They’ve got a Zipcard to ride

Computerworld honors Showcase

Zipcar Inc.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Zipcar is the largest car-sharing company in North America, offering self-service, on-demand cars by the hour or day.

PROJECT CHAMPIONS: Roy Russell, founding chief technology officer, and Doug Williams, vice president of engineering

IT STAFF: 10 employees

ROI: Company officials estimate that the initial cost of implementing a wireless data network three years ago to communicate data between Zipcar vehicles and office-based servers was less than US$1 million. Returns include increased reliability, security and service to members, as well as the ability to efficiently expand the company.

Back in 2000, the Zipcar crew set out to establish a new class of transportation: cars that drivers could sign up to share for a fee. It was an ambitious goal, and one it seems to have accomplished.

Today, Zipcar Inc. has more than 70,000 consumer and business members, with nearly 2,000 vehicles in multiple locations across 10 states, Washington and Toronto. Members can reserve cars online or via phone. And unlike a rental company, Zipcar places its cars in neighborhoods throughout the regions it serves, letting members pick up and use the cars for quick errands or longer trips, similar to how they might use a car of their own.

But the unique business model isn’t the only achievement getting attention. The technology the company developed to support the business is also attracting praise.

Zipcar started with a single car and the basic systems to support its first 30 or so customers. But Zipcar executives knew from the start that technology would make or break the company, and that philosophy still drives them today.

“We realize we have to create something better than car ownership. And one way we can do that is really optimizing the technology and the experience,” says Matthew Malloy, vice president of marketing and sales operations. Adds founding Chief Technology Officer Roy Russell, “This business doesn’t exist without the combination of the Internet and the wireless technology to communicate with vehicles.”

Jeff Woods, an analyst at Gartner Inc., agrees. “What makes Zipcar special is its RFID driver authentication and its wireless vehicle-data monitoring,” he says. “What Zipcar put together is unique.” Computerworld named Zipcar a 2006 Honors award recipient in the transportation category for its use of radio frequency identification and wireless technologies to grow its business.

The technology Here’s how it works: Zipcar members use “Zipcards” to access vehicles. The cards rely on RFID technology to recognize members and their reservation times. Data is transmitted between the vehicles and back-end systems via a Cingular Wireless network.

For the first few years of operation, however, Zipcar used Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) built on top of an analog system to send data between its cars and reservation systems.

Although Russell says CDPD was the best choice at the time, Zipcar’s tech staff knew it wasn’t a long-term solution because the technology wasn’t secure. In the early days, Russell recalls, members could have used their cards to open any Zipcar, regardless of whether they reserved the vehicle. The technology wasn’t scalable or reliable, either.

So three years ago, Zipcar upgraded, choosing Cingular Wireless to transmit data between its vehicles and its reservation system. The implementation took a couple of months. Russell says it cost under $1 million for the entire project but doesn’t have exact costs available.

Zipcar still relies on RFID technology, used with a Zipcard and a reader on each vehicle’s windshield. Each vehicle now has a small embedded system, developed in-house and mounted in a concealed location. The Zipcard is authorized, and information is communicated on a GSM/GPRS data network that ensures Zipcar can administer everything from its headquarters, says Doug Williams, the company’s vice president of engineering.

Zipcar also uses the GPRS network to monitor its cars for security and billing purposes as well as for maintenance checks. Zipcar can remotely monitor miles driven, the time the car was used and engine functionality such as battery voltage and fuel level. The network can even alert headquarters if a member forgot to turn off the headlights, data that in the end reduces maintenance costs and helps guarantee a good experience for customers.

Russell and Williams say they chose Motorola G20 and newer G24 modules for modems in part because the hardware operates in a very low-power mode and therefore doesn’t drain the cars’ batteries. They chose Cingular Wireless for reliability and scalability.

Williams credits the IT team for tying all the innovations together. “It was really enthusiastic people who are into the mission of the company who accomplished this,” he says.

Russell and Williams say the company continues to develop its technology, using it to improve the customer experience. “The business really focuses on the members,” Russell says, “and that more than anything drives the IT decisions we make.”


Tooling around town

Nicole Francis has been a Zipcar member for the past year. As owner of Hudson Franklin Gallery in New York, she uses cars reserved through the company to ferry art around the city, pick up champagne for art openings and travel during long weekends.

Francis says the Zipcar service is cheaper than owning, and it’s easier than using a traditional car rental company. But despite her frequent car reservations, Francis can’t talk in any detail about the technology she uses to make the whole process work.

And that, she says, is a wonderful compliment.

“It’s just super simple. It takes about a minute to make reservations. When I get the car, I swipe my card in front of it, the car unlocks, we take off. To return it, you make sure you’ve got everything out, swipe your card in front of the sensor, and you’re done,” she says.

The most challenging part of the whole process is getting the cars out of the garages where they’re parked. “That’s because of the humans; it’s never the technology,” she says.

Such experiences are testaments to Zipcar’s IT innovations, says Matthew Malloy, the company’s vice president of marketing and sales operations.

“The best technology,” he says, “is when people don’t know they’re using it.”

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