This Is What Happens When The Sharing Economy Goes Horribly Wrong

12:00 PM on a Tuesday

My car is due back at noon, so I’m getting a little worried. The renter — we’ll call him Jim — hasn’t contacted me in the last couple of days. Normally, renters are highly communicative, and often even bring the car back early. Something is off.

Four days ago, I picked Jim up at his house in my car. Jim used RelayRides — a popular peer-to-peer car sharing platform — to discover and rent my personal car. During our drive back to drop me off at home, I didn’t get a good feeling. Jim was very young, and although our dialogue was a brief ten minutes, he didn’t strike me as someone who came cross as outwardly responsible. A few abrasive references, a couple peculiar idioms, and my guard was up. I didn't have anything tangible to act from, but my gut was on high alert.

However, the car rental was booked, and I wasn’t going to cancel solely because of my intuition — that would be rude and prejudgmental. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. It turns out that was the wrong move.

At 12:06, I decided to text him.

“Hey Jim, what’s your ETA?”

Ten minutes go by with no response, so I called him. No answer.

At 12:19, I got the following text.

I had to go back to Texas today, I don’t know if I ran out of gas or if the clutch messed up but the car is at {address redacted}. I put the key in the mailbox by the front door…I’m boarding my flight right now.

I was not shocked per se, presumably because I had already subconsciously registered this outcome as an inevitability. I took an Uber to retrieve my car, and found it in a condition I feared — filthy, damaged, and unable to move under its own power because of a clutch scorched worse than a space capsule on reentry. The rear tires were considerably worn down, the car interior smelled like weed, and sand was in every nook and cranny. Two of the wheels had been badly damaged from striking a curb. Despite handing the car over with half a tank of gas, it was completely empty. Worst of all, the key wasn’t in the mailbox as indicated. (To this day, it has yet to be returned.) Thankfully, I brought a spare.

bone dry gas tank; getting towed; rear tires worn down
damaged wheel; burnt flywheel (part of the clutch assembly)

I can get past the damage to the car, but it’s the way at which it was handled that upsets me most. The renter left my car for dead on the side of the road, and then expected me to pick up the pieces. Presumably, he considered this operation to be no different than Hertz. Clearly he didn’t care to adhere to the expectations of the sharing economy. He didn’t acknowledge the time, hassle, and headache I would have to endure to rectify this. It didn’t click that it’s just flat out rude to leave trash for me to clean up. Despite my best efforts at communicating, he didn’t seem to understand that this was my car, not some anonymous auto from an airport rental company.

His actions had consequences that were very personal in nature. Unlike a traditional rental outfit, there was no buffer between the party afflicted and the party of wrongdoing. His inability to act appropriately makes him undeserving and unfit of membership into the community.

Jim abused the trust that is built within the sharing economy and he didn’t abide by the rules. He treated my car with carelessness and disregard. As a result, I got metaphorically burned — even worse than my clutch.

Let me be clear, I’m extremely supportive of collaborative consumption and this story is not a oh-my-god-the-sharing-economy-is-not-going-to-work rant. I’ve been a host on airbnb for over 200 nights. I’ve racked up more than 1,000 rides behind the wheel with Lyft. I even shipped my sister’s Honda off to FlightCar indefinitely.

In those thousands of interactions, I’ve never had a materially unpleasant experience. Sure, maybe a previous guest left my apartment a little messier than I would have liked, but it wasn’t a big deal.

When I started driving for Lyft in early 2013, my experience was incredible. Consistently and nearly without exception, passengers were polite, friendly, and downright interesting. It was like a cross section of the population had been carved out, and everyone that hopped in my ride got it. They understood what it meant to be a citizen of the sharing economy, and what the mutual expectations were. They abided by the inherent undertone of respect that comes when I extend my personal belongings to a complete stranger.

As the days, weeks, and months ticked on, I became skeptical. Would an unwanted byproduct of growth be a change in clientele? Would the search for more and more passengers cause me to have to pull from a population outside those who acted as positive participants in the sharing economy?

I thought about taxi drivers. Their jobs are rough. They have normal passengers and nice passengers. But they also have people that vomit in their cars, yell directions at them, and skip out on the fare. Was it only a matter of time before those people were getting in my car? If and when that day came, would I feel just like a taxi driver, the only difference being I was in an unmarked car? Would the magic and splendor of the sharing economy lose its luster?

“As collaborative consumption goes mainstream, it risks losing the very thing that attracted people in the first place, the unique and even transformative social experiences made possible when you interact with helpful strangers.”

Neal Gorenflo, co-founder of Shareable magazine

With RelayRides, most renters treated my car — and therefore indirectly me — with immense respect. They brought it back with more gas than it started with. They communicated with me and returned it clean. One renter was even kind enough to detail the car, and then gift me the purchased cleaning supplies. But I always thought of the looming possibility of what could happen when the platform had exposure and appeal across the full spectrum of demographics.

