Friday, December 12, 2008

Carsharing Technology Overview

One of the first questions most start up companies ask is about technology for carsharing. The two major tasks for technology are: reservation system and car computer - for access to the vehicle and trip tracking. 

My position has always been to consider the technology that's appropriate for the size of operation you have in mind and grow into it.  It's not a "given" in my mind that a smaller start up even needs the car computers, but you can't live without automated reservations.

he interlocking pieces of a carsharing system are: 
  • Vehicle reservation/booking
  • Car computer - provides access to the vehicle at reserved time
  • Billing - uses reservation info + car distance
  • Member account management
  • Administrative and reporting
Typically, the reservation, billing and member account management system are part of a package.

Smaller carshares (under 100 vehicles) can do just fine without a car computer - and larger ones, too, as Autoshare, CAN and CommunAuto in Canada have demonstrated - but all use web reservation system. Smaller
carshares all use a web/operator reservation system and simply provide a mechanical lockbox at each location (e.g. Supra). However, implementing car electronics after you've grown to several hundred vehicles can be a major one-time expense, even if the equipment is leased. Retraining members to use the new system is another part of the challenge.

Reservation and Administrative Systems 

Reservation system are all web based. But alternative phone access to extend and cancel reservations is essential especially once a trip is underway.  This may be accomplished by an operator, touch tone phone or IVR "interactive voice recognition" technologies. In most systems the trip info is downloaded via wireless connection to the car computer so that only the member with a reservation can unlock the vehicle at the designated time.  Reservation and management system suppliers include:

Metavera - Toronto company provides reservation and admin services to many of the independent carshares in North America. Their Autovera system includes billing, management and reporting modules. Invers and Convadis car computers can communicate with Autovera system. Metavera also provides optional call center support with trained operators and other "back office" services.

U Reserve It - basic scheduling and management; no interconnection to vehicle system

Eileo - Also offers a free reservation service to individuals and small startup groups; can interface with Eileo Zibox system

Cantamen - European reservation/management system; currently can talk to Convadis and Invers car computers; claims to be "open source".

Carshare Everywhere - low cost service of Cooperative Auto Network, Vancouver, Canada for startups; no vehicle computer connection yet.

Car Computers

Car Computers provide access to the vehicle to the member, record trip time and distance. They may include GPS option for vehicle location, remote door unlocking, immobilizer and cell phone link to the call center for driver emergencies. The wireless connection between the server and car computer may cost $20-$40 per month per vehicle and uses either GPRS or SMS communications protocol via a cell phone carrier. Most systems use a standard RFID car for member identification and vehicle access. 

One of the major benefits of the car computer can be minimizing confusion by not allowing a member to take the wrong car at the wrong time.  Various levels of protection against vehicle theft are possible with most systems. Advanced features are needed to enable members to make and extend a reservation via the car computer and to allow "instant reservation", open-ended (no return time) trips and no fixed location parking options.  The active car computer providers are:

Invers - German company; grand-daddy of carsharing electronics used by Cambio and many carshares in Germany, Singapore and the UK, used by Flexcar (until merger); also offers basic reservation and management modules.

Eileo - French company; used by many French carshares; also Mint (NYC), Connect by Hertz and UK companies; also offers fully featured reservation, billing and management modules

Convadis - Provides car computers for Mobility Switzerland, Barcelona and others; active presence in the US; can talk to Metavera and Cantamen reservation systems.

Opencar - evolution from City Carshare (SF) technology; used by most independent carshares in North America; commonly paired with Metavera for reservation, billing and management software.

An alternative to a car computer is the Key Manager system from Invers which may be a very cost effective solution for multi-vehicle pods. It is widely used by Cambio carsharing in Germany. The vehicle ignition keys for the location are kept in a central lock box which is unlocked by the member using their RFID card.  The member returns the key to the lockbox at the end of the trip. 

One carsharing system I am not directly familiar with (and would welcome any first hand reports about) is Pilotfish, a Swedish fleet management and carsharing system. Zipcar has a proprietary reservation and and car computer system, which has gone through numerous upgrades.

Making a decision about which system or package would be best for the service you're considering involves many factors. Over the next few months I expect to add to this post so if you're interested in the topic please check back or contact me.