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Zipcar Technology

What with Omar’s post of February 12th, and mine last week, it looks like February has been Car Technology Month here at Critical Link.

We’re really not all that car mad, it’s just that there’s so much interesting technology on the automotive front these days. Some of that interesting technology is brought to us by Zipcar.

For those who aren’t familiar with Zipcar, it’s a car-sharing service – “wheels when you want them” – that lets members make use of a car for a short period of time – a few hours, rather than the full day that you pay for with a traditional rental car. Zipcar members reserve their cars online, specifying the hours they want it for, their location, and their other preferences – Zipcar offers everything from pickup trucks to hybrids to luxury “date night” cars. Zipcar members are issued smart cards, which are used to unlock the car they’ve reserved. The keys are in the car already. Away you go!

Founded in Boston in 2000, Zipcar is now all over the map, and is especially popular in urban and university settings. (No surprise that rental car companies perceived car sharing services as a threat. Last year, Avis acquired Zipcar.)

Anyway, I recently used Zipcar for the first time while in San Francisco, which got me thinking about all the cool technology that goes into the mix.

Unlike technology that helps drivers parallel park or avoid obstacles in the road, Zipcar has to handle a number of requirements that have nothing to do with safety or driver ease of use.(But plenty to do with member ease of use!)

For starters, they need to use RFID for the card reader, which must communicate with the Zipcar home office, presumably via cellular. (The communications technology has to be. While Zipcar uses many outdoor locations, it also houses cars in garages, some of which are underground.)

Zipcar technology also has to tie into each car’s computer for a number of things:

  • Odometer readings – there’s a 180 mile limit per usage, so that needs to be monitored
  • Control of the electric door looks
  • Ability to make the car flash its lights and beep its horn from the app

Gas is included in the hourly rental costs for a Zipcar, but users are expected to fill ‘er up if the fuel gauge goes below one-quarter. But you don’t pay out of pocket for gas. Each Zipcar has a gasoline card. When you go to pump your gas, you’re prompted to enter your Zipcar member number and the current mileage. Don’t know how this one works – there’s no way they worked out a deal with every gas station in the country to get this implemented – but it pretty much does, as there are no restrictions on what gas station you can go to.

They also must have solved the problem of someone topping off their Zipcar and then filling up the car behind it. (Maybe Zipcar members don’t think this way…) It might be there are some built in smarts that monitor mileage vs. gas in the tank, and tie into the car’s estimate of the range left for the vehicle.

Another interesting problem they’ve solved is the ability to tie into all sorts of different makes and models. Since there are no standards for what they do, every time they add a new model to their fleet you would think they must need to engineer the interface to it.

Zipcar was and is a great idea which never could have come about without the Internet of Things.