A ticket to ride

RFID cards let drivers share a 2,000-vehicle pool of cars

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 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, agrees. "What makes Zipcar special is its RFID driver authentication and its wireless vehicle-data monitoring," he says. "What Zipcar put together is unique."

ORGANISATION: Cambridge, Massachusetts-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.

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.

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