zipcar_logoThe driving dilemma for so many young Bostonians is simple. We love to drive, but we don’t have a car. And considering how much I love singing Taylor Swift at the top of my lungs when I’m driving in a car “" even when I forget that I have the windows down “" this is a sad plight indeed.

But no matter how much I try to justify it to myself, I just don’t have that much of a reason to personally have a car. I ride my bike around town eight months out of the year and curse the MBTA’s existence the other four. Cambridge, the place I call home, is replete with bike lines on practically every major thoroughfare, and Boston is certainly attempting to get there too. And when all else fails, I’m always up for a lovely stroll through town. It’s Boston, after all!

But there are times when it’s clear that I need a car. Like for my frequent trips to Ikea. Or like every eight or so weeks when I go on a massive grocery shopping binge because I hate walking back and forth between the grocery store, even though its only ten minutes away form my house. Or like every eight weeks when I do the laundry because I hate doing laundry with every fiber of my being.

Luckily for those times, there’s Zipcar. If you’ve been living underneath a rock, I’ll “" pardon the pun “" zip Zipcar up for you. The Cambridge based and founded company allows licensed drivers aged 21 and over to rent a wide variety of cars parked all over the city by the hour or by the day.

zipcar_bostonIf you’re feeling eco-conscious, grab Prius Pete “" every Zipcar has an adorable, alliterative name “" from the Genzyme Garage in Kendall Square for $7 per hour. If you’re feeling flashier, grab Baker the BMW 328 for $13 per hour from the Boston Common garage.

To become a Zipcar member, users pay a $50 annual fee to join. For those who only grab a car every now and then, they pay the hourly or day-rate for whichever vehicle they want. For those who drive more often, users can make a minimum monthly commitment, and cash in on discounted rates. Every reservation includes 180 miles of driving, a gas card to fill the car up “" and make sure to use it any time the vehicle falls beneath a quarter tank! “" insurance to cover your indiscretions, and a parking pass if the Zipcar lives in a non-free lot.

Users make a reservation, tap their RFID-tagged Zipcard on the windshield to unlock the vehicle, which already has the key inside the ignition. They then zip around town, and then lock it up when finished by tapping their Zipcard on the windshield again.

Car sharing is as simple as the name sounds. The cars are meant to be parked near where users will need them. Because everyone pays a membership fee, they all in a way jointly own and share the vehicles. Everyone is expected to fill the gas when it gets low, keep the car relatively clean, and keep it from being damaged. Zipcar will even reimburse users that pay for a carwash. Another big part of car sharing is making sure the vehicle is where it’s supposed to be. When Zipcar says your reservation is over at 6:00 PM, they mean 6:00 PM, sharp. If you haven’t locked your car up by then, you’ll get a late fee. Get enough late fees, and Zipcar will suspend you from driving.

Obviously, I don’t want to turn you off from Zipcar. You have to really piss someone off to actually get your account suspended, and because it’s a car sharing program after all, users are usually rather fanatic and therefore largely respectful of the rules. Overall, Zipcar is simple, effective, and much better than having a car and insurance payment every month “" plus, for me at least, it’s the closest I’ll ever get to driving a Beamer before I can ever afford one of my own.

zipcar_carlogoWhile Zipcar got its start in Cambridge back in 2000, it has since spread to 49 cities across the world. Zipcar was founded by residents Robin Chase and Antje Danielson who based the company on car-sharing programs similar to those in Europe. By the end of 2002, the company had 6,000 users in Boston, D.C., and New York.

Zipcar got its start by stocking different neighborhoods with different cars, giving each area it’s own identity. In Cambridge, home to the recycling, biking, hippie granola crunchy type, the company filled the neighborhood with gas-sipping Priuses. In the Back Bay, Zipsters were more likely to want a showier convertible Mini-Cooper for weekend trips to the Cape.

Now in 2009, Zipcar has merged with former rival Flexcar, and now commands a fleet of 6,000 vehicles for 675,000 users in places as far as Ann Arbor, Mich., Tuscaloosa, Alab., and even across the pond in London. In fact, in one of the tougher economic times we’ve seen, Zipcar is preparing itself to go public, and is launching an IPO in 2010. The company is constantly adding cars to its fleet and expanding its user base. With the influx of cash from an IPO, Zipcar really will be going places.

What makes Zipcar so special is its amazing blend of cute personality, sharp business prowess, and of course, cutting edge technology. The technology starts when you try to start the car. Sitting in the upper right corner of every Zipcar is a little black box. When you tap your Zipcard on the windshield above it, the system sends out a signal to Zipcar HQ over EVDO “" yes, that ancient data technology your old cell phone used to run “" that matches your card to a reservation to a specific Zipcar. When everything aligns correctly, the black box unlocks the car door, the black box releases the kill switch on the engine, and you get in and drive off.

zipcar_cardtargetThe black box is also hooked into the on-board diagnostics system, or OBD. When my Zipcar wouldn’t start on a particularly cold January night, I called Zipcar, and the helpful man on the phone could already tell me that I had killed the car battery by leaving my headlights during my quick trip into Trader Joe’s. If you somehow lock your Zipcard inside the vehicle, a quick phone call to Zipcar customer service can unlock it. Likewise, the black box has a simple GPS system so that the vehicles can be located should they wander off and get lost. The same kill switch that keeps the car from being stolen can also kill the car should it somehow manage to drive off.

