Zipcar taps Google Maps to make reserving cars easier

New reservation system helps support company’s expansion.

Car-sharing service Zipcar is using AJAX technologies to enhance its online reservation system, which now lets customers search for vehicles available near their homes via a mashup with Google Maps.

Car-sharing service Zipcar is using Asynchronous JavaScript + XML technologies to enhance its online reservation system, which now lets customers search for vehicles available near their homes via a mashup with Google Maps.

The new reservation system, which makes reserving a car two to five times faster, is supported by a system that collects and synchronizes data -- in real time -- from the Web site, interactive telephone systems, member service agents and Zipcar vehicles outfitted with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags.

The half-million dollar upgrades to the Web site and data network are helping support Zipcar’s expansion into new markets, such as London.

Zipcar’s new AJAX-enabled online reservation system lets users view the locations of available cars in Google Maps and reserve cars within the map screen.

“The goal, really, was to move everything forward an order of magnitude,” says Doug Williams, vice president of engineering at Zipcar, a Cambridge, Mass., company with a fleet of 2,500 vehicles serving 85,000 members. “The present systems had supported our ability to grow into 13 cities. … But now we’re getting to the point where we’re approaching 1,000 cars in New York, and over 600 cars just in the Boston area.”

AJAX, refers to a set of scripting components that are used to build Web functions which mimic the responsiveness of desktop applications. Browsers can run AJAX programs locally and refresh content incrementally, rather than reload entire Web pages.

Zipcar stations cars throughout the neighborhoods of major metropolitan areas, and charges members by the hour or day for use of the vehicles. Zipcar itself pays for parking, gasoline and insurance.

Before the reservation system upgrades went live over the past two weeks, users had to reload pages frequently and could view images of only a few cars at a time, Williams says. Showing pictures of about 15 cars on one page, as the site does now, would have slowed service down, he says.

Before the upgrades, users typically searched through 10 or 12 pages before reserving a car, whereas now they should be able to everything in three pages, he says.

In addition, users now can view a map of the area they live in and see icons showing where there are available cars. When a user clicks on a map location, a bubble will pop up showing which cars are available there, and the user can reserve one of the cars simply by clicking within the bubble.

Another upgrade allows users to adjust the time they want to reserve a car and see the cost update immediately. Previously, the time adjustor and cost estimator were on separate pages, according to Williams.

“We changed everything from a Web page approach to every element is updated asynchronously. That was a major change,” Williams says.

Zipcar says it is using a patent-pending caching system that pushes data out to end points efficiently. This helps the company monitor its fleet and plan future changes to the number of cars and locations.

Zipcar’s customer base includes some businesses, including Margulies & Associates, an architecture and interior design firm in Boston with 50 employees, many of whom rent Zipcar vehicles to go to project sites.

Phil Hammond, director of marketing and business development at Margulies, says Zipcar’s new online reservation system makes it easier to view pictures of cars and find vehicle locations. The system also makes it easier to change reservation details without having to go back to previously viewed pages, he says.

“I made a reservation last week for this Friday and it seemed to work very well,” he says. “Generally, it’s a little easier on the eyes, let’s put it that way.”

Few large online retailers are using advanced AJAX techniques, according to a recent study by Brulant, an Ohio firm that does marketing and Web site design.

The new Zipcar online reservation system appears to be a good use of technology but would actually be relatively simple to design, Mark Fodor, a partner at Brulant who performed the recent study, said this week. Fodor has previously said Blockbuster, Hollywood Video and Amazon.com are among the leaders in using AJAX to design user-friendly Web sites.

“I like the concept of what [Zipcar is] trying to do,” Fodor says. “It’s an interesting business model. From the technology, it’s not complex at all. It’s a good use of leveraging new technology and presenting it in a different way.”

Zipcar operates in 13 states and provinces in the United States and Canada. The company has expanded rapidly over the past 18 months, launching new outposts in London, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Minneapolis and Ann Arbor, Mich.

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