iPhone Lets You Reserve, Find, and Open a Car

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Need a ride? iPhone has an App for that.
Need a ride? iPhone has an App for that.

Like peanut butter and chocolate, Batman and Robin, or babies and puppies, some things are just more powerful when combined. So it is with the iPhone and Zipcar. For those of you who don’t live in a major US metropolitan area, Zipcar is a car sharing company that allows users to locate, drive, and return a car without a traditional rental facility. iPhones, of course, are all powerful hand held devices that can do practically anything if you write a software application for them. Now, those Zipcar members that have an iPhone can use it to make a reservation, find their car, honk its horn, and even open its doors. It’s a cool upgrade for an already cool system. Check out USA Today’s video with Luke Schneider, CTO of Zipcar, after the break.

Car sharing is an eco-friendly, traffic cutting, and democratic approach to transportation, and Zipcar is the US leader in the field. For around $7 per hour, you can pick up a car in your neighborhood knowing that all your gas, parking, and insurance will be paid for. The inclusion of an iPhone App is taking this great idea and propelling it into the 21st century. You now have a mobile connection to a semi-public resource. Smart phones are becoming a type of ‘single key access’ to all your living necessities. Instead of a ring of keys, a wallet of credit cards, or a host of user IDs and passwords, you may one day only need to carry around your phone. It’s just another way in which smart phones, and the iPhone in particular, are demonstrating their power as digital tool kits for the 21st century.


Typical access to a Zipcar involves making a reservation by telephone or online portal. You get a time and a location to find your car and you’re off. Keys are left in the car, members use a plastic card for entry. The iPhone App helps you make the reservation, and adds the ability to honk the horn of the car to help you locate it, and to open the doors of the vehicle. For a member on the go, using the iPhone App will provide unparalleled rapid access.

The App is free to Zipcar members, of whom about 30% also use an iPhone. Integrating a smart phone application into the Zipcar fleet was relatively easy because the cars were connected wirelessly anyway. Each Zipcar contains the M200, a black box type device that controls membership card access to each vehicle. The M200 is what allows members to leave keys in the car. Of course, combining two technologies does allow for twice as many chances for things to go wrong. If you lose or damage your iPhone while renting a Zipcar, chances are that the M200 won’t let you start the vehicle. However, Zipcar says that a quick call is all it takes to fix that problem should it occur.

A new company formed from students of Singularity University are trying to out zip the Zipcar. Gettaround Car Sharing will not only work on the demand side, providing cars to those who need it, they will also help people make money by renting out their cars (~$1000/month). The project is in beta, and you can sign up on their website. What’s more, Gettaround already has its own iPhone App (no idea which company got there first) which is as good if not better than Zipcar’s. Check out the navigation arrows (1:17) and the lights-on feature (1:35) in the video below.

It’s a pretty standard science fiction conceit that in the future there will be tiny hand held devices that allow you to do just about anything. The iPhone is just a credit card and laser gun away from bringing that conceit to life. The diversity of applications, and the work of third party developers have transformed smart phones from gadget novelties to incredible digital toolkits. It will be interesting to see how future-minded technologies, like Zipcar’s car sharing, will shape and be shaped by the new smart phone paradigm. My guess is that we will see many more examples of technological dynamic duos in the days ahead.

[photo credit: Zipcar]