Zipcar, the company that introduced the car sharing concept to U.S. consumers in 2000, this week launched a new application, or “app” designed for Apple iPhone owners. The new application allows members (“zipsters” as the growing community refers to themselves) to book reservations, locate the nearest Zipcar using embedded, interactive maps and even lock and unlock the vehicles from their iPhone touch-screens.
Luke Schneider, Zipcar’s CTO says, “The iPhone is a pipeline for almost one-third of our members. This is something they have been asking for.”
Although a number of mobile phone applications have been developed for autos in the last couple of years, the majority are used for navigation purposes or to quickly summon roadside assistance. Zipcar’s new iPhone app is the first dedicated application that allows the user to control operations of a vehicle.
Center for Auto Research chairman, David Cole, calls the innovation a true “breakthrough”.
Cole says, “Once you have this kind of electronic ability in a cell phone, there’s no end to the type of technology you could bring to cars.”
Since merging in rival car share company, Flexcar, in 2007, Zipcar has become the world’s largest car sharing company with an estimated 275,000 “zipsters” sharing some 6,000 vehicles in 49 U.S. cities as well as Vancouver and Toronto, Canada and London.
Zipcar operates primarily in large, congested urban areas and near large university campuses. Membership is a nominal $50 annual fee and vehicles rent for approximately $7 per hour which includes fuel and insurance.
Members may reserve vehicles by calling a reservation desk or online through the company’s Website. With the introduction of the iPhone app, members have an easy-to-use, dedicated third choice. All aspects of the reservation process can be completed using the application and members are provided with maps of the nearest available Zipcar upon completion.
When they arrive at the Zipcar lot, members can locate their vehicles by using their iPhones to honk a virtual horn displayed on the device’s touch-screen. The virtual horn, in turn, triggers the real horn on the reserved vehicle.
Once the vehicle has been located, the member swipes their membership card over the auto’s dash to gain access to the keys which were left in a designated location within the vehicle by the last driver. Zipcar has engineered their vehicles to require the card-swipe authorization in order to activate the vehicle’s ignition. Once authorization is granted, the member can use their iPhone to unlock the vehicle.
Among the available Zipcar vehicles is the popular MINI. Jim McDowell, vice president of parent company BMS’s MINI division says, “When you look at the app, it looks just like a car key. To give you the ability to get into a car with one touch on an iPhone is really cool.”
Zipcar’s CTO, Luke Schneider, says the company used basic, readily available cellular technology in designing the new app. He says, “The app uses the same wireless network that keeps the Zipcar fleet connected.”
Each Zipcar is equipped with a hidden, onboard, computerized controller dubbed the Zipcar M200. Schneider calls the little black boxes “the brains” and says that they process the card-swipe authorization process and prevent unauthorized use, even with the use of the vehicle’s key.
Keyless entry and ignition technologies have been on the market, primarily in luxury class vehicles, for a number of years. The MINI, for example, offers remote locking, unlocking and engine starting via a radio signal transmitted from a pre-programmed key fob. McDowell says the new app is comparable to “thousands of people sharing a key, via the iPhone.”
The app was first demonstrated this past June during an Apple software developers meeting and is now available as a free download from Apple’s iTunes Store.