Can ZipCar Remake Government Fleets?

For the last 10 years, ZipCar has succeeded in getting urban drivers to share cars. Now it's trying to get government in on the game.

The car-sharing company announced plans on Monday to venture into the public sector with a program called FastFleet: a version of its high-tech system built for municipal and federal auto fleets.

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The program underwent a pilot phase in Washington, D.C., where city workers tested out the computer-based reservation and management system in an attempt to lessen the number of cars the city needs. So far, the program has worked: D.C. has been able to get by with 17% fewer cars, saving a projected $6.6 million over the next five years.

FastFleet works a lot like ZipCar's consumer service: when a worker needs a car, he calls or logs on to the FastFleet network and picks a car and a time slot. Qualified workers get ZipCards—RFID-enabled credit cards—that open and lock the fleet's vehicles. Unlike in the commercial ZipCar program, however, the government in question provides the cars, and ZipCar merely leases them the management equipment for between $65 and $90 per car per month.

All told, the U.S. government and its local entities own about four million vehicles; if the D.C. pilot program is any indication, FastFleet could allow defect-ridden cities and agencies to unload unnecessary cars and cut down on fuel and insurance costs.

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But with U.S. automakers struggling, the Obama administration doesn't seem entirely on board with the program. Just three weeks ago, the President announced that he was asking the federal government's General Services Administration, which oversees federal passenger vehicles, to purchase a whopping 17,600 new, fuel-efficient cars from U.S. automakers. Roughly 2,500 of those will be hybrids, driving the cost up to about $285 million in sum—not exactly consistent with the car-cutting ethos of the FastFleet program. Whether other cities and agencies will follow D.C.'s lead remains to be seen.

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