Zipcar was ready to move past car ownership long before it was cool. Among the players rethinking transit, Zipcar is a grizzled veteran. Uber and Lyft were born and have grown up alongside talk of a tech bubble. Zipcar — founded in 1999 — has war stories from living through the original dot-com bubble.
While all that experience makes for a long résumé, the company finds itself just as vulnerable as car rental companies, automakers and taxi services to the looming turbulence of self-driving technology. There are no guarantees that the incumbents today will be dominant whenever fully autonomous vehicles arrive.
Zipcar president Kaye Ceille acknowledges big changes are coming. Like many observers, she expects autonomous vehicles to make car ownership less appealing. For Ceille, this opens an even bigger opportunity for Zipcar.
“We see a world in which we’re managing the logistics of it, doing the distributed fleet, managing the member journey, etc,” said Ceille, whose company isn’t developing software to drive autonomous vehicles or making its own vehicles.
Ceille pointed to Zipcar’s relationship with city governments and automakers as an asset moving forward in autonomous driving. She declined to comment on whether Zipcar has had any conversations with tech companies entering the space, such as Google, whose executives have discussed the possibility of partnerships to offer their self-driving technology as a service.
Automakers such as Ford and GM have broadened their goals, and now talk about being mobility companies. Both are testing car-sharing services and are creeping onto Zipcar’s turf.
“It feels like the [automakers] are using this as somewhat of a test bed,” said Ceille, who doesn’t see them as a potential threat. She points to Zipcar’s presence in more than 500 cities and its 950,000 members. A Zipcar is reserved every six seconds.
Zipcar broadened its offerings last year with a one-way trip service in Boston. Competitor Car2go, which popularized the ability to make one-way trips, also has its eye on autonomous vehicles. Car2go has the advantage of a parent company, Daimler, which a recent report listed as the leader in autonomous driving technology
Zipcar finds itself in a different situation. It sold in January 2013 to the rental car company Avis. There’s clearly a huge market for Zipcar or anyone to grab as autonomous vehicles emerge. But Zipcar is no longer the young start-up, and it will have to innovate inside its 30,000-person parent company.
“Today we’re paying for parking spaces in the core of a city where parking is at its peak,” Ceille said. “If autonomous vehicles were parking outside the core of the city and come in for when they’re needed, that could be a benefit, as well.”
That should translate to offering vehicles at an even lower price. Ceille wouldn’t guarantee such a future, but said that any efficiencies would be passed on to customers.
The types of vehicles Zipcar offers might change, too.
“When autonomous comes I don’t know if we’ll have 10 [models], I don’t know if we’ll have 40. That’s yet to be seen,” Ceille said. “What we do know is ensuring we have the right number of vehicles and the right types of vehicles for all sorts of trips our members want to take.”