Zipcar Sucks and So Does App World

communication, flexibility, and accountability: what we lose when humans are replaced

After having the service for the better part of a decade, I canceled my Zipcar account just recently. After yet another bad experience I just can’t deal with it anymore. This past time, just this weekend, it was as simple as a car arriving 45 minutes late. But the issues are deeper. Year after year of missing cars and broken cars and late cars and cars with no gas and cars I can’t get into and endlessly waiting on a phoneline while my time ticks down until finally I can talk to a not-particularly-helpful call center employee who I have a hard time explaining my problems to. I would estimate that I have been forced to call the customer service line with a problem for half of my trips1. I can’t do it anymore.

Zipcar is a service where you pay an annual fee (I think $70?) and then pay to rent a car based on time and, after a certain built-in amount, for the mileage. You search the system for a given time range and it’ll show you what’s available at what price and you can choose what car you want at which pickup location. (It’s not cheap when compared on a daily basis to conventional car rental, but the whole idea here is that you’re almost always renting for significantly less than a day.) You enter the car by holding a card up to a reader, and the keys are inside. Then you drive, baby! A car when I want one, in New York City, without having to find a place to park or pay for a garage? Where’s the downside?

Well, the downside is that the whole system doesn’t really work. And the reason why is that Zipcar’s basic model depends on minimal labor costs. They don’t pay for the half-dozen employees you see milling around Enterprise, which seems inefficient until you realize that those are the people who make sure that the cars are there and work. Zipcar’s not a team, they’re an app, and if something goes wrong, a phone number, and while they have people behind the scenes occasionally servicing the cars, if you’re wondering who’s going out to check on the cars between trips, the answer is no one. (The company seems to keep the actual frequency of service and cleaning close to the vest; best I could find was “regularly.”) Which is precisely the problem: nobody knows what shape the car is in, or if it’s even there, before you show up.

Recently I went to take a trip to Westchester County in a Zipcar. When I arrived the car was not there. This is, in my experience, not a rare occasion. I called Zipcar customer service, and waited on hold for 10-15 minutes or so. When I got through they said that indeed the car was not anywhere nearby or available. I’m not quite sure why their system doesn’t have some sort of automated flag where, if the car isn’t where it’s supposed to be when it’s supposed to be there, it sends a warning to the person who has it reserved next. All of that information is already in the system. Regardless, the rep was able to set me up with a replacement car in the same garage. No harm, right? It’s just 20 minutes of my time, which makes a big difference when you’re on a tight schedule, as you are by definition when you’re paying by the hour, but OK.

I get in the new car and look for the key. It has one of those “keys” without a key on it, the kind that just senses if you got it in your pocket2, so I stepped on the gas and pushed the button. Nothing. I tried it a few more times, and then the screen said the ignition was locked out. OK. I called customer service again. Again, 10-15 minutes wait. Finally I get the rep. She wants me to try a few things. None of it works. She’ll have to get me a new car. She gives me some free extension time, which seems nice until you realize that she’s just replacing the time I’ve already wasted. The new car is 15 minutes walk away. Actually driving away starts more than an hour after it was supposed to. I hightail it to Westchester to get stuff done. Sadly my attempt to time the traffic correctly was ruined by the delays, so it took twice as long to drive home as it took to get there, so I missed my return time and paid a $50 fee to a company who could not get their shit together adequately to put me in a functioning car on time.

Oh, that car with the electronic key - after some Googling I learned that, to get the car to start, you have to place the key against a particular spot on the steering column, and if you push the button too many times without doing that, the ignition gets locked out. This would seem to be vital information but there was nothing in the email I got from Zipcar when they updated the reservation and I have no idea how they expect people to know this bit of automotive trivia.

I think there’s a fundamental problem with the model overall - people don’t value these cars or care about Zipcar’s rules, there’s no human beings checking up on the cars to see who’s treating them like shit, and the whole idea of by-the-minute rentals simply doesn’t fit with constant problems that take ages to resolve. But Zipcar exacerbates this problem with an own goal that has screwed me again and again: their refusal to hire sufficient people to staff their customer service lines. (By that I mean their refusal to pay more to whatever call center in the Philippines they hire out.)

