Zipping Along with the Zeitgeist

Transportation innovator Robin Chase knows that people won’t share cars just because it’s good for the environment. It also has to be cool and make economic sense. And in an increasingly collaborative economy, sharing resources is not only hip and green, it’s financially smart as well.

Chase is the founder of several revolutionary car-sharing businesses that capitalized on Internet and wireless capabilities as they were emerging. In 2000, she founded Zipcar, the world’s largest car sharing and car club service, with the idea that wireless technologies could keep track of what a car does, where it goes, and how much gas it needs. Members could arrange for car use by logging in to customized web pages, and they could ask questions through designated ListServs—ideas that were completely novel a decade ago.

Since then, Chase has founded GoLoco, an online ridesharing community, and more recently, Buzzcar, a service that helps car owners share their own vehicles.

But it started with Zipcar, which Chase says was born into the perfect zeitgeist. Wireless technology was rapidly developing and the company was able to find venture capitalists to invest in it. But they also had a few game-changing ideas that required a little convincing. “We had to persuade telecommunications companies that there was this new thing, a data plan” she explains. “Zipcar was the first to suggest using cell phone wireless for something other than cell phones.”

None of this would have happened, she says, without access to the Internet.

Online carsharing works simply. Members reserve specific cars from Zipcar locations that are throughout the city, hold a plastic card in front of a box on the windshield, the door locks pop up and the ignition is enabled. The tank is filled with gas and the insurance is covered. All business is self-service using the Internet (or a smartphone), which is what distinguishes Zipcar from a traditional rental car service.

Technology lies at the core of car sharing philosophy. It builds a virtual community of like-minded individuals. These are people who are less concerned about the status of owning a car than about having the use of one for convenience. They don’t see the point in paying the often-exorbitant expenses of car ownership when they can simply pay for what they use. They like the idea of getting thousands of cars off the road: it utilizes excess capacity and protects the environment. And, this virtual community likes to share.

“The social aspect of Zipcar was a natural thing,” Chase says. “I wanted people to remember that when they got out of the car, a neighbor would be the next one in the car. If they find change in the cup holder, I want them to think about the person who left it there.”

The original Zipcar pitch was that renting a car was as easy as getting cash from an ATM. But now Robin has realized that it’s more than that. Zipcar is so convenient that it feels like car ownership. “It took years for me to realize that’s what we had done,” Chase says. “Zipcar is not a car rental company—it’s competing with car ownership.”

Chase says she would never devote herself to a business venture that didn’t have some positive social side. But she admits that the potential for community building and environmental protection are not strong enough incentives to get people to share cars. “Economics drives change more than cultural things,” she says.

And now the economy itself is shifting steadily toward collaboration, where partnerships between individuals and companies leverage the best of what everyone has to offer. Robin calls this partnership “Peers Incorporated” rather than peer-to-peer. Each side executing what it does best, and sharing the value created.

Robin’s current endeavor in France, Buzzcar, brings together owners who want to rent out their cars when they are not using them with drivers who do. Individual car owners supply a diverse fleet, leveraging the excess capacity of their own vehicles. Buzzcar, the company, provides the technology, insurance, and contractual details to make the transactions simple, fast, and safe.

Chase points out the strength of this new Peers Incorporated economy: “People are empowered not just with the Internet, but also with the power of the corporation.”

It’s the zeitgeist of the times. And Chase lives it every time she takes her neighbor’s car for a spin.