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Vroom for Rent: In Japan, People Are Renting Cars and Not Even Driving Them

Could such a phenomenon possibly exist in the United States?

Arthur St. AntoineWriter Tim MarrsIllustrator

Car-sharing services in Japan, apparently, are witnessing an increasingly common trend: Many of their customers return rental cars with zero miles driven. Mind you, the cars are used during the rental period—they just don't go anywhere.

"I rented a car to eat a boxed meal because I could not find anywhere else to eat lunch," said one of the customers who responded to surveys by leading car-sharing companies Times24 Co. and Orix; they have more than 12,000 cars distributed in parking spaces around various cities. Using an app, customers can easily rent them 24 hours a day. Said another renter in Asahi Shimbun, a national newspaper in Japan, which reported the new fad: "Usually the only place I can take a nap while visiting my clients is a cybercafe in front of the station, but renting a car to sleep in is ... almost the same as staying in the cybercafe." The typical charge for a half-hour rental: less than $4.

Another Japanese vehicle-sharing service, NTT Docomo Inc., surveyed 400 of its customers and found that one in eight uses a rented car for something other than going places. As reported in the Shimbun, the vast majority of "drive-nowhere" renters use the cars to sleep or rest, but people have also rented vehicles to use as private phone booths, to practice singing, to put on Halloween costumes, and even simply to store their shopping bags temporarily.

The article prompted me to wonder: Could such a phenomenon possibly exist in the United States? After reading the Shimbun article, over the ensuing few months I did some unscientific legwork—and the results floored me. Clearly, a lot of us have been looking at rental cars completely wrong.

"I don't usually talk about this, but, yeah, sometimes I rent a car and don't actually drive it." I'd struck up a conversation with Val Yewad, a senior software engineer from San Francisco, while we waited out our connections over beers at Chicago's O'Hare airport. When I'd asked why he rents to go nowhere, at first Val demurred. But I pressed him, and, finally, he lowered his voice and said one word: "Toenails." Sensing my confusion, Val leaned in closer: "See, I got what you might call 'wood chips' on my feet. Keeping those bastards trimmed is like trying to sculpt a Michelangelo with a butter knife."

"Why don't you go someplace for a pedicure?"

"Tried that once. As soon as I took off my socks, the little salon girl started to cry."

When I asked why he didn't simply trim his nails at home, Val rolled his eyes. "My wife caught me doing it once," he said between sips of beer. "I was hiding out in her rose garden, using her pruning shears. I can't do it in the house 'cause the damn clippings fly off everywhere. Once my wife found one inside her new issue of 'Eating Well.' So I started renting the cars."

I asked Val how it worked out. "Are you kidding? It's great! I can rent a minivan for a half-hour and really get in there and dig—plenty of room to wrestle around, no one sees a thing, and I do zero cleanup. Usually I pop for a full hour, though. After I'm done it takes another 30 minutes or so for me to catch my breath."

Kylene Koll, an energy-industry lobbyist, was my seatmate on a flight to Washington, D.C.—and, I soon found out, a static-car renter herself. "I love 'em!" she said, showing me the rides available on her iPhone app. "I mean, in D.C., where else can you rig a spreadsheet without a security camera looking over your shoulder? Instead of going halfway across town from the Capitol back to my office, I just spend $11 an hour when I need a little nearby privacy—and no mileage fees!"

When I attempted to argue that sitting in a parked car couldn't possibly compare with working out of an office, Koll dismissed me with a wave of the hand. "I've even had food delivered right to my window. I just tell 'em, 'It's the blue VW Golf in the lot at Second and E.' When I asked Koll if she ever used a rental car the way it was intended, she made a funny face. "You mean drive it? No way. D.C. is a tough town. You've got to be constantly on the move if you want to keep up. That's why none of us ever goes anywhere."

I'd expected to find lots of younger people who'd picked up on this new smartphone-centric trend, but surprisingly I didn't come across anyone until, at a weekend party, I met 20-year-old Mikey Bordestuk. "Well, I don't have a driver's license, so I've never rented, myself, but my bruh Tab does it," Bordestuk told me. "Last week four of us had this drive-in movie thing where Tab rented a Honda CR-V near campus and we all watched Us on my laptop. Really messed me up."

"Not very comfortable in there?"

"No, man. Those Honda seats are dank. I meant the movie. That show had me shook."

"Uh, so … couldn't you have watched it just as well in your dorm room?"

"Sure, if you don't mind folks constantly nosin' in askin' to borrow your psych notes or stealing your Doritos. We had two chill hours all to ourselves for about five bucks each. You wanna see John Wick III at the AMC? That's $16.50 just for the ticket. I can't even."

I asked Bordestuk what he considered the best part of the non-driving rental experience. He mused for a minute. "I guess because you're not using any gas. That's a better way to use a car, I think. Helps the environment."

Finally came an afternoon when, during one of my daily walks, I spied one, a middle-aged guy in a Subaru Impreza, parked on a busy street and holding what appeared to be a Burger King Whopper. I walked up to the open passenger-side window. "Excuse me, sir. Did you rent this car so you could sit and eat your lunch without intending to drive anywhere?"

"Mmmph?" I'd caught the man with a mouthful of fries.

"You're one of those early adopters who uses a smartphone app to rent a car just so you can eat or work or take a nap for an hour, right?"

The man put down his burger, took a swig of soda. "Hey, pal. I'm eating my lunch here. I have no idea what you're talking about. Do you mind?"

"So you're going to drive this rental car when you're done?"

"Rental car? This is my car. I just stopped for 10 minutes to have lunch, and then I'm going to drive away—or maybe sooner if you don't get outta here."

"So you're actually going to drive it?"

"Yes! It's a car! For driving! What the hell else would I do with it?"

I wanted to say, "Try squats through the sunroof. Perform minor surgeries without the cumbersome life-support equipment. You never have to drive it at all!" But instead I waved and walked away. The guy had enough ketchup on his shirt already.