SHANGHAI -- BMW will launch its first permanent car-sharing program in China next month using a fleet of electric i3 models, the company said.
The program in Chengdu, southwest China, expands the automaker's ReachNow brand outside of the U.S. where it launched in in 2016. It follows a successful pilot program in Beijing.
BMW claims over a million users for its European DriveNow car-sharing service run in partnership with the Sixt car rental company, up from half a million in 2015. It also says the business is now profitable.
Launching its wholly-owned ReachNow service in China is one way BMW hopes to grow its business as the Chinese government restricts private car sales to tackle growing congestion and air pollution.
"Growth in the future won't come from building and selling cars but from other services," Thiemo Schalk, manager at BMW's Center of Urban Mobility Competence in Berlin, said. "We need to find new solutions not just based on car ownership."
The Chengdu service will use 100 i3s initially. Customers will need to park them in fixed locations when they are finished with the cars, similar to the Beijing pilot program, rather than being able to park them where they like as they can in DriveNow cities.
'Free-floating' parking has often been a stumbling point for car-sharing programs in cities with limited parking, but Schalk said Chengdu was keen for this to form part of the program. "They really wanted to make it happen," he said at a mobility event held by BMW in Shanghai in November.
City residents in China have become used to accessing shared bicycles that lack fixed hire points and are scattered throughout bigger cities.
EV sharing has also boomed within China in recent years, mainly using fleets of small, low-cost electric cars from domestic automakers. Programs include EVCard run by SAIC and GoFun, which is part of the Beijing Shouqi Group leasing company. BMW said it planned to bring a premium element to car-sharing.
BMW DriveNow currently has a fleet of 6,000 cars in 13 cities in Europe, of which 15 percent are i3s, Schalk said. It's ReachNow operation in the U.S. uses 1,400 BMW and Mini cars in three cities.