Automakers say car-sharing customers are potential future car buyers, despite analyst estimates that the 20,500 cars in European sharing fleets in 2011 replaced at least 250,000 private cars. "The automotive market is growing," Daimler's Henrich said.
"It's only specific urban markets like London where the number of cars will go down." In those megamarkets, Henrich said that car-sharing schemes can reconnect automakers with younger drivers who cannot afford a car of their own. "We don't want to lose those customers. If you start a family you need a car again and as a carmaker it's good to already have a close relationship with them."
Automakers also are using their car-sharing schemes to demonstrate innovative new cars, such as electric vehicles.
Daimler's Henrich, however, said that it's difficult to make a business case for battery-powered cars such as the Smart ForTwo EVs that are part of Car2Go.
He blamed the weak demand for EVs on the lack of charging points, many of which get blocked by cars that don't need to be plugged in.
It's also not easy to succeed in the sector with fuel-powered cars. Henrich said the cost of street parking for car-sharing vehicles is the biggest expense after depreciation. "In many cities its 200 euros per month, which blocks further growth," he said.
The car-sharing business will not expand enough to soak up excess factory capacity, according to Frost & Sullivan, which predicts the global car-share fleet in 2020 will be 500,000 cars, with 240,000 in Europe.
"If you break that down it's very small for manufacturers," said Franck Leveque, automotive and transportation analyst at Frost. "It has to fit within a mobility strategy rather than a strategy to sell cars."
The strategy for BMW and Daimler includes investment in smartphone-delivered technology that will help people get around town easier.
For example, Daimler is expanding its Moovel app that lets travelers in Berlin and Stuttgart buy an entire door-to-door journey with a tap of a button. The program includes trains, trams, bikes and Car2Go Smarts.
BMW has invested in smart-parking applications such as ParkNow and Parkatmyhouse, which connect drivers with free spaces, either in dedicated parking facilities or in people's driveways.