The Car Sharing Shootout: Autoshare vs. Zipcar
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The Car Sharing Shootout: Autoshare vs. Zipcar

No, it’s not carpooling. Yes, it can work for TTC users. And don’t even mention the word “rental.”
Car sharing comes with its fair share of misconceptions, and the recent entry of U.S.-based Zipcar into the Toronto market creates further confusion. Once the sole domain of AutoShare, which was established in 1998, both companies offer similar services but with some key differences. Though car sharing has been successfully implemented in Europe for years, it’s a relatively new concept to North Americans, who sometimes have intense personal attachments to their vehicles.
What exactly is car sharing, and what’s the difference between AutoShare and Zipcar? Torontoist took both companies for a spin, and we’re here to remind you what your mother always said: it’s good to share.

When asking Torontonians how they thought car sharing worked, the strangest answer was also one of the most common. Many thought it was a carpooling system, where a few people would show up each morning and drive to work together in a reserved car. Others saw no difference between car sharing and car rental, and most daily TTC users never even considered it.
carshare_autoshare_logo.gifTo use the network, you must join as a member meeting minimum age and driving record requirements. For many, that’s the last human interaction they have since the system is (for the most part) entirely automated. When you need a car, it takes seconds to reserve it and often the car can be available immediately. Members just head over to their closest location, unlock the car and drive it off the lot. When finished, the car is returned to the same lot and the member locks it up and walks away.
carshare_zipcar_logo.gifThis convenience requires planning, however. The vehicle must be returned within the reservation time or else somebody who’s booked it after you might be left waiting. Reservations can be easily extended if there are none following yours, and given enough warning, the company will attempt to make alternative arrangements if caught short. AutoShare and Zipcar claim that it is very rare for a car not to be on the lot when it’s supposed to be.
Both companies bristle at the word “rental,” which is conspicuously missing from their promotional material. Where car sharing really shines is for the short-term jaunt, billed hourly and including fuel and insurance. Daily rates are available, but are on-par or slightly more expensive than car rental companies, unless you factor-in the insurance that rental companies offer as an extra but that is included in car sharing. Rental companies also allow the customer to return the vehicle any time during the day, but are in limited locations and require an interaction with the agent in-person.
When asked for examples how frequent TTC users could benefit, reps from Zipcar and AutoShare had identical responses. Trips to IKEA are familiar to most, and both representatives described the appeal of pulling-up for a date in a Mini Cooper. Allegedly, your reservation might then have to be extended until morning, if you catch their drift. Torontonians seem to be embracing the concept — Zipcar announced this morning that Toronto was their fastest market ever to attain 1000 members.
Probably the most fascinating trait of car sharing is anthropological. The concept works because it is operated by its users and virtually self-policing. Since the car is only in the condition the last member left it, members will report infractions or damage incurred by the previous driver lest they be dinged with the charges. Steep fines are levied for behaviour that degrades the experience for others, whether it be leaving garbage in the car or not returning it on time. Members keep the gas tank above a minimum level (which they don’t pay extra for) and AutoShare even knocks a few bucks off your bill on top of the reimbursement if you take the car through the wash.
I was actually surprised to hear both car sharing companies somewhat play-down the environmental aspect, though they do claim that each vehicle takes at least ten cars off the road. Many of the vehicles offered, like the diesel Smart and the hybrid Toyota Prius are notorious for their impressive fuel economy, and we are all familiar with both high fuel prices and Toronto’s distressing smog problem. “It is obviously an important thing for us; it’s why we started this,” says AutoShare President Kevin McLaughlin, but he then goes on to mention that environmental benefits are more of an appreciated result rather than the primary appeal.
“Everyone loves to be a passive environmentalist,” says Zipcar’s Matthew Malloy. “It’s like curbside recycling. It’s more of a behavioural change; people also drive less because they pay by the hour.”
Though the environmental angle was what originally drew me to car sharing (I’m already an AutoShare member, and Zipcar provided me with a membership to research this article), I was surprised to find myself actually having fun picking a car à la carte for each trip and driving something different each time. Visiting friends and family in a Smart, a hybrid Prius, and even a cute little Yaris instigated a barrage of questions from everyone, and a few people have now tapped my newfound authority for advice when looking to buy a new car.