I had a doctor’s appointment with a specialist awhile back and it was out in Jersey somewhere, with no easy transit options and Uber rides prohibitively expensive. OK, this is exactly why I have a Zipcar account. Having had plenty of bad experiences, I added a full hour to my estimate of how long it would all take. I showed up and the car wasn’t there. I looked all around the floor of the garage that housed the Zipcars, and up a level too, to no success. So I called their number. It took 35 minutes for someone to answer. I steadily watched as the chances of my making my appointment dwindled. The customer service rep told me that the car was very close to my location and that she would honk the horn so I could find it. I found it several levels down from where it was supposed to be, on the bottom floor. Note that this is a problem that could have been solved in two minutes had I simply been able to get through to the rep in a timely manner. I thanked her and, stupidly, I hung up. When I got to the car I found that the sensor that should be velcroed to the windshield had fallen off and was hanging far from the window, which meant I couldn’t open the car. This was potential a 90-second problem; the Zipcar reps can unlock the doors remotely, and I could have stuck the sensor back into its correct place. But after waiting on hold another 10 minutes I realized that it would be another endless wait, and I was already going to be very late for my appointment, so I just gave up and went home.

I have had many other problems like these, and they stem from the basic problem that there is no accessible flesh-and-blood human being who takes stock of these cars when they come back, which the conventional rental car places do for every rental, and no accessible flesh-and-blood human being who can help me solve the inevitable problems that occur. There’s just an app and a badly overloaded customer service line, whose employees frequently seem uninformed about how the service works - understandably, if they’re getting the kind of wages I assume they’re getting.

Let me say this, in fairness: it may be the case that a lot of this is fundamentally an urban issue. Zipcar wasn’t a dream in Indiana but it definitely functioned much better than in New York. There’s just too many people using the service in the city. The constant use of the cars means they’re beaten to hell when you drive them. I’ve gotten a late fee a few times and it’s not fun, but clearly those fees aren’t high enough because people return the cars late all. the. time. The same problem applies to getting gas, which you’re meant to if there’s less than a quarter tank but which in practice people avoid doing. I mean, of course they do; they’re paying for the time they spend pumping! The cars are sometimes filthy, which you can complain about so that the previous driver gets a fee but, come on, that’s a drag. There’s typically very little flexibility with extending your reservation when there are unexpected problems, because the cars are usually completely booked out weeks in advance. And that last bit is particularly funny because Zipcar’s motto, at least at one time, was “Wheels When You Want Them.” The basic rationale for the service is pretty deeply undermined when you can’t actually make any spontaneous trips due to high demand. There’s usually zero chance I can say “I’d like to take a quick trip to Home Depot” and grab a car and go.

But what I come back to, over and over again, is the lack of three essential features of human interaction: communication, accountability, and flexibility. The ability to make clear what your problem is and receive clear responses in turn, the sense that someone is responsible who cares and can solve your problem, and the convenience of someone having the discretionary power to make common-sense accommodations when needed. Those basic values are being systematically removed from an economy that wants to app-ify everything, and Zipcar is the perfect example. Over and over again, there’s problems when you go to pick up a Zipcar, and it takes forever to connect with someone about the problem, and when you do there’s often nothing they can do but refund you and offer you some free miles, which means you never want to reserve a car for something essential. A human being could solve all of those problems. The app just makes you more mad.

Conventional car rental places are no angels either. Their gas policies are designed to make you either overfill the car past where you are required to or pay through the nose when they do the refueling. (With Zipcar the cost of gas is included.) Rental car companies are kings of hidden fees. And many of them are closed all day Sunday, and some do half days on Saturdays. Why? Because if you have a trip that ends on Saturday afternoon you have to pay for an extra day. So I’m no cheerleader for Hertz or whoever.

But there’s something I like there: the human being that app companies like Zipcar have removed. People I can talk to, ask questions of, negotiate with, seek special accommodation from. A person would, for example, note that a car has an entirely smashed in front end (as happened with a Zipcar I had reserved in Indiana) and say, “well he can’t drive that!” beforehand, instead of finding out about it via phone call when the driver was expecting to already be on the road, then hustling to see if there’s a replacement car you can give them. A person would make sure there’s adequate gas. A person could tell me where to hold that goddamn electronic keyless key to get the car to start. A person, present in the same physical location as me and able to see the problems for themselves, would reduce the sense of helplessness and dehumanization I feel every time something goes wrong with Zipcar.


