Signing up for a Zipcar membership usually means waiting as long as a week for a card to arrive by mail before you can hop in one of the company’s vehicles and hit the road.
But not anymore. Zipcar is rolling out a new registration system, one that can be done entirely on your smartphone. New members can now access a car within minutes after joining, instead of days. The instant registration software is being tested in the Boston area, with a goal of a national rollout in June.
This new service could play a key role in keeping membership on a steady upward trajectory as the Avis Budget Group-owned business slows its expansion into new territories and instead looks for more ways to add customers within the cities and towns that the car-sharing company already serves.
Boston-based Zipcar’s business model is well known by now: Members avoid the hassles of owning a car by using a Zipcar-owned vehicle that’s shared with other Zipcar customers and usually parked in a specific space. The application process requires approval of a valid driver’s license and the mailing of a “Zipcard” used to unlock the vehicles.
“Today, the model is, if you sign up for Zipcar, on your smartphone or your desktop, you get approved and we mail you a Zipcard, that takes you about seven days,” said Kaye Ceille, the company’s president. “That’s pretty archaic, right? So what we know and what we’ve validated is that oftentimes, when people start the sign up process for Zipcar, they have a need [for a car] right then.”
The new system still requires a few steps. A new member needs to submit a driver’s license, scanned via a smartphone, and take and submit a selfie. The company then uses facial recognition software to quickly match the photo to the one on the license. Once approved, the new member can use an app on the phone to unlock the car.
Ceille said Zipcar will use the service to launch partnerships with hotels and other hospitality companies to make cars available to travelers who want to take a day trip on a whim. That opens up a new market for Zipcar, which is already testing the concept with a hotel company.
The company has added roughly 150 cities and towns to its footprint in the two years since Ceille joined as the president, bringing the total to more than 500. But Ceille said that growth will slow down in the next two years. That rapid expansion, in part, has fueled membership growth, from 850,000-plus at the end of 2013 to more than 950,000 at the end of 2015.
Ceille previously worked for Avis in London before coming to Zipcar after Avis acquired the Boston company for nearly $500 million in 2013. Its local employment levels have remained relatively steady, she said, since the acquisition, at about 250 workers. Some back-office jobs were eliminated at the Zipcar headquarters in Fort Point, but those were offset by additional engineering and other high-tech positions.
Because Boston is Zipcar’s hometown, the city often serves as a place for the company to test its concepts. Another idea that Zipcar is rolling out nationwide and debuted here first is a “one way” service that allows users to drop off a car in a variety of available parking spots, instead of making a round trip with the car to one designated location. In September, the company said it would expand the tests of “one way” service to Denver, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. Earlier this month, Zipcar formally launched the service in Los Angeles with 150 one-way cars there. Ceille said other cities will be added soon.
“The success in Boston has given us the wherewithal to say, ‘How fast can we roll it out?,’ ” Ceille said.