Beware the Sharing Economy

Taking a road trip to Minnesota seemed like a great idea. So, too, did the idea of renting an RV through a peer-to-peer service called Outdoorsy.

I had no idea it could be so hot at night this far north. Silly me.

At least, I thought sarcastically, I’m lying on my back in the cool mud, staring up at a greasy generator. Even though the genny was hot, it was much hotter inside the RV. And by this point in the evening’s chaos, there were as many mosquitoes inside as there were outside anyway.

This was not the vacation I’d envisaged.

Driving a recreational vehicle across the U.S. is tiring. The decrepit state of the U.S. Interstate System — especially in Gov. Scott Walker’s hyperaustere Wisconsin — ensures that. We’d made it to Madison from Atlanta in two days. We had another day of driving ahead of us to get to northern Minnesota.

But we’d had a splendid dinner at our traveling companion’s mother’s house, and the margaritas were working their magic.

The tail end of that magic is always a good sleep, so I headed out to the RV to start the generator and fire up the air conditioning. There wasn’t enough room in the old farmhouse for all of us, so we planned to stay out in the RV overnight.

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There was just one problem: The power transfer switch had failed, so we had no power. And it was over 90 degrees inside the big rig…

You Pays Your Money, You Takes Your Chance

I’m a boat guy. RVs are similar in many ways — especially their mobile electrical, water and climate systems. Even though I’d never used one, our road trip to Minnesota seemed like a great idea.

So, too, did the idea of renting one through a peer-to-peer RV rental service called Outdoorsy.

Outdoorsy touts itself as the “Airbnb for RVs.” It provides the transaction interface, and low-cost insurance to make owners willing to rent out their property, but leaves the details to owners and renters. Some elements of the deal are standardized, but price setting is up to the owner.

The same applies to maintenance of the RV itself, as well as any problems that occur on the road. Unlike a professional rental company, Outdoorsy’s model takes no direct responsibility for ensuring the roadworthiness of the unit. That’s up to the owner.

If you’re lucky, the RV has been well-maintained. If not … well, to compensate for that risk, Outdoorsy offers a “24/7 Roadside Assistance” package for renters. It sure sounded rosy on the website and in the emails.

I’m sure you can see where this is going … so-called “24/7 Roadside Assistance” failed miserably in our hour of need.

Best-Laid Plans

On the first day of our trip, the key for the RV’s storage lockers broke inside the badly corroded lock to the gas cap. That meant we couldn’t access any of the hookups for electricity, water or sewer.

Since we were planning to rely on the generator for power at our friend’s house in Madison, however, we decided to deal with that on the way to Minnesota.

In Madison, however, the generator stopped sending power to the RV. It ran, but there was no juice. All breakers were in normal position. (The problem lay with a faulty automatic power transfer switch.)

That left us without any power source, and a rapidly draining battery … after dark on a hot, humid, thunderstorm-riddled farm road.

Outdoorsy’s so-called “24/7 Roadside Assistance” was essentially useless.

Since neither the key nor the power problem was related to the mobility of the vehicle, on-site support wasn’t available except at our expense. We understood that. Outdoorsy’s contribution was limited to locating a local mobile RV technician for us.

After a couple of hours of waiting, however, the roadside-assistance folks called to say the only one they could find wasn’t answering his phone, and that I should call him instead.

He never replied to my messages.

And I never heard from Outdoorsy again, despite several emails … and even a post on their Facebook page. (They didn’t even respond when I asked them to comment on this article — three times.)

In desperation, I went to a Camping World outlet. The employees refused to work on the RV since we didn’t have written permission from the owner.

Nobody ever mentioned that during the rental process.

The Sharing Economy ≠ Shared Risk

This is an important lesson.

The sharing economy is supposed to offer greater flexibility at lower cost than the traditional institutional-corporate model. It does this by connecting independent suppliers and consumers via “platforms” like Uber, Airbnb … or Outdoorsy.

It’s a great model in theory. It’s certainly profitable for the platform innovators, who don’t get directly involved in the supply of the services in question, and thus enjoy minimal overheads.

But this comes at a cost … and increased risk for you, the consumer.

Uber drivers occasionally assault passengers (and vice versa). Airbnb hosts lie about their accommodations, and on occasion have turned out to be psychopaths. Outdoorsy rental RVs turn out to be unreliable.

The problem with abandoning the traditional model of supplier responsibility for service and support — like a car-rental company or a hotel that assume responsibility for fulfillment of the contract — in favor of “sharing” is that you can be left out in the cold … or the heat, as the case may be.

Until someone begins to innovate specialized service firms that fill in the huge risk gap in the sharing economy — such as roving independent support technicians — you should probably stick with the old-fashioned ways of doing things, at least when it comes to big-ticket stuff like vacations.

After an evening in the Wisconsin mud, I know I will.

Kind regards,

Ted Bauman
Editor, The Bauman Letter

Editor’s Note: Ted Bauman founded an organization that helped over 2 million people across 35 countries escape from tyrannical governments, and a large part of his work is helping people protect their privacy. Unfortunately, many Americans don’t realize how important their privacy is. Click here to find out why, in fact, you have plenty to hide.