BMW just jumped into the U.S. car-sharing biz, with the help of YC alum RideCell

BMW just launched a new car-sharing service called ReachNow that will enable Seattle residents to access 400 cars that they can pick up and drop off pretty much wherever they like, as long as that’s not on the outskirts of town. Eventually, the idea is to expand into cities nationwide.

BMW’s isn’t a revolutionary concept at this point. Daimler has a similar service called Car2Go that’s available in New York, Austin, Minneapolis, Vancouver and Portland, Oregon. Audi also launched a car-sharing service in San Francisco and Miami a few months ago called Audi at Home (though it’s currently limited to residents of one luxury condominium complex in each city).

BMW itself is already operating car-sharing services in 10 European cities, where Daimler is also making a big push. Not only are these services better for cities, but it looks like they can produce more revenue for the car companies than selling cars, too.

What’s perhaps most interesting about this new ReachNow initiative is how BMW is getting it up and running: through a partnership with RideCell, a San Francisco-based company whose software serves as a kind of high-tech traffic controller.

The company — formed in Atlanta by Georgia Tech grads who moved to San Francisco for Y Combinator in 2011 — describes itself as the operating system of numerous car-sharing, ride-sharing, fixed-route and dynamic transit services.

It wasn’t always that way. Originally called InstantCab, then Summon, the company was originally conceived as a ride-share service à la Uber. But as time passed and it grew vastly out-funded, the company began looking to autonomous fleets. More specifically, the team decided to tackle the thorny issue of how companies will manage them, from knowing where each car is located, to which ride may have a low battery, to the vehicles that need to be washed or are damaged.

None of RideCell’s customers are overseeing autonomous fleets just yet. These include UC Berkeley, USC, 3M and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which is using RideCell to ensure its shuttles aren’t running half empty.

But RideCell will be ready when they are, says CEO and co-founder Aarjav Trivedi.

“On-demand is here and autonomous is coming,” he says. “So we’re working with the first and helping our clients prepare for the second.”

Indeed, for now, RideCell’s new partnership with BMW will largely allow BMW to operate its fleet of car-share vehicles — including 3 Series sedans, Mini Coopers and its electric i3 models — more efficiently. For example, if a driver hops in a car with a low battery, RideCell might prompt BMW to offer the driver a discount if he or she is willing to use a charging station as their final destination. (As it stands, the drives will cost 41 cents a minute for a promotional period, then move to 49 cents.)

BMW likes RideCell’s tech so much, in fact, it’s putting its money where its mouth is. When RideCell this week closed on $11.7 million in Series A funding, it was BMW i Ventures, which has invested in the company previously, that led the round. Other participants included earlier backer Khosla Ventures; Gokul Rajaram, who’s a product engineering lead at Square; and Flutter co-founder (and now Nest product manager) Mehul Nariyawala.

Altogether, RideCell has raised $17 million.

By the way, those customers interested in signing up for ReachNow need only scan their driver’s license, then verify their identity by taking a picture of their face through the ReachNow app. BMW says the approval process takes two minutes or less.

Update: A couple of readers have noted that BMW has tried car-sharing in the U.S. previously, under the brand DriveNow. The limited initiative, launched in San Francisco in 2012 (the only city where it operated), was shuttered after efforts to work with the city on a parking solution failed.