Car sharing comes with a lot of information to process for the new member, and the websites of both companies can be a task to decode. Here’s how Zipcar and AutoShare compare, and we’ve provided a handy chart highlighting the differences [PDF link]. I should mention that the rates are the most confusing aspect to decipher here, but they’re calculated automatically and presented when making a reservation.
carshare_map.jpgZipcar charges an annual $55 membership fee and $30 one-time application fee for the Occasional Driving Plan, but also gives new members a $50 credit. AutoShare does not charge an annual fee, but levies a one-time $125 fee (which includes insurance approval and license check), plus a $250 deposit that is refundable when a member leaves AutoShare.
AutoShare also grants some initial discounts for co-habitating couples and claims that the average member makes-up for the higher initial cost in two to three months of usage. They also offer a $50 credit if you refer a friend; half to you, and half to the new member.
Zipcar doesn’t charge a monthly fee, and AutoShare’s monthly fees depend on which of their three plans a member has chosen, depending on how much they drive. The plans range from $0 to $25; the more expensive reflecting cheaper hourly and per-kilometer rates.
Both companies require a relatively clean driving record and a class “G” license. Zipcar’s minimum age is 21, whereas AutoShare’s is 25 until October when they lower it to 23. I found the application process for both to be simple and my applications were approved very quickly.
The Cost to Drive
Zipcar generally is a few bucks more expensive than AutoShare per hour, but how they administer their prices differs. Zipcar ranges from $9.35 to $15 per hour, depending on the car, but includes 150 km per 24-hour period (25¢ each subsequent kilometer). AutoShare ranges from $5 to $9.50 per hour depending on the plan chosen, and two of the plans add 18¢/km unless on a daily rate when it is 10¢/km. AutoShare adds another hourly buck for premium cars like the Matrix, Prius or Mini, but knocks-off 2¢/km if you’re using one of their hybrid vehicles. Vans are 3¢/km more. AutoShare’s daily rate ranges from $45 to $67, depending on the plan, and Zipcar’s daily rates span $59.50 to $105, depending on the vehicle. Zipcar also charges a higher rate for their premium vehicles depending on the car (usually about $1.75 more).
Still with me? AutoShare even offers non-peak rates from midnight to 7 AM (Zipcar doesn’t). Members don’t pay the hourly rate during these times; only the per-kilometer cost, except for members of the Simple Plan who pay $4.50 hourly. For shift-workers or night owls, this could be an unexpected treat.
AutoShare bills members with a monthly invoice; Zipcar charges a credit card immediately following a rental.
So, I Reserve the Car and Just Drive it Off the Lot?
Yup. AutoShare members are each provided with a special key that opens a lockbox in each lot. The ignition keys are retrieved and returned to their respective box. The key is tiny and I’ve had little qualm with having it on my keychain other than adding bulk. The system is low-fi and works well.
carshare_keys.jpgZipcar heavily promotes their method, and rightfully so. Each car is unlocked with a keycard, which is no larger or thicker than a credit card and fits snugly into any wallet. The card is held-up to the RFID sensor in the windshield and the vehicle unlocks if it’s been reserved by you. The keys are permanently tethered to the steering column and the keycard is used to lock the car during the reservation as well. If a member loses their keycard, each vehicle can be remotely unlocked over the phone with a Zipcar representative. AutoShare says that they are testing new technology likely to be rolled-out in the winter, but didn’t specify what this would be.
Though AutoShare’s system works perfectly fine, I admit to falling in love with the keycard. It’s flat and easy to store and got a few fascinated stares when I was using it on Bloor Street. Leaving the keys in the car takes some getting used-to, but it’s nice not to have to carry around a set of car keys. When the member is finished with the car, it’s parked back in the same spot and you simply lock it and walk away. AutoShare members are required to log their final odometer reading into a log book which takes only seconds.
Making A Reservation
Once an account is established, reserving a car via the web couldn’t be easier or quicker. Cars are available 24-hours, and available vehicles are shown on a grid with their corresponding temporal availability. If the space is open, the car can be available immediately. Members pick a car and enter their reservation start and finish times via a pulldown. Click “reserve” and the car is yours (reservations can be extended or modified just as easily). Zipcar also allows automated reservations via telephone.
Click to see the reservation screens of AutoShare and Zipcar.
