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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Vehicle Visionary

Air Date: Week of

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

From hybrids to electric vehicles, there has been a lot of innovation in the car industry lately. But according to Robin Chase, the founder of the car-sharing business, Zipcar, we need to alter our entire driving experience. Chase sat down with host Jeff Young and explained how sustainable transportation has more to do with the ways that we use the car than the type of car that we drive.


YOUNG: Well, some say electric cars won’t come soon enough to meet the challenges of climate change and oil dependency. Robin Chase is one of those critics, and she’s got a track record when it comes to personal transportation. She’s cofounder of the community car-sharing company Zipcar. Robin Chase says it’s time to think outside the box—the box on wheels—and think about us.

CHASE: It’s not just the car we drive; it’s how we drive it, when we drive it, where we drive it and why we choose that car. Almost every single thing we talk about in terms of addressing climate change, our infrastructure fixes, research new technology. If we started that exactly today, it will be at the earliest five years, and more likely ten to 15 years before we start seeing significant effects. Conversely, if we manage to change behavior that takes effect tomorrow.

YOUNG: Now, you ought to know something about this because you founded, co-founded, the company Zipcar. Tell me about what ideas emerged from that that you’re now following up on?

CHASE: What I learned from doing Zipcar, which was incredibly striking, was that 40 percent of the people are able to sell their car or avoid buying a car because of access to these cars. And then once they are members, they drive about 90 percent less than they would if they owned their own car. So, why? Wow, how’d that happen? It’s because when you’re using a Zipcar, or a shared car, you’re paying the full cost of car ownership by the hour, and so the sunk costs of insurance, parking, depreciation, and gas – all those sunk costs are now brought up into this one hour. So, you are faced with a choice: I want to go buy some ice cream, it’s going to cost be ten dollars for an hour. Maybe I’ll have cookies; maybe I’ll buy that ice cream on my way home from work. And what we did is we were able to understand how people drove and bring those data points to the Internet so that we could provide an interesting application that users liked. And it’s this that I’d like to get at today.

YOUNG: So, we’re talking about having the car talk to us more. Is that part of this?

CHASE: Yeah, it is. So you can think about, I mean, normal circumstances would be you’re sitting at home and you had to go pick up your daughter, and I’m thinking, darn is the tank at empty? Or, do I have to go plan to stop at the gas station, or is there enough fuel in that tank? I could go online and tell how much fuel there was in the tank. Or the car could obviously be learning my routine commute, and at quarter of eight in the morning, it could send me a text message saying, Robin, don’t take route two, there’s been an accident – choose another route. But right now, we have no interaction with our car.

YOUNG: Well, we have some. I mean many of us have GPS directional devices, or….

CHASE: Once you’re in the car. And that’s a really striking point. And so if we think about those GPS devices, that is a single purpose, wireless device. Contrast that with an iPhone, which costs around that same ballpark and you can put 78,000 different applications on top of it. I joke that GM’s Onstar, which has the potential to do this capability, is like saying, hey, Robin, here’s a cell phone, it’s great, you can only call your mom.

YOUNG: I see, so instead of being locked into one use for this communication device on the car, you’re talking about a communication device that allows all sorts of different things to be happening there.

CHASE: Exactly, and further, that it’s not just what was in the mind of GM, or what was in the mind of Ford. You know, they’re clever guys, they have a certain number of engineers, and they can come up with a fixed number of clever thoughts. But we have the world of clever guys who can be thinking up even more clever, screwy things.

YOUNG: I think part of what you’re talking about is kind of changing the way we’re viewing ownership altogether. With Zipcar, it was kind of okay, I’m going to share access to a car instead of owning one out right. And in the case of these new products riding along on these vehicles, the automakers have to kind of share the car as a platform for maybe someone else’s software application.

CHASE: They do, and I am suggesting that, but I also think, moving on the issue of sustainability, there is what I think of as a huge amount of excess capacity out there that all of us have stuff and ideas that we don’t use to its full capacity. And if we’re going to move from a planet of 6.7 billion to a planet of nine billion, we’re going to need to maximize the value out of everything we do. And that goes to these single purpose devices and single purpose and single owner devices, which would be a car or the device in the car, to making it something that you pay for the part you use, and then is there some for other people to use.

YOUNG: Give me a few examples of how these applications that you envision on cars might kind of change driver behavior results in a more environmentally friendly driving?

CHASE: Well, so, the prime, obvious one is Zipcar, which as I said is reduced miles people travel by about 90 percent. But another example would be the device can do a travel audit on you and it could now learn your travel patterns and it could say, Robin, I don’t know why you’re leaving at a quarter of eight every morning because if you leave at 20 of eight, you would save 15 minutes of travel time and not get in that traffic jam. Or my preferred would be, wow, if you took that commuter rail, it would take you a few minutes longer, but it would save you a lot of money.

YOUNG: Let’s talk on the more pragmatic side for a moment – are cars ready for this or would it require a whole new car to make this happen?

CHASE: No, cars are ready for this, and in fact we haven’t talked about that, and a key piece of what I’m talking about is I want to do this on the existing one billion cars that are out there. That if we wait for stuff to happen in new cars – the new fleet changes over about six to seven percent a year, which is not very fast – and so, if you think about what we’re talking about in the car, it’s got a communications package similar to what we find in cell phones and so you can buy very high volume devices for that. And there’s also the plug, it’s called the OBD2, or the can bus, that is used by mechanics today when they do your inspection once a year.

YOUNG: The emissions inspection and stuff like that?

CHASE: Right, so that’s the thing that you need to plug into. So, it’s plugging into that and then bringing that data through a communications package up to the Internet. So, it can be done really today, we just have to go do it.

YOUNG: Robin Chase, thank you very much for your time.

CHASE: It was my pleasure, thanks.

YOUNG: Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar and one of Time magazine’s most influential people. She comes to us courtesy of our partnership with the US EPA Smart Growth Program and the National Building Museum. And to learn more about the smart growth speaker series, go to our website LOE dot org.



For more on Robin Chase’s car-sharing company, Zipcar

To learn about Chase’s ride-sharing company, Goloco, click here

Robin Chase’s blog

Smart Growth Speaker Series

National Building Museum


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