When I needed wheels for a quick trip to Plymouth yesterday, I didn't reserve at the nearest Avis location or grab a Zipcar from one of their designated spots. Instead, I popped the locks on a neighbor's car when he wasn't around and took off. It was cheaper than the other two options.
While it sounds absolutely illicit, borrowing a neighbor's car when it isn't being used is the concept behind RelayRides, a Cambridge start-up company that I wrote about earlier this year. Instead of leasing a fleet of vehicles like Zipcar, RelayRides finds people who have underutilized cars and wouldn't mind earning a little money with them. Car owners pocket some of the hourly rental fee paid by RelayRides members, with the company taking a percentage for facilitating the transaction and insuring the drivers; RelayRides also installs the necessary technology in each car.
The company has been running a pilot test this summer in Cambridge and Somerville, with a few dozen vehicles. I signed up for a membership in late June, and received $25 worth of free rental credit for doing so. A few days later, a membership card arrived in the mail. Embedded inside was an RFID chip that would give me access to the RelayRides fleet.
I perused the RelayRides site a few times in July and August — at one point hunting unsuccessfully for a minivan or large SUV that could fit seven people. It wasn't until this week that the stars aligned and I made a reservation. Since there are no RelayRides cars in my immediate neighborhood, I needed to wait for a day when I had the extra time to walk about twenty minutes to a car parked near Porter Square, just across the Somerville line. (Google Maps pinpointed the parking spot as exactly one mile away, though the RelayRides site claimed the distance as 0.66 miles.)
After deciding against renting a car that was described in member reviews as exuding a distinct eau du pooch, I booked a neighbor's 2003 Toyota Matrix from 10:45 AM to 3:00 PM. (RelayRides offers pet-friendly and pet-free vehicles. The Matrix displayed the pet-free icon.) The car's hourly rate, including gas and insurance, was $7.00.
Here's my take on the pros and cons of the experience.
The biggest advantage to RelayRides is cost. My rental totaled $35.33; the use of a newer Toyota Matrix a bit closer to my home with Zipcar would've cost $49.14 (Zipcar's rate for that vehicle is $9.25 an hour, though Zipcar offers discounted rates to members who commit to spending at least $50 a month with the service). RelayRides also lets you reserve cars in 15-minute increments, while Zipcar limits you to half-hour chunks. With Zipcar, that policy would've forced me to pay for fifteen minutes that I didn't need.
I found the car easily, even though it wasn't in a marked spot, and I waved my membership card over a sensor on the windshield. The locks popped open. Inside, I found a key to the ignition, and a note from the owner informing me that I was their first renter. "We're really excited to be part of this new venture," the owner wrote. He also apologized that the driver's side window didn't work (there was a Band-Aid over the button that would've opened it), and said he'd made an effort to get it repaired. Clipped to the note was a $4 "rebate" for my rental (in folded bills), which I decided not to take. On the passenger's seat was a tote bag full of maps. In the tape deck was an adapter that enabled me to plug in my iPhone so I could listen to my own tunes. There was just over one-third of a tank of gas in the car. Though the carpets hadn't been vacuumed recently, the interior was relatively clean.
Unlike Zipcar, RelayRides features a small white digital display and keypad mounted at the top of the windshield, just to the left of the rear-view mirror. It shows you the current time, the miles you've driven, and the start and end times for your reservation. I liked being able to see the "official" RelayRides time, and to be reminded of the time my reservation ended, since RelayRides charges you $50 if you return the car late. (Zipcar has an identical penalty.) Stashed in a slot just behind the display is a credit card that enables you to fill the car up with gas if necessary.
On my return trip, I left Plymouth a bit later than I'd planned, and traffic was worse than I'd expected, so it was quickly clear that I'd need to add an extra half-hour to the reservation. I called the phone number on my membership card and an operator helped me out. Within a few minutes, the updated reservation time showed up on the car's display. The operator mentioned that there is also a way to add time to the rental using the keypad, but that hadn't been readily apparent to me. (I later learned that you can add time yourself only immediately after you turn the car on — and not while you're driving.)
While most Zipcar vehicles have decals all over them that make it clear you're not driving your own vehicle, RelayRides is a bit subtler with its branding. There was a small sticker on the back, and a small one on the front windshield where the RFID sensor is (pictured above).
The Matrix had 86,000 miles on it, and once I hit the road, it had a bit of a rattletrap feel. The brakes and suspension were about as loosey-goosey as you'd expect from a seven-year-old car that has done a lot of city driving. The non-functional driver's side window would've been annoying if I'd had to pay any tolls. There was a small banner hanging from the rear-view mirror that I had to remove — I don't like anything that obscures my view for no good reason — and then remember to replace when the rental was done. (I probably forgot to turn the volume on the stereo back down when I checked out of the car, and for that I am sorry.)
I've been a Zipcar member for about three years, and while the rental rates are higher than RelayRides, I'll continue using Zipcar for two reasons: convenience and confidence. The cars are closer to where I live (and also convenient to use when I travel to other big cities where Zipcar has a presence), and I'm confident that they'll be well-maintained and relatively new. But if RelayRides starts adding cars closer to me — and especially if they add vehicles that Zipcar doesn't offer — I'll likely start using it more frequently. I called RelayRides founder Shelby Clark after my rental yesterday to check some facts about the service, and he mentioned that a sporty Audi S4 may soon be entering the fleet; they've also occasionally offered access to a Porsche Cayenne. Some minivans or big SUVs would be handy, too, for when you're planning a group outing.
Clark said the service will officially launch on September 1st; the company is also looking for "community organizers" who will help RelayRides expand to towns outside of Cambridge (but within a 50-mile radius of Boston.) RelayRides is still offering $25 in driving credit to new members.
Have you tried RelayRides? Do you rent out your car through the service? Post a comment if you would...
About Scott Kirsner
Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.
Subscribe via e-mail
More from Scott
March 3: Web Innovators Group
Demos, drinks, and schmoozing at the Royal Sonesta in Cambridge.
March 7-8: MassDigi Game Challenge
Competition for aspiring game developers... plus panels and keynotes related to the business of play.
April 3-4: Mass Biotech Annual Meeting
Issues facing the region's life sciences community.