Both companies quote the price, although Zipcar’s system presents an estimate before the reservation is made and allows you to choose another car instead. Like Zipcar, AutoShare’s reservations can be immediately canceled, but the price is quoted after reserving the car. AutoShare’s reservation grid — broken into clear 30-minute blocks — is slightly easier to understand at first glance than Zipcar’s slicker graphic design. Both allow a search by car model.
Click to see how the price is compared for a regular hourly rental and a premium daily rental (in this case, a Toyota Prius). Note how the price differential grows significantly as the hours add up with Zipcar’s higher hourly rates.
AutoShare cars are categorized by numbers and by location, so your preferences will show you “#31 Dovercourt & Dundas,” for example. To discover that this is actually a Toyota Echo and that there are two more AutoShare cars in this lot, you have to take an additional step unless you’ve added these to your Favourites. Zipcar vehicles have cutesy alliterative names (dubbed by members) like “Matrix Manford” and “Mini Missisauga” and the reservation grid provides price, distance, and location along with the availability. You can also search Zipcar’s system by cheapest vehicle, time available, or cars you’ve used most frequently, and if you enter a time that isn’t available, a list of nearby cars is suggested.
For now, Zipcar has an edge over AutoShare when it comes to parsing the information, though reservations are equally as quick. Zipcar says that their website is about to improve due to member feedback, and I hope that means it won’t still be mixing metric and imperial measurements, betraying its American heritage. The lack of human interaction is one of the biggest benefits to car sharing, though members may also make or change a reservation by talking to an agent at an additional cost ($1 per call for AutoShare and $3.50 per call for Zipcar).
Both companies allow instant access to reservation details online, but I’ve found AutoShare’s automatic email confirmations great for passively keeping records. I’d like Zipcar to at least offer this option when making or changing a reservation.
What’s the Deal With Fuel?
Gas is included in the price, but members are expected to top-up the tank when it drops below a certain level, which will be about every tenth trip the car takes. Unless I was going on a longer trip, I’ve rarely needed to refuel the vehicle. AutoShare requires members to keep the tank above half and credits the customer who buys fuel or gets a car wash. The member attaches the receipt to their page in each vehicle’s log book.
Zipcar has a more elegant system, in theory, using gas cards so the customer doesn’t have to float the cash to keep the tank above a quarter level. In Toronto, the cards are only used at Esso stations, though gas can be purchased anywhere and reimbursed.
After eventually finding an Esso station downtown to fill up the Prius I reserved, the card was rejected at the pump. I trotted-over to the attendant, who informed me that they no longer allow swiping the cards at the pump because of fraud, so customers need to run the card in-person. Zipcar asks that the member punch-in the odometer reading, but after waiting in line and engaging in the attendant’s small talk, I had totally forgotten what it was. Esso’s new policy is not Zipcar’s fault, but I ended up wishing I’d paid with my VISA at the pump and got it back later.
Insurance is included with membership. If you reserve an AutoShare vehicle with a credit card that covers car rentals, the deductible is $0. AutoShare also provides a $0 deductible option for $50/year. If needed, AutoShare will also provide a Letter of Insurance Coverage to certify coverage history, allowing members to build an insurance history. Says AutoShare’s George Kozyrakis, “This is equivalent to having your own personal auto insurance. This makes a big difference down the road if you need to purchase a vehicle (moving away or job change) and you need to get your own insurance. We have had members save thousands.” Though insurance is included, Zipcar doesn’t offer the benefit of building an insurance record.
AutoShare feels that their insurance program is superior, with a $2 million driver liability coverage compared to Zipcar’s minimum legal $200,000 liability coverage.
Types of Cars
carshare_lineup_spiritedaway.jpgMost of the vehicles are general-purpose sedans or economy cars, but both companies have some interesting choices. Zipcar offers pickup trucks and the luxury Volvo S40 (which comes unbranded), and AutoShare offers minivans with or without seats and the quirky Smart. Both promote their Mini Coopers, and both offer hybrids. Zipcar has a higher amount of premium choices at about 35% of their fleet (what Matthew Malloy of Zipcar calls “mood cars” to be chosen depending on your mood), and AutoShare focuses on more of the economy choices with only about 13% premium vehicles. I found that if a premium choice wasn’t available at your closest lot, it was only a short walk to another one that had them.
