site filters the results to show only the cars that are available along with a daily rate, a description and a link if you want to contact the owner.

Needless to say, the choices are far more limited than you’ll get at Hertz or Enterprise. On the other hand, you know exactly what car you’re getting.

The savings can be significant. During a search for a four-day rental later this month, the site offered a 2007 Toyota Camry for $15 per day ($60 total, including tax). Comparatively sized cars from the major rental car companies ranged from $27 per day ($108 total) to $42 per day ($169 total).

To sweeten the deal further, the company includes complimentary car seats and GPS units, provides liability insurance for both owners and renters and forgoes shuttle vans in favor of valets who handle all transfers just outside the terminal. If you’re an owner, they’ll even wash your car while you’re gone.

Clearly, this sort of shared-asset approach isn’t for everyone but it’s already proving popular in other aspects of travel. Companies like Airbnb (lodging) and RelayRides (in-town car rentals) are quickly building communities built on peer-to-peer transactions that save members money by bypassing commercial service providers.

“The concept is that you get to leverage your stuff when you’re not using it,” said David Juman, senior editorial manager at PhoCusWright, who likes the idea but cautions that the model entails a level of trust that gets more challenging the more valuable that “stuff” is.

“You have to build that trust and that community to the point where people will say, ‘Yeah, I’m willing to give my car to a complete stranger,’” he said. “People have to get to some critical mass in their heads where they can say this is something I can take a leap on.”

Zaparde, for one, believes there are enough such people to make Flightcar viable. When researching the idea, he and his partners spent several days riding shuttle vans to and from SFO’s long-term parking lot and asking people what they thought about the idea.

“It was very binary,” he told NBC News. “People said, ‘Yeah, it’s just my car and if I get free parking, I’ll do it,’ or they said, ‘It’s my car and you’re not going to touch it.’” Approximately one-quarter of the people they talked to, he said, expressed an interest in participating.

A few people already are. According to Zaparde, the company currently has 50 cars in its rental pool and more than 100 reservations on the books. Roughly 80 percent of the cars have been rented for at least part of the time and overall utilization (number of rental days vs. the number of available days) is about 50 percent.

It is, of course, early in the game, but as the peer-to-peer business model gains traction in other aspects of travel, the time would seem to be ripe to shake up one of the stodgiest, most hidebound sectors of the business.

“Hertz, Budget — all those guys have been doing it the same way for 50 years and it’s just incredible how much inefficiency there is in the system,” said Zaparde. “There are hundreds of thousands of cars sitting in airport parking lots and with sharing and collaborative consumption, there’s a tremendous opportunity to connect owners and renters.

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.