Car sharing companies like ZipCar and Cars2Go are staples in cities over the world. They address a need, common in many large urban areas, for on-demand occasional car use, all without the hassles of traditional car rental. As of last year, car sharing is a $400 million industry in the U.S. alone. It’s a good idea. It’s also an idea I came up with about 27 years ago, and I just found the 5.25-inch floppy disk that proves it.
I know we’ve all had this experience in our lives—we have some great idea about some concept or some invention, we forget about it, and then a few years later we see that you can buy GPS trackers for your dog or whatever.
This, though, is a little different, because after attempting to convince some friends and co-workers that decades ago I came up with the concept of car sharing (I think they just figured this was like the Canadian model I said I dated or that time I claimed to be able to understand “horse language”), I went back home and found some actual proof: the original 5.25-inch disk that contained my description of my car sharing idea.
Not only did I find the disk I used back in 1989 to store my car sharing ideas, but I’m lucky in that I’m enough of a hoarder/geek that I happen to have three working old Apple IIs around me capable of opening the file.
Why I Did It
I know real sticklers would want an officially time-stamped file, but the Apple II didn’t come with a built-in real-time clock, so there’s no official date stamp. Even so, I swear that’s the year I wrote this, typing it into my Apple //e, using a 1984 copy of the Bank Street Writer word processor. Luckily, I still have that disk, too, and, incredibly, all these 143K disks still seem to work fine.
I called my idea “Vending Cars,” and in reading back over it, it’s pretty fascinating to see all the now-ridiculous hoops you’d have to jump through to get a car -sharing company running in the era before the internet, GPS, and cell phones.
I remember exactly why I came up with this idea in the first place: this was my first year off at college (remember, I’m painfully, miserably old) and even though I just bought my third Volkswagen Beetle (the yellow one I still have today), I wasn’t allowed to take it to college as a freshman.
At the time I had a two-year grant to go to Emory University in Atlanta. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but a free two years was not something I could pass up, so to Atlanta I went.
But not having a car drove me batshit. While I was lucky enough to be friends with a guy who was very generous with the keys to his Triumph Spitfire, I really wanted easy and regular access to a car. Renting a car was just too complicated and expensive, and it’s not like car rental places were anywhere convenient, or would even rent to an 18 year-old dipshit like me.
The result of my fretting about not having a car was 12 disk sectors of text in a file called VEND. Since I don’t have a ready way to transfer this to modern computers, here’s screenshots of the whole Vending Cars file, right off the green-phosphor 560x192 pixel screen of my Apple //c:
I actually printed this out and took it to a patent attorney in Atlanta; he thought the idea was patentable, but the cost of even having him get started was something like $1200 or so, far beyond what I could scrape up from my part-time job repairing monkey ejacula-trons at the Yerkes Primate Research Center. (That part is absolutely true, by the way. I had a job in the bioelectronics repair shop at the Yerkes Primate Research lab, and at least once I had to fix a machine that made monkeys ejaculate. I would like to believe I have since moved up in the world.)
So, even though I couldn’t afford to patent this and usher in the ZipCar era decades earlier, I think you can see the basic ideas were the same.
How It Works
Driver’s licenses were just starting to get computer-readable optical or magnetic strips, and I thought that would be a great way to get access to the car. Since there was no commercially-usable internet—let alone wireless internet—as we know it today, I was thinking the information from the license would be somehow radioed back to a local field office.
There were car phones, at least, so I was imagining that sort of radio connection could be used. Via the same externally-mounted card reader, I imagined that you’d then swipe your credit card to get access to the car and to buy your time in the car.
In hindsight, I should have had people sign up and get an account with a dedicated card, like the video rental places did. Then you could have the whole customer’s file and payment done on one pre-paid card.
Anyway, what did I know? I was just some dumb kid who really wanted to drive more. I figured the fuel pump could be turned on and off via relay, and that’s how the car would be enabled or disabled.
I was sort of a hardass back then, I guess, because I’d let the car just stop (with some kind of audible warning beforehand) if you ran out of money. There’d be an internal card reader so you could add more money and not be stranded, but in hindsight I can see that this would cause all kinds of issues.
I did specify an emergency call button that would place a cell call to the Vending Cars Help Line, so I guess if you got in a real jam you could use that and maybe they could re-start that fuel pump remotely? Sure, it’s clunky, but it’s really basically the same concept as any modern car sharing service. I think you could have pulled this off in 1989.
The other logistics are much, much clunkier without things like GPS and internet connectivity. For knowing where the cars were, I either hoped people would call and tell HQ , or I mentioned that the position could be “established electronically (beacons)” even though I had (and still have) no idea how plausible that is. Were there enough cell towers in 1989 to triangulate positions? This would have been an issue.
Maintenance was pretty iffy, too. I pictured that Vending Cars HQ would send out maintenance vehicles to prowl around where they thought the cars were, making sure they’re okay and topping them up with fuel.
I did specify that the cars would have an “externally mounted fuel gauge” which I still think is a pretty nifty idea for car sharing vehicles.
I also remember telling some friends that I thought Volkswagen Things would be ideal cars for this, because they’d be so easy to hose out and keep running. Even then everyone told me I was an idiot and that I’d need a car with an automatic transmission. That’s probably true, and it is today: I don’t think any American ride-sharing cars use manuals, much like how rental cars really don’t either.
So, yeah, there would have been plenty of obstacles to actually making this work. And I know people have been experimenting with various car sharing-style concepts since a housing co-op in Zurich tried it way back in 1948. But as far as a documented plan that’s pretty damn close to how modern car sharing works, I think this old Apple II file is on to something here.
Hell, the first all-new car brand in years is even pinning a lot of their success on their car-sharing concepts, even.
So, even though my plan had some big, world-before-internet issues to work out, and even though all of the big car sharing companies almost certainly never encountered that one copy of this file in the trash of some Atlanta-area patent attorney, and even though I never pursued the idea, I’m still hoping I can get some kind of huge settlement.
I mean, it’s not like this kind of thing hasn’t happened before, right? Anyone have that one lawyer’s phone number? I need to ask him something.