Jim was my expected inevitability. In a game of Russian roulette, he was the bullet that fell into the chamber just before the trigger was pulled. Jim was the alarm clock that shook me violently awake into the real world, a society where not all of its citizens are respectful and courteous.

What’s particularly infuriating about the experience is the financial burden that I am left with. RelayRides has been helpful in the repair process and I will be reimbursed for the costs of most of the damage. However, they weren’t able to make the situation absolutely and completely mitigated.

Given that the clutch is a “wearable” item, they only offered to pay for a prorated portion. The shop bill was $2,300, and I’m unfortunately stuck with $900 of that. Since beginning to rent my car out on a regular basis, I’ve only earned $554.17. The math doesn’t look attractive. As of this moment, I’m nearly $350 in the hole.

As an operation, I’m in the red, even before factoring in the long term costs. Some damage is objective and quantifiable — the clutch, the tires, and the wheels. But what about the damage that doesn’t show up now? If Jim ran around town acting like it was a race track, how much wear did he place on my engine? Did he shorten the lifespan of my suspension, drivetrain, and transmission? It’s precisely impossible to determine. Only time will tell the true costs of Jim’s wild ride.

Despite the time and resources I’ve allocated, it’s been an unsustainable and unprofitable endeavor, and I have decided to not continue until things change.

If it wasn’t Jim that showed up, it was likely only a matter of time before someone with Jim’s destructive tendencies rented my car. Jim represents the person who does not belong in the sharing economy.

Platforms have an obligation of developing better ways to filter out those who have a high likelihood of abuse. We have to learn how to remove the Jims before they get on the platform. RelayRides likely reviews driving and criminal history of renters, but there is a opportunity for more due diligence.

As the sharing economy matures and overflows its banks into the mainstream consumer, we have to start asking — and answering — some hard questions about trust and reputation.

Jim’s actions placed a burden on RelayRides as a company and a platform, and myself. When we have destructive rogue citizens of the sharing economy, the entire ecosystem is in jeopardy of collapse. Without trust, a fundamental pillar is shattered. So where does this leave us, and what do we do going forward?

RelayRides has eased some altruistic concerns of mine by assuring me that Jim has been black flagged and removed from the system. He can’t ever rent a car again, and he won’t be able to put another RelayRides owner in an unfortunate outcome such as mine. However, this siloed approach has one fundamental flaw — Jim can still go rent a car from other peer-to-peer rental platforms like Getaround and FlightCar without restriction. Heck, he can even go score a place on Airbnb to host a raging party, or rent a jetski on Fun2Rent and sink it off the coast of Mexico.

Without cross pollination and communication between platforms, Jim can keep replicating his destructive tendencies over and over. Marking him up on a single platform has very little effect on another.

It’s predicaments like mine that pique my curiosity about concepts like social currency, or even a social credit score. Jim has proved to be a harmful participant of the sharing economy, and members of other platforms need to know of his documented vandalism in order to make an educated decision about transacting with him. It is socially responsible to mark Jim’s platform-agnostic record with a blemish that represents an event of significant wrongdoing. Just like lenders need to know of a potential borrower’s history of payment delinquency or bankruptcy, destructive events like these need to be catalogued for future decision makers.

To be fair, the RelayRides platform does present some information to me that I can use to grant or deny a prospective renter’s request. In the case of Jim, I had his phone number and a grainy profile picture. That’s it. I think RelayRides can do more. Who are Jim’s friends? Do we know anyone in common? Has he used any other platforms before? How is his creditworthiness? What does he do for a living? Good or bad, things like these paint a picture of the type of person that Jim is.

Just like you wouldn’t befriend someone that you know very little about, you shouldn’t feel obligated to transact with someone you don’t have a baseline understanding for.

After all, the whole point of the sharing economy is to foster transactions by accelerating relationships. Platforms connect otherwise strangers because of systems that are in place to subsidize trust. And trust acts as the currency of the sharing economy. When that trust is frequently compromised, we are left with little. Trust comes from information and transparency.

I hope that RelayRides will make sweeping changes. I hope that we as renters can be given the best chance at stopping problems at the source. I even hope that with time, Jim can learn how to become a deserving citizen of the sharing economy.

If we don’t protect the sanctity of the sharing economy, it becomes nothing more than a commodity game. It will no longer be about utilizing idle resources, forming friendships, and providing delightful experiences. Owners will be in it for the income, and renters will use it for the cost savings. Priority number one will be protecting your ass…ets, and the platform will act more as a mediator of disputes rather than an enabler of transactions.

In the interim, for those considering participation in the sharing economy, my recommendation is to be cognizant of the exposure you are assuming. You do not have complete and absolute information, you have some of it. And until we bridge the gap that allows wrongdoers to hide in the shadows of the industry’s shortcomings, you are assuming substantial risk. Just like any other business, there are ups, and there are downs. You need to ask yourself if you are prepared to weather the storm if Jim comes knocking on your door.

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This story originally appeared on Pando. Read it here.