Using Flexcar

I just completed my first test of Flexcar, and I thought I’d write it up for fellow geeks. It’s a nice example of a business model that relies upon satellite data, cellular communications, and RFID technology.
At about 1 o’clock this afternoon, I decided that I ought to go out to do some shopping before Chris comes to visit. I logged in to the Flexcar website, picked my location, and saw that there was a car available all afternoon in the Uwajimaya parking lot. I selected a two hour reservation slot beginning at 2pm, and up came my reservation page:
flexcar reservation page
(I’ve obliterated the sensitive bits.)
At 2:01pm I arrived at the car, an anonymous-looking grey Honda Accord with a “Flexcar” decal on the trunk. Below the windscreen on the driver’s side was a small box with three LEDs; the red LED was illuminated. I held my membership card over the box, the amber LED blinked a few times, and then the green LED came on and the car was unlocked. I got in, retrieved the car key from a holder in the glove compartment, started up and drove off.
The car was fairly clean, though a bit dusty, and the tank was full. It handled like a typical rental car, although there was more tyre noise than I was used to. In any case, traffic was light, and I reached the Whole Foods at Roosevelt Square in about 10 minutes. While I was shopping, I used the regular car key to lock and unlock the car, not the RFID card. I got my groceries, then explored the neighbourhood for a few minutes, but I didn’t want to dawdle. I realized that I’d need to get back to Uwajimaya and unload the car before 4pm.
The only problem arose when I reached Uwajimaya around 3:40pm and found another car – a humongous SUV – illegally parked in the Flexcar space. I parked in a nearby spot, then unloaded the car, and talked to the parking attendant. She arranged for the offending driver to be paged, and eventually the (presumably illiterate) bimbo owner of the SUV emerged from the store and drove off in a huff. (In the 30 seconds that it took me to start the Flexcar and drive over to the reserved space, another clueless SUV driver tried to park there, but the parking attendant told him off.) And finally I checked to make sure I had all my stuff, got out, and held my RFID card over the sensor to lock the car. By the time I got back to the apartment, the reservation history was up to date on the website.
I expect that I’ll always want to leave a margin of at least 15 minutes to allow for parking and unloading, so that realistically a 2 hour reservation is about the shortest I’ll use. That’s OK for running errands, but before I decide whether this can replace my own car, I need to try at least one extended reservation, so that I can check out refuelling and other features. The plan I signed up for includes a bundled 10 hours a month, so I need to “use it or lose it”.
The bottom line is that the system just worked. I’m a fan.
UPDATE: I mentioned satellite data communications and RFID, but not cellular; let me complete the story. There are a bunch of failure modes in this kind of system, some partial (e.g. “vehicle is not in correct location, what’s the correct – nearby – location?”), some more serious (“I’ve had an accident, and the car won’t be available for the next user”). Managing these failures in real-time is only feasible if all of the users have cellphones