Silicon Valley economics, it seems to me, are heavily dependent on low labor costs relative to their size in the economy. GM employs 225,000 people; my low-effort Googling suggests the company is worth around $140,000,000,000. Facebook employs barely more than 14,000 people; my low-effort Googling suggests the company is worth $280,000,000,000. This might be surprising, but it’s not counterintuitive; employing people costs a lot of money, even above and beyond their nominal salary, so corporations with much lower labor costs have a big advantage. I find this to be an undersold element of the whole digital economy. A huge advantage for the whole industry lies in the fact that software is infinitely and (essentially) costlessly scalable. If GM feels it needs to manufacture a lot more cars to meet demand, that’s good news for the company, but it also requires major new recurring costs in infrastructure and hiring. Apple doesn’t need to scale up anything if a big new influx of users want to download Final Cut Pro. 2,000 workers might be able to make 100,000 cars a year3, and maybe you even get efficiency gains as you scale, so that 4,000 workers can make 250,000 cars a year. But four guys can make an app in their dorm for 50 people to download or for 50 million. Same amount of labor, time, and investment. (I concede that there are customer service costs that increase with more customers.)

All of this is why I have always been ambivalent, at best, about the obsession with Silicon Valley as the harbinger of the future of the American economy - an economy modeled on Silicon Valley would be an economy with many fewer jobs. Coding skills are so valuable in large measure because you produce something that costs almost nothing to keep utilizing and selling after it’s been created, which means there isn’t constant need to grow the size of the programming team. And these low labor costs permeate the startup economy, the app economy. The Zipcar model. While these cost savings are a little bit different than those associated with not having to pay as many coders as GM has to pay machinists, we’re still talking about a fundamental approach of limiting labor costs by any means necessary. Everyone is looking for an established industry that could be disrupted by somehow replacing expensive human workers with software. I realize I’m not saying anything novel here. For me the point is more about the customer experience than it is about the economics.

Take the airlines. It used to be that you would go to the airport and stand in line and then check in. Now you use automated machines. Standing in line wasn’t great, but at a busy airport there’s lines for those machines too. When you got to the customer service desk, you would talk to a human. Mostly this would be proforma, but if you had questions, you could ask them - not just “what gate?” but also “what airport bar has the best Happy Hour?” (Communication.) If you found that something had gone wrong, such as you not receiving the seat you had reserved, you could complain to that person, and even if you didn’t get the resolution you wanted you could get an explanation in real time instead of filing a complaint ticket that you’ll never hear about again. (Accountability.) And if you found that you needed some unexpected dispensation, like you broke your leg and won’t be able to find a place to rest your cast in a middle seat, you can potentially be accommodated. (Flexibility.) The touchscreen can do none of those things, or not remotely as well and as fluidly and as intuitively as can be done by simply talking to a human.

They have not gone so far as to eliminate the humans at the counter, though the last several times I’ve flown I think there’s only been one working. However, what they can provide may be changing. A couple years ago I briefly dated a woman who had worked for a major airline for almost 20 years. And she was telling me that the software in the computers behind those counters have been “streamlined” over time in such a way that there’s a lot less discretionary power in the hands of the particular agent. And this gets at another reason companies want to replace people with software, beyond cost savings: centralized control. All those customer service agents might have had the ability to make plane travel a little easier, but they also probably violated company policy in doing so, at times, or just made the little moves that help people out but cost the airline a bit of money. (It used to be possible to get a free bump to first class if the plane wasn’t booked up and you were friendly, polite, and lucky. Try to flirt your way into first class with the touchscreen.) So even software that doesn’t replace human beings can reduce precisely the kind of human agency that can help smooth out the frustrations of daily life. Other airlines may not have instituted similar changes to their software, but I suspect this gradual reduction in human input and human control has been going on in a lot of customer service software in many industries.

You might not think of the food delivery apps in the same vein; there’s not an obvious human that’s been removed from the equation. But I think the dynamic is the same, actually. Many of you will have had the experience of ordering something on a delivery app, the food never arriving, and when you try to rectify this problem, the app customer service tells you it’s the restaurant’s problem and the restaurant tells you it’s the app’s problem. To whom can you appeal? The app I use lets you call the delivery guy, but I’ve used this feature maybe a dozen times in the last five years or so and I think only one of them picked up. Which I understand, as they’re probably piloting a bike or a car around busy city streets at that moment. What you’d like to have is a human being you can access who can provide communication, flexibility, and accountability - and we once did.