Zipcar operates about 100+ cars around the city and claims over 1000 members, and AutoShare now has 125+ with around 2500 members. AutoShare’s cars are leased new for three years, whereas Zipcar currently has no car in the city more than five months old. Newcomer Zipcar declined to mention their terms of lease, but stated that the cars are constantly cycled and refreshed.
It should also be noted that XM Satellite radios are not currently available in Zipcars, despite first impressions from their site, where they employ this technology in the U.S.
Long Trips and Travel
Though maximum daily rates are available, this is when car rental companies start becoming more economical. You’re gonna get dinged as the kilometers add-up, whereas rental cars often have unlimited distance. Zipcar gives you 150 included kilometers per 24-hour period, but go over that and you’ll pay a whopping 25¢ per kilometer.
AutoShare and Zipcar both allow travel across provinces, but only Zipcar allows crossing the U.S. border. Since Zipcar is employed in many U.S. cities, members can also use their keycard and account to reserve Zipcars in any of these locations, though each car must be returned to its originating lot, unlike many rental cars. This is extremely convenient for frequent travelers or even trip planning.
Zipcar may be most convenient for frequent travelers, but AutoShare highlights partner discounts with car rental companies for longer trips. An AutoShare membership will engage discounts with Budget, Enterprise, Somerville and Discount car rentals, as well as VIA Rail. Surprisingly, AutoShare helpfully links to other car sharing companies around the world on their website.
Zipcar puts no restrictions on busy weekend times, which could render many cars unavailable if looking for a last-minite reservation. AutoShare also doesn’t restrict weekend rentals during the summer, but only allows a single daily rental over weekends during other seasons.
Bad Habit Bingo
carshare_time_exposure_jpjd.jpgA famous Jean-Paul Sartre quote claims, “Hell is other people,” and nothing can degrade a car sharing experience more than the rudeness of previous drivers. I can vouch that it’s nicer to see little evidence of another driver, and though car sharing vehicles aren’t as pristine as rental cars, I’ve rarely encountered an issue other than being mildly disgusted by an open, half-consumed drink. Very steep fines are imposed for bad behaviour, whether you’ve left the car filthy or neglected to get it back on time. Smoking is not allowed in any Zipcar or AutoShare vehicles, and both companies claim that these kind of infractions are extremely rare.
AutoShare allows pets in most of their cars, but consistently reminds people to be respectful of pet hair left in the interior. Zipcar only allows pets in locked carriers. Users should expect the cars to have a relatively minimal amount of dirt characteristic of general use. I encountered a couple of sandy floors and an upholstery stain, but nothing particularly offensive.
One thing is clear, however: you have to bring the car back on time. Keeping another member waiting is a number-one no-no and members must be aware that this employs some planning and time management skills.
Location, Location, Location
Most shared cars are downtown or in the more heavily populated areas. Though the vehicles can be anywhere, AutoShare often has some cars in various Green P lots, and Zipcar seems to have a lock on Canpark and Impark lots.
carshare_lot_signs.jpgWhen asking the Zipcar reps if their conspicuous presence in those lots was as a result of an exclusive business agreement, they paused, then confirmed the exclusive contracts, obviously unsure what I was getting at. In a city with such scarce parking, this could be the start of a parking war between the car sharing companies. For now, you won’t be finding AutoShare and Zipcar sharing a lot anytime soon.
AutoShare does brand some of their parking spaces with signs, but this is where Zipcar excels. Their bright green signs are not only eye-catching, but they have company flyers attached to little plexiglas boxes underneath them. Even an empty spot proclaims, “Zipcars live here” and by far the most effective is at Yonge and Alexander, where a single yellow Mini Cooper sits alone on a parking pad beside a restaurant patio, almost as if on display. AutoShare’s signs are also effective, with “self-serve location” and the hourly rate printed on them, but the lack of signage in some lots hurts their visibility (this is undoubtedly a limitation of their municipal contracts).
Membership Has Its Privileges
Zipcar announces discount partners from time to time via their newsletter, from Active Surplus to Dennis C Packaging to the CD-ROM Store. Today, Zipcar announced a new discount program for students and faculty of the University of Toronto, which they are likely to expand to other post-secondary schools like they have in the U.S.
