APARTMENT TRASHED. CAR TOTALED. POP-UP BROTHEL BUSTED. Based solely on the headlines, peer-to-peer rental services such as Airbnb (homes) and Getaround (cars) sound like nightmares. Go a level deeper and you’ll find another glut of stories that question the legality of turning privately owned assets into commercial moneymakers.
The so-called sharing economy is under a microscope because it is disrupting traditional markets left and right—and doing so, for the most part, without oversight. Airbnb, for instance, has provided hospitality services to more than 35 million guests but is not subject to the same rules as Marriott or Hilton. That means, among other things, that accommodations may not have proper fire exits or accessibility for people with disabilities.
As more sharing networks pop up, questions of trust and safety loom. Think about it: Not only are property owners entrusting their valuable assets—a bike or snowboard on Spinlister, a power tool on Peerby, a car on RelayRides—to strangers, but renters are also taking owners at their word that the item being borrowed is as advertised.
So whose job is it to keep companies honest and users safe? The short answer: the market. “The U.S. believes in free markets,” explains Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business who studies the intersection of technology and society. “We believe in letting markets take care of themselves unless they establish that they’re unable to.”
And so far, he says, sharing marketplaces have proven quite adept at keeping themselves in check. Airbnb, RelayRides and other services require users to pass a multistep verification process, including providing links to active social-media profiles, among other identifiers. Two-way public reviews on all platforms help weed out bad or misleading posts and sour personalities. Spinlister even forbids owners from using stock photos of their bikes to safeguard the authenticity of each listing. And if all hell does break loose, services provide blanket insurance policies valued at up to $1 million.
In these person-to-person transactions, insurance claims (or a lack thereof) are the exceptions that prove the rule. For example, just three percent of Spinlister rentals tap into its repair-and-replacement policy, and only six bikes have gone missing in the company’s three-year history.
As communities become more tightly knit, the risks dip even further. When RelayRides began to require face-to-face key handoffs between car owners and renters, insurance claims took a nosedive. “When professional and personal lines blur, so does our sense of what is appropriate behavior,” says Sundararajan. “People don’t treat rental cars as well as they treat personal cars. There might be a shift in the mind-set from just being a rental car to being someone else’s car, like a friend’s car.” Case in point: You wouldn’t dream of mopping the kitchen floor in a hotel room, but you might feel compelled to in an Airbnb.
Still, though this social contract may safeguard against dirty dishes and flat tires, it won’t stop you from tripping on an unsafe step or finding a fire extinguisher that’s empty. Eventually the industry will need to create collaborative governing bodies—à la the American Bar Association—to tackle larger issues of safety and compliance. If you think about it, the businesses won’t have a choice: Securing customers is what will secure the bottom line.