An iPhone gets Zipcar drivers on their way


Zipcar App

The iPhone can do many things. Now it can even lock and unlock a car and start the engine.

Cambridge, Mass.-based car-sharing service Zipcar this week launched an app that lets you locate and reserve one of its vehicles, unlock it using the iPhone’s touch-screen and drive it off the lot.

“The iPhone is a pipeline for almost one-third of our members,” says Luke Schneider, Zipcar’s chief technology officer. “This is something they have been asking for.”

While there are many iPhone apps for autos, most are focused on directions, traffic, roadside assistance and games. Zipcar’s app is the first to control the operation of a car, which is why David Cole, chairman of the Ann Arbor, Mich.- based Center for Auto Research, calls it a “breakthrough.”

“Once you have this kind of electronic ability in a cellphone, there’s no end to the type of technology you could bring to cars,” he says.

How it works

Zipcar operates mostly in big urban areas, in 13 major cities and 120 university campuses. Members pay a $50 annual fee plus around $7 an hour to rent a car for a few hours, including gas and insurance.

To reserve a car, Zipcar offers telephone or Web-based tools. Now, a reservation can also begin from the iPhone. The transaction is completed with a map and directions to the nearest Zipcar parking lot.

Once there, Zipcar members find their car by using the iPhone to honk a virtual horn, which in turns triggers the real horn on the reserved Zipcar.

Next: Swipe the membership card over the dash to get access to the car keys, which are left in the car but are powerless without the authorization.

Once the member card has been swiped, Zipcar members can use the virtual iPhone to unlock the car doors and drive away for the duration of their trip.

“When you look at the app, it looks just like a car key,” says Jim McDowell, vice president of BMW’s Mini division, whose vehicles are used by Zipcar. “To give you the ability to get into a car with one touch on an iPhone is really cool.”

Schneider made this work with basic cellular technology.

“The app uses the same wireless network that keeps the Zipcar fleet connected,” he says.

A little black box Schneider calls the Zipcar M200 — the “brains” of the car — sits in all vehicles in a hidden location, controlling the use of the car. It prevents, for instance, the driving of the car — even with the keys — if a windshield is smashed by thieves.