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    Once-car-crazy Germans buying fewer of them

    Smartphones and apps have let businesses that rent cars by the minute, hour, or day thrive. And in Germany, one-way rentals are growing fast.
    Frank Jordans/ AP
    Smartphones and apps have let businesses that rent cars by the minute, hour, or day thrive. And in Germany, one-way rentals are growing fast.

    BERLIN — Germans, once a nation of ardent automobile enthusiasts, are not buying cars as much as they used to. Instead, they’re sharing them.

    The country has become the world’s biggest user of one-way car sharing plans, with which a person can find a vehicle using a smartphone, drive it across town, and leave it there.

    The trend has been boosted by Germany’s powerful auto industry, which first ignored so-called car sharing but is now jumping on board. Some companies are betting big on the idea, not just for short trips within cities, but for longer ones between them.


    It follows a culture shift in the country that invented the automobile, where cars were once commonly described as the Germans’ ‘‘favorite child.’’ Excellent public transport, high fuel prices, and a strong environmental movement mean that, for many Germans, the car has become an expendable accessory, or at worst an expensive liability.

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    New vehicle registrations fell below 3 million last year, continuing a two-decade decline. Meanwhile, the average age of buyers rose above 52, compared with 46 in the 1990s.

    As a result, the auto industry has embraced car-sharing.

    ‘‘I want to pay for things when I use them,’’ said Martin Blankenstein, a 35-year-old management consultant who uses car sharing.

    For decades, such services were station-based. Vehicles could be picked up only in certain places and had to be returned to the same locations. But six years ago, car sharing took a different turn, with the launch of one-way offers.


    These flexible services have spread to major cities across Europe and North America thanks to smartphones.

    Using a mobile app, a customer can find a nearby car, book it, drive it across town, and leave it there.

    Twenty minutes of use will typically cost $5.50 to $8.20, with fuel, insurance, and parking included. All-day rates range up to about $80. Advocates say the cost tends to be half what a taxi would charge.

    The success of car sharing in Berlin has attracted foreign manufacturers such as Citroen. The French automaker launched its Multicity electric car-sharing service in the German capital.

    Worldwide, over 8.5 million one-way journeys were booked last year. More than 4.5 million of those were in Germany, and 2.2 million were in Berlin, according to InnoZ, a think tank.


    But the move is a risky one. Some experts believe it could backfire on automakers by demonstrating how easy it is to live without a vehicle of one’s own. Still, manufacturers may have no choice than to follow the trend, for now.

    ‘‘Many of them don’t know in which direction the market is heading, but they don’t want to be on the wrong track when change happens,’’ said Kurt Moeser, a historian at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.