Aside from AutoShare’s car rental partnerships, they’ve established discount programs with various bicycle shops and select condominiums, along with the City of Toronto’s permit street parking system. AutoShare cements its local community vibe via partnerships with Smartliving St. Lawrence, the Car Heaven vehicle donation program, EasyRelease, AllianceAtlantis Cinemas, and the Inside Out Film & Video Festival.
Zipcar and Autoshare also offer programs for businesses, allowing them to use a “virtual fleet,” which could save smaller businesses in particular lots of expense and aggravation.
Corporate Culture
It is here that AutoShare and Zipcar couldn’t be more different. Zipcar is an unabashedly for-profit entity with an established system and identity. It calls its members “Zipsters,” and the website and promotional materials have “youth focus group research” written all over them. That’s not to say that it isn’t effective, and though it sometimes feels borderline disingenuous, it does give the company some solid attitude and character. Whether or not you feel comfortable calling a Honda Element “Enzo” is your problem. Zipcar won’t get into details about further Canadian expansion other than to say, “we plan on continuing our aggressive growth.”
carshare_branding.jpgBy comparison, AutoShare is more subtle, folky and less, er, “American.” Their branding is no-nonsense and unobtrusive, which they say customers prefer. I’ll take their word for it, but I actually like seeing the cars prominently branded because it gets people used to the concept and tells everyone else that you’ve chosen not to own a car.
AutoShare seems to project more of a significant social conscience which they promote via their interesting partnerships. Sure, AutoShare is likely just as much interested in making a profit as Zipcar, but the image seems more focused on economy and ecology. Zipcar’s vibe seems more intent on making car sharing cool and to provide the right vehicle to enhance your image. Both tactics seem to work for their respective companies.
The car sharing concept works remarkably well. As a pedestrian and frequent TTC user, I don’t need a car too often, but when the need arises, it couldn’t be more convenient. Rental cars can be expensive for the short-term and aren’t always available unless reserving sufficiently ahead of time. When looking for a last-minute ride with Zipcar or AutoShare, I’ve found that if cars aren’t available in my usual lots, one can almost always be found close by.
The system really does come in handy for that trip to Home Depot or IKEA, and I found it much more convenient than a complicated TTC trip when I needed to be at an event in Etobicoke one afternoon. Car sharing is a no-brainer if a few friends are pitching-in for a lift across the city, and I’ve found the convenience of self-serve reservation and pick-up to be vastly superior to reserving a rental car. Not worrying about gas or insurance is also a crucial benefit.
Zipcar’s U.S. research has shown that their member base actually uses public transit more often; they claim by 47%. Zipcar’s Malloy states, “They use cars when it makes sense — not to drive more, but as a fit into the transportation mix.
carshare_which_way.jpgZipcar and AutoShare are similar and effective enough to make choosing between the two simply a matter of personality. Zipcar is slightly more expensive on an hourly basis, but feels more like a premium, modern service. Their technology works flawlessly. AutoShare touts cheaper rates and more choice, but depending on which plan is chosen, how you drive and which cars you use, the money laid-out annually can average-out between the two companies, according to Zipcar. Kevin McLaughlin of AutoShare says that Zipcar costs about $20 more per month based on typical AutoShare member driving.
AutoShare is also Toronto owned and operated, and they feel much more in-touch with the city at this point than Massachusetts-based Zipcar.
AutoShare will definitely appeal more to the money-conscious environmentalist, while Zipcar is more in-line with the hipster with some extra disposable income, but the differences really are negligible. High fuel prices also might encourage customers to join a program. The bottom line is that car sharing is a welcome option for commuters in Toronto, and anyone in the market for a personal vehicle should seriously look at car sharing as an alternative. Torontonians have the luxury of splitting their trips between public transit, car sharing and car rental, and for many doing the math, this could eliminate the need and significant expense of a personal vehicle.
When asked what they thought of each other, AutoShare President Kevin McLaughlin confirms that Zipcar’s entry into the market has influenced decisions they’d already made, stating, “We have learned a thing or two from them. Business has never been better, that’s for sure.
“It’s important having competition,” says Zipcar’s Matthew Malloy, but he’s not worried. “The rising tide carries all ships.”
Daytime highway image crop by fotograf.416, sepia car lineup image by Spirited_Away, and time-exposure highway by jpjd, all in the Torontoist Flickr group.

Please note that Autoshare’s prices and packages are subject to change. Contact them for their current range of program options.