These app delivery drivers are, at least most of the time, not tied to a specific restaurant, but are hooked up with a given order at a given time based on their proximity and availability according to the app. Which means that there’s not necessarily any meaningful human-to-human relationship between the driver and the restaurant; the restaurant employee puts the bag of food into the delivery guy’s hands and that’s the extent of it. Contrast that with what was once the norm, and which still exists in a lot of places. You’d have a restaurant and it would hire a delivery driver or two to make deliveries specifically for that restaurant. The restaurant would be the driver’s employer of record and would cut the paychecks. The manager would be the person with whom the employee had a mutually-responsible relationship. If your food was late, you could call the restaurant and they’d have a much better chance of knowing what was going on, or be willing to find that out, because of this meaningful relationship with the driver. I would personally never officially complain about a delivery guy (they just don’t make enough for me to feel good about that), but if you did, in the past you would call the restaurant and complain to the manager and he could make whatever adjustments and potentially decide if there should be some consequences for the driver.

In App Land nobody really knows the drivers, nobody is in charge of them, nobody’s keeping track of them, nobody’s looking out for them. If you never get your food or it’s rushed or in bad shape, you can’t let that inform your decision of whether to solicit a restaurant, because you’d be getting a different driver anyway. And (again, if you are the type to) if you have a complaint you’ll get shunted through some automated system where if you’re lucky you’ll eventually reach a bored call center employee who would take down your complaint and it would get filed in the cloud somewhere and if the delivery driver actually ever sees it, you’ll never know. Hard for the drivers too. Nowadays the delivery guys don’t have a manager with whom they can build trust and a human relationship, but apps. (Many have to use several.) If something’s wrong with their working conditions, how can they get that fixed? If an employee of a given restaurant demeans you, you have to go to a restaurant manager who doesn’t know or care about you and complain. You own your bike, so if it gets wrecked you’re out of luck. If you get injured and cant work for awhile, nobody at GrubHub or Uber Eats is going to be looking out for you.

And of course Silicon Valley is trying to make it easier and easier to sever any meaningful ties between workers and the companies they hustle for. In the eyes of these companies, the Uber drivers and delivery guys and package couriers are the employees of nobody. They have no boss with which they can communicate, demand accountability, and ask for flexibility. They have an app, which is mute and uncaring.

I could go on. Online shopping can have the same problems I’ve identified. (Finding an actual phone number for Amazon customer service was once legendarily hard, and you can’t haggle with a website.) So can Airbnb; door won’t lock, AC won’t start, snake in your closet? Oftentimes you’re at the mercy of whoever is renting to you, who might be helpful and accessible and might not. Airbnb will in all likelihood tell you that all of that’s not their problem. You subtract on-the-ground employees and you’re ensuring that life gets harder for customers. Yes, I recognize that there are advantages in convenience (if things go well) and price (though this may be changing.) Time does march on. So I will finish up by linking to an essential piece by L.M. Sacasas, 10 Points of Unsolicited Advice for Tech Writers. Written in frustration, it reacts to a series of unhelpful clichés that are common to contemporary discussions of technology. In the context of this essay, I would specifically point you towards

Do not cite apparent historical parallels to contemporary concerns about technology as if they invalidated those concerns. That people before us experienced similar problems does not mean that they magically cease being problems today.

and

That people eventually acclimate to changes precipitated by the advent of a new technology does not prove that the changes were inconsequential or benign.

I know that technology-driven change is inevitable. And I understand that, in the big picture, software coming to replace more and more human workers can’t be avoided. But I can, as a consumer, express my frustrations with how the effects of these changes play out; as a citizen, insist that we have to pass laws that protect the large class of vulnerable contingent workers that these apps have created; and as an observer, express my belief that there are a lot of people who will pay more for certain services if the human touch makes them more convenient and manageable.

And, as always when discussing how society and technologies evolve, I think we should count the costs. Because none of this change comes for free.

1

Perhaps Zipcar will see this and object and show me the exact figure. Please don’t get litigious.

2

Whoever invented that, I hate you.

3

100% invented number for rhetorical purposes only