Wheelz: Automotive Veterans Launch P2P Campus Car Sharing Platform Backed By Former Facebook VP

Kicking it into fifth gear and zooming out of stealth and into the public sphere today is Wheelz, a new person-to-person car sharing platform for campuses — designed to connect students who have cars with student who need ’em. Granted, when I first heard the basics on Wheelz, I immediately thought, “gadzooks, another car sharing platform!?” What about RelayRides, GetAround, Zimride, and Zipcar? These are all by and large great young businesses, adding value to the space; sure they’re not all targeting campuses, but I wasn’t so sure we needed another one.

Whether you feel the same way or not, Wheelz begs to differ. Launching initially at Stanford University, the startup is bringing campuses a technology and service platform that allows students and other campus dwellers to connect safely and easily — through Facebook integration, a good-looking iPhone app, and its proprietary in-car hardware system, called DriveBox.

Facebook integration and mobile apps are fairly standard for savvy online businesses today, but the latter feature isn’t. Once a user signs up for Wheelz, the startup will install the DriveBox in their car for free (installation takes about an hour), which will allow other Wheelz members to unlock the car using the startup’s iPhone app or Wheelz card. This is a great feature for those who don’t have time to meet the person to give them keys, or don’t want to (can’t) make a new key, etc.

After sign up, the company then provides a secure “Key Box” in which owners can leave the key so that renters can start the car. They Key Box also contains a gas card, so that when your car falls below a quarter of a tank, the person driving the car is responsible for filling the car up, using the gas card. The owner of the car is responsible for the price of gas, which will be deducted from the owner’s total earnings each month.

Earnings? What earnings? Well, there are very few free rides in life, my friend. The person driving your car is obliged to pay for use of your wheels, and so each car has hourly and daily prices that are established by the car’s owner. Prices will vary depending on the type of car, age of the car, use, and so on, though Wheelz contends that it is offering the cheapest solution on the market. (Also, users looking to rent for longer can also set up weekly share prices).

As to insurance, as soon as a user borrows a Wheelz car, they are covered by the startup’s million-dollar insurance policy for the entire time they’re using their car. And, according to Wheelz’s website, a user’s “personal auto insurance is in no way affected” by the startup’s coverage.

Some other nifty features? Wheelz is offering a pretty wide variety of cars, including sedans, hybrids, luxury cars, convertibles, vans, SUVs, and even a few trucks — plus, while you’re enjoying your Wheelz reservation, you’ll be able to take advantage of free, 24/7 customer support and roadside assistance.

Another piece that helps inspire confidence in the nascent startup is that it raised $2 million in seed funding, pre-launch, led by Chamath Palihaptiya, a former Facebook VP and early employee (who recently left to found the Social+Capital Partnership venture fund). Joining Palihapitiya are VC firms Felicis Ventures and Red Swan Ventures as well as an impressive list of angel investors, including Jim Freer, the former vice-chair of Ernst & Young, and Sebastien De Halleax, the founder of Playfish.

The Wheelz team also brings significant automotive experience to bear on their new venture, including founder and CEO Jeff Miller, who has spent the better part of the last three years focused on building sustainable transportation solutions, working for electric vehicle network provider Better Place. Furthermore, Akhtar Jameel, Wheelz Co-founder and CTO (and the architect behind Wheelz’ technology platform) was formerly the CEO of Mercedes-Benz R&D and has held senior product and technology positions at Daimler, Better Place and Xerox PARC.

And, um, also of note? Jameel was awarded a Smithsonian Computer World Innovations gold medal for developing the world’s first Internet connected car back in 1997.

Of course, this name-dropping doesn’t mean that Wheelz categorically predestined for success, they still need to offer a more trustworthy service than their competitors and avoid those Airbnb-type PR kerfuffles. The startup is aiming to get at the trust factor via the platform’s integration with Facebook Connect, so that students know who they’re renting their car to, seeing as they can access the social data of prospective car-sharers to make sure they’re actual people, not criminals recently out of Shawshank.

And though there’s certainly some interesting technology at play, Wheelz still has to kill the customer experience — or they will be headed to the startup deadpool in the sky just like everyone else.

“Social is changing every industry in a profound way, and we believe this is the team that’s going to revolutionize the concept of car ownership, turning cars from financial burdens into opportunities”, Palihapitiya said. “I invested in Wheelz on the strength of the executive team and its thoughtful approach to building this business and bringing it to market.”

For more on Wheelz, check out the video below: