On Saturday morning, I used an app on my phone to unlock a vehicle from Gig, a car sharing startup, and set off for a Valentine’s Day weekend trip to northern California with my partner.
By late Sunday afternoon, we were sitting on the side of a remote highway, a software issue on our smart car rendering it unusable. It was getting dark, we had no way of getting home, and I was contemplating the limits of the sharing economy and the ultimate costs of convenience.
Gig is a company that rents a fleet of hybrid Toyota Priuses and electric Chevrolet Bolts in the Bay Area and Sacramento to 65,000 users, according to a spokesman for the company. It is part of a growing field of car-sharing services – including Zipcar, the now-defunct Share Now, and recently Uber and Lyft – that allow users to rent standardized vehicles on the go. Other peer-to-peer car sharing companies such as Getaround and Turo allow users to rent their own cars to one another.
The services make it incredibly convenient to hit the road – no paperwork or trips to the rental company required – but come with their own costs, as I learned this weekend.
We had stopped the car for a quick hike down to the beach and when we returned found we could no longer use my phone to start the car. A customer service representative told us by phone the car’s software could not be remotely reset as it was out of cellular service range. It needed to be towed.
“Does this happen often?” I asked the representative, incredulously. “On that highway, yes,” she replied. I later discovered this particular stretch of US Highway 1 has no cell service for an approximately 40-mile radius.
Kari Paul (@kari_paul)
today in sharing economy struggles: our app powered car rental lost cell service on the side of a mountain in rural California and now I live here I guess pic.twitter.com/XoqqMpEwdN
February 17, 2020
According to an email from Gig sent that afternoon – which I did not receive until much later – to offer customers the “best experience”, cars are re-synced automatically every 24 hours; in other words, the car needs to update its connection to the cloud for security purposes. Without the ability to re-sync the car, customer service agents cannot remotely assist members, the company explained to me in a separate follow-up email.
However, the car cannot be re-synced easily if it is more than 50 miles outside of the “HomeZone”, out of cell range, or if the vehicle is moving.
A software engineer with experience in the field told me this was common with such technology: the longer the car goes without an update, the more vulnerable it becomes to security issues.
“It works great if you have a dependable cell connection,” the engineer, who asked to be quoted anonymously because he works at a company similar to Gig, said.
So we waited, and waited. I had enough cell service to send futile tweets about the saga but not to extricate myself from it. Eventually, Gig had us towed back to our Airbnb, where our wifi was useless in restarting the vehicle, which needed to be synced through the cellular network.
We pleaded with Gig employees to send us a second tow truck and then pleaded with them to reset the car after they told us we had already reset it the maximum number of times that day. We had to explain to numerous American Automobile Association (AAA) representatives and one rural tow truck driver what a connected smart car is.
Kari Paul (@kari_paul)
six hours, two tow trucks, and 20 calls to customer service later apparently it was a software issue and the car needed to be rebooted before we could use it @internetofshit pic.twitter.com/LZBZQwRJk8
February 17, 2020
Finally, five hours, two tow trucks, and more than 20 phone calls to Gig’s customer service line later, we got the car to start again. “Can I give you one more piece of advice?” the customer service representative said to us after the car finally turned back on. “Get the hell out of there – now.”
Driving a smart car into rural California seems, in retrospect, ill-advised. But others have told me they experienced similar issues, even within the city limits of Oakland and San Francisco.
Kate Wolffe, a reporter at KQED, said she had been stranded a few weeks ago at Redwood regional park in Oakland and walked for an hour and a half to get a Lyft after abandoning the car. One Twitter user told me she and her friends got stranded in Muir Woods – about 16 miles outside of San Francisco – and pushed the car, in neutral, to an area with cell service. When that didn’t work, they abandoned the car and had Gig retrieve it later.
This time last year, a Reddit poster shared a an experience similar to mine, in which his car stopped working when it lost cell service on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. In September 2019, the Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey wrote about getting stranded by Zipcar in a similar fashion.
In the aftermath of the saga, a customer service representative from Gig alerted me that users can order a radio frequency identification (RFID) card to lock or unlock the car in areas of poor cell service. Buried in the company’s website it suggests users order one, which takes two weeks to ship, before they “roam far” outside San Francisco. In the more than 40 times I have used Gig car since August 2019, I had never heard of the RFID card, and that precaution appears pages below the company’s promises to let users “sign up instantly” and “get going”.
A spokesman from AAA, which is the parent company of Gig, apologized by email for the experience.
“We are committed to improving our service and customer care, and will assess this situation for learnings,” a spokesman, Sergio Avila, said. “One immediate action is to improve communication to our Members about the important role that Gig Cards play in helping start a vehicle no matter where or when they need to use them before a trip even begins, so they are not dependent on cell service or Bluetooth alone. Our review of this Member experience is ongoing, and we will continue to identify ways to improve.”
“Our goal is to always have Members reach their destinations and we did not meet that expectation during your trip,” he said.
Ultimately, I was refunded for the trip and given an $85 credit for my troubles; I’m also being sent a Gig Card for long trips in the future. And when I walked outside this morning, the car I had gone through hours of trouble with was gone – someone else had checked it out and taken it on its way.
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