Using Data to Change the Way We Rent Cars

Zipcar has established a foothold in the rental car industry by pinpointing when and where people need cars.

New technology is great, unless a company happens to be in an industry that the technology seeks to displace. Then, you either follow suit or run the risk of being tomorrow’s horse and buggy, record store or VHS player.

Such is the case with the rental car industry in the aftermath of commercial car-sharing, represented most prominently by Zipcar, which offers an entirely new way of renting an automobile to get about. Rental car companies initially shrugged off the pipsqueak competitor, until reality set in — for good business reasons.

Phil Shelley, president of Newton Park Partners, says Zipcar is the latest iteration of technology similar to that first used by OnStar, just in a different commercial context.

Phil Shelley, president of Newton Park Partners, says Zipcar is the latest iteration of technology similar to that first used by OnStar, just in a different commercial context.

With Zipcar, a would-be driver downloads the company’s mobile app and taps on the screen to learn where the nearest Zipcar is located, usually just a few blocks away in a big city. The driver books the car online for a couple hours or the whole day, walks to where it is parked, and holds the points the Zipcard app at the windshield. The doors magically unlock and the motorist is off and rolling — gas and insurance included. “It’s a smarter way to get around the city,” the company advertises. “Touch down. Zip off.”

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