Car-sharing company Zipcar is roaring ahead of the pack when it comes to technology, writing its own proprietary software and utilizing RFID technology to make the user experience as hassle-free as possible.

Zipcar president Scott Griffith, in Toronto this week to speak at the Idea City conference, spoke to IT.Business.ca about Zipcar’s tech-savvy business model, which, he said, is not about being on the cutting edge, but about providing top-notch customer service. Said Griffith: “Our goal is to make the user experience when they make a reservation or use our cars easy — we just use whatever technology we need to keep it as simple as possible, and that’s Internet and wireless technology.”

The Cambridge, Mass.-based company has been renting vehicles to people for the past seven years, and has amassed 100,000 users. Take-up by business users has also been very strong, he said, due to the cost savings and easy access.

The first key to a seamless user experience is a fuss-free Web site. Zipcar’s Web site used to have several annoying features, like a cumbersome grid that made it difficult to figure out what car was free when, and difficulty with going back and changing things in a query, said Griffith. After an intensive survey process, Zipcar set to work on creating some proprietary software — called Z3D Knowledge Center — that would make the Web experience much simpler and faster.

Proprietary software seemed like the best way to go, said Griffith. “You’re actually reserving a specific car to use, so when you’re managing assets on that level in real-time and needing to see what’s available back-and-forth and show that in a graphical interface, you need your our own program,” he said.

Zipcar’s information is housed in an Oracle database. The company wanted something that would make it easier for users to access the database in real time and adjust their query if need be. “It used to be a grid that had much more hunting and pecking for the right car. Now we have a much smarter system that takes the user much deeper into the database, caching the information, such as the timeframe and location, so that it can return a series of options,” said Griffith.

This patent-pending software, which uses Ajax, allows the customer to change their query, and also provides both a visual mapping and a text-based option for viewing the various car choices. The team also managed to bring the important trip cost estimator feature onto the reservations page, ensuring that users didn’t need to click a separate link to get there. “They’re not waiting for the information to come back to them,” said vice-president of engineering, Doug Williams. “We want to operate (the information) locally and as close to the user as possible.”

This new solution has eased the company’s data centre operations, too: Griffith said that the new set-up has streamlined data flow and is much more scaleable. “We could go up to 1,000,000 users just by adding some servers. The architecture is plug-and-play now,” according to Griffith.

Zipcars are located in a variety of lots in many different cities, a situation that was well-suited to a fast-emerging technology: RFID. While some rental car companies are catching on, Zipcar is a long-time advocate of the product. Each user’s Zipcard is unique to the user and will activate a Zipcar’s “lock” (an RFID reader) only if they have reserved that specific car for that specific time.

According to Williams, the vehicle connects to Zipcar’s Web servers over the GSM network using the GPRS standard, while telematics about the vehicle itself come courtesy of the vehicle’s OBD2 system, which keeps track of mileage, fuel levels, and battery life. While most checks into the car’s information system are performed at the beginning and end of the reservation, according to Griffith, the car will self-report certain incidents, and can be checked in with at any time.

This whole set-up is transparent to users, Griffith said, making for a smooth ride—and a popular one. As a result of becoming Zipcar customers, people have removed 40,000 cars from the road, according to Griffith.

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