Distributed car sharing ready to blow up in California?

Thus far, car sharing services have looked a lot like traditional rental programs. Sure, there are a few key differences — cars located near potential drivers rather than the airport, membership models, etc. — but Zipcar and WeCar still provided cars they bought to customers for set time periods. In February, I took note of a different model — distributed or “peer-to-peer” car sharing — in which anyone who owned a car could rent it out to someone else. RelayRides was just getting off the ground on the East Coast, but legal changes in California may make the Golden State the place where distributed car sharing really takes off.

In September, the California Assembly passed AB 1871, which, according to GigaOm, “establishes rules (going into effect January 1, 2011) for when a vehicle owner’s insurance policy stops applying, and when a commercial policy held by a service provider… would kick in.” The law’s passage has entrepreneurs jumping into the personal car sharing game — in addition to RelayRides (who’s moving into the San Francisco market), Spride Share and Getaround have launched in response to the law’s passage, and some venture capital money is moving into the space.

It’s an intriguing model… several sources say cars sit idle 90% of the time, so many vehicle owners may see this as a way to cash in on that downtime, while potential renters may see even more incentive to go car-free. Insurance and liability may still be the bugaboo here: while the services mentioned above carry supplemental coverage for both owner and driver, no one’s quite sure how liability claims will play out. Finally, there’s the whole factor of handing the car keys over to a stranger: again, the services above provide background checks… but we all know how many of us tend to treat rental cars.

These kinks will have to get worked out… and they will. Still, this version of car sharing strikes me as promising. What do you think, though? Would you rent out your car to a stranger? Would you reconsider purchasing a new vehicle if you knew that you could use another one in the neighborhood? Let us know what you think… and check out the video from RelayRides above for one car owner’s perspective.