However, the newest technology debuted at the tail-end of September is, of course, Zipcar’s new iPhone app. Up to now, users have had to make reservations though the Zipcar website, the mobile website, or over the phone. Both of the websites are robust, AJAXy, and a breeze to use. The phone however, well, lets just say it’s not Zipcar’s fault if you’re using a technology from the 19th century.

But now with the magic of the Zipcar iPhone app, users can locate themselves on a map of all of Zipcar’s offerings, make a reservation, and even unlock the car from inside the application. When I did just that with my iPhone app, I almost cried from the sheer amazingness of what I’d just done. It also made me feel amazingly futuristic, despite the fact that we’re all supposed to have personal jetpacks in the future. And OK, fine, people have been able to remotely unlock cars since OnStar in the 90s, but that still required calling someone who was sitting at a computer somewhere in Arizona. Now, I can do it from my touch screen god-phone.

zipcar_ss_1 zipcar_ss_2 zipcar_ss_3 zipcar_ss_4

Using the rest of the app was just as easy as you would expect Zipcar to make it. Making my reservation was a breeze. The app grayed out all Zipcar lots that didn’t have a car that matched my time reservation. If you needed the exact location of a Zipcar lot, the app would send the exact coordinates to your Maps application which would then direct you to the lot. While my reservation as open, I could extend the time I needed the car from inside the app as well.

Zipcar polled its users and found that 25% of them had an iPhone, hence releasing their first app on Apple’s platform. Everyone else without an iPhone can still use the mobile website to make reservations. Also, once you’ve given Zipcar your cell phone number, they’ll send you text message reminders about your reservations. You can then extend your reservation just by texting Zipcar back. “Ext30m” will get you an extra half-hour to get back while “End today 4pm” will do just what it says.

zipcar_wallreflectionZipcar has always been a company to embrace technology, and now every car in their fleet now comes equipped with an auxillary cord to plug into your iPod or mp3 player of choice, so you can jam out to Taylor Swift, or any other embarrassing musical offering you might enjoy. Every car has a toll-tag that auto-magically bills your Zipcar account for the tolls.

Another thing that’s hard to ignore about Zipcar is that the company is rather green”"and we’re talking about more than its logo. Like I said before, I only drive a Zipcar when I really need one. But if I had a car of my own, I’d probably take a lot more places. That means I’m driving more, burning more gas, and doing my part to warm the earth with more carbon dioxide. When you factor in people who just use Zipcar instead of owning a car, that’s a lot fewer miles being driven out there.

Zipcar recognizes this, and discounts the Priuses in its fleet more than the other vehicles. Zipcar even ran a “low-car diet challenge” which in return for media coverage, encourage drivers to hang up their keys for a month and ride public transit or use a Zipcar when absolutely necessary. While the miles saved from these twelve users is merely a minuscule blip in the amount of carbon spewed into the atmosphere by the millions of drivers in the U.S. every day, the ideas are still a good one. It’s also a counter intuitive notion, considering that Zipcar essentially makes its money when people drive, but it’s just the good-nature of the company. When was the last time you saw gas companies encouraging eco-consciousness?

zipcar_downtownbostonZipcar is here for good it seems, and that’s something that I, and thousands of other users certainly embrace. While Zipcar advertises through print frequently, a lot of Zipcar’s brand strength comes through word of mouth. Zipcar user Matthew Lasek shared just such a story. “About two weeks ago I rented a Volvo and zipped to the hardware store to fill up on more paint, brushes and cleaner to remove all the paint I would inevitably spill. While locking the car a 65 year-old woman asked ‘So how does Zipcar work?'” Lasek then explained the entire membership and rental rental process to the questioning woman, Brookline resident Lauren Smith, who lamented how expensive it is to rent a cart through a traditional car service and how she hated asking her daughter to drive her on her errands.

When asked to sum up the Zipcar experience, Lasek put it like this: “I think this is what Zip Car is: freedom. This strong and able senior wanted to have the freedom to do something as simple as go to Johnny’s Fresh Market; while my exploits in Zipcars to the beach or Six Flags are a little more adventurous, the fact remains that Zipcar lets us do things that our own two legs can’t, or what our wallets would prohibit.”

Images courtesy Zipcar, the author, and Flickr users Andrew Currie, rakka, reinvented, and scoobyfoo.

About The Author

Michael Kaufmann, lover of all things science and gadget, is a contributing editor at Blast. He can be reached at [email protected].

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