Is Zoomcar an adequate replacement for car ownership?

Last month I sold my 14 year old hand-me-down car. It was a gift from my parents when my daughter was born. For a while we made the most of it, driving everywhere, from neighbouring restaurants to 1000+ km cross-country trips. As my daughter has grown, my usage has dwindled to out-of-town destinations every couple of months. I walk or ride a bicycle for my daily needs. The car was starting to show its age and disuse. The battery would drain out and need jumpstarting. Rats would feast on rubber tubing under the hood. Tyres and shocks needed expensive replacing. At 14 years, it was finally time to let go.

What should I get next? I couldn’t justify a new car with my limited use. Perhaps another second-hand? Or should I go carless, relying on taxi services like Uber and Ola and rental services like Zoomcar? I had a vacation coming up, so I used the time to stew.

I usually head up to McLeod Ganj and Dharamkot for a few days in May to decompress while the weather is just right. This time I convinced my ageing parents to come along. They can’t walk much and certainly weren’t going to be able to handle the steep gradients, so a car was necessary. Our options seemed to be to (a) rent taxis as the need arose, or (b) rent a car for the trip. It was a good time to try Zoomcar.

I have not used Zoomcar before this. My impression from online mentions is that various people have been unhappy for various reasons, but this I will discount:

  1. People only express themselves when having strong emotions. Someone who had a great time is not going to be profusely thanking Zoomcar, whereas someone who had a terrible time will name and shame the brand.
  2. The quality of a car is notoriously hard to determine, to the point “used car salesman” is a popular pejorative in America. Zoomcar may not be intentionally renting out lemons. They could just be bad at evaluating.

However, my most distinctive memory of Zoomcar is of CEO Greg Moran ranting at a disgruntled customer some years ago. I can no longer remember when or where, but I think it was on NextBigWhat’s now defunct forum. A dead link points to it. Here was an ill-tempered CEO making a public display of hostility to a customer in a market that is traditionally hostile to customers. Best to avoid. The revolution was yet to come.

Fast forward to 2019 and Zoomcar is still around and experimenting with new services like Pedl. I see increasingly more acquaintances riding their cars. Casual mentions in travelogues are positive. The company appears to have established itself. My friend Vinayak Hegde is now CTO, which gives me the confidence to overcome the initial bad impressions.

I ask Vinayak if I should rent in Chandigarh for driving to Himachal Pradesh and he agrees. He also asks if I could give him feedback on the experience, and that is the basis of this post.

The good

To prep for the holiday, I plan to take an advance flight from Bangalore to Delhi, a train to Chandigarh, and from there rent and drive to McLeod Ganj. My family will follow with a bus from Delhi to McLeod Ganj, to avoid the multiple hops I have to take. In Delhi I finally try the Zoomcar app. I have no idea what it takes to rent. To my pleasant surprise, the process works end-to-end in the app. I take photos of my id cards and face, pick a car and pay online with my credit card, and it’s done. There’s a car waiting for me in Chandigarh. There are a few quirks in the process which I report to Vinayak, and which he agrees to address.

At the designated pick-up point I have to wade through cars in a parking lot looking for the one. I find it easily enough, and an associate pops up to guide me through the car’s features and legal documents. The app asks me to make a record of all surface scratches so I’m not held liable for them later. The car has only 5387 km on it and is in great shape. The drive is pleasant, and when my family arrives, the car proves to be invaluable. It’s just wide enough to navigate McLeod Ganj’s narrow streets, but large enough to fit all of us. We spend time in McLeod Ganj, Dharamkot and Bir. At the end of the week, we split up again and I drive to Chandigarh to return the car, unloading baggage first at a friend’s house.

The return process is completely unattended. I arrive just before the promised time of 10 PM, leave the key in the car, take photographs of the odometer (6047 km), fuel gauge and exterior, report a new scratch (those damned narrow lanes), and then the car locks itself. It has internet-enabled autocop, which is pretty nifty. The app tells me I’m done and I leave the scene. I receive a congratulatory message shortly after, telling me that I’ve entered some privilege club and no longer need to put down deposits and will now earn some mysterious Z points. That was easy.

This trip could not have happened without Zoomcar or an equivalent service. We were five adults in the car. If we had a driver, we’d need a larger car, meaning fewer options, more expenses, and difficult navigation on narrow lanes. Bringing the family car from Bangalore was not an option either. Zoomcar not only made this trip possible, it also made it pleasant for everyone. For this I am grateful.

The bad

How did that internet-based car lock work? I discovered it shortly after crossing into Himachal Pradesh, when Zoomcar sent me an SMS alerting me to pay road tax. Either the app on my phone was spying on me, or the car itself was. Vinayak confirmed it was the car. The secret GPS, internet connection and internet-enabled locking feature were necessary to track down stolen cars and immobilise errant customers who failed to return cars.

This is a fair requirement, but I had taken a self-drive car to avoid having a nosy driver in my family affairs. Instead I was being followed by an invisible eye in the cloud.

For the past few years I’ve been hearing from researchers on CCTVs and surveillance. The common narrative is that a CCTV improves security by replacing a policeman’s social biases with technology that records objectively. The researchers dismiss this simplistic narrative and say that far from improving safety, CCTVs in fact entrench power. The person in the TV room is a representative of the powers that installed the cameras. He or she is invisible to the watched and to the cameras, and therefore free to exercise biases with impunity. A CCTV project should not be about the technology but about the governance of the entire apparatus, and yet this is somehow sacrificed at the altar of technological determinism (i.e., the belief that a society is directly influenced by the technology it uses).

(In one egregious example, a garment factory deployed CCTVs for the safety of women employees, but the men in charge of the project installed a camera facing the women’s restroom and proceeded to keep tabs on restroom visits.)

Zoomcar should make an upfront declaration that the car will be tracked, explaining what data is collected, how long it is retained, what purposes it is used for, and who will have access to it. This is far too important to be buried in policy pages.

When I first took the car, the associate happily informed me that the car was pristine. The app agreed. My eyes did not. The many blemishes were plainly visible, so I dutifully recorded them using the app. The app kept dissuading me with warnings that I would be penalised for using this feature if my interpretation of the blemishes differed from that of the invisible eye in the cloud, an ominous warning for the ugliness that was to follow.

The ugly

I returned the car at the appointed hour and went to bed. When I woke up, I had an email from Zoomcar. Apparently they had issued me a refund and now I owed them ₹8000 more. This made no sense in my groggy state and continued failing to make sense as my brain resumed functioning. Exactly what sort of refund is it where in the pretext of putting money in your pocket someone takes out money instead? The word for it is theft. This seemed so obviously an error, I reported it to Vinayak immediately.

Could this be related to the scratch I reported? I checked the app and sure enough the booking now had two line items for “Vehicle Damage Fee” of ₹4000 each, with no further explanation.

The app said I would be blocked from making further bookings until I paid up. A threat, but as a first time customer, I had no loyalty so I wasn’t bothered. Who wants this unpleasantness again?

Vinayak told me he was looking into it. A few hours later on the train to Delhi, I got a call from a Zoomcar representative who very politely explained to me that I had caused major damage to the car, but after reviewing the case, the fee had been reduced from ₹8000 to ₹4000. The rep was obviously in a call centre somewhere and had not personally inspected the car. The claim email was sent at 5:09 AM. Either someone inspected the car in the dead of the night with a torch, or someone in a back-office (aka, the eye in the cloud) looked at the pictures I submitted — with their streaks of camera flash reflecting off highway dust — and decided I must have crashed the car. The rep insisted all evidence including physical inspection was considered. I wasn’t buying it. The signal on the train wasn’t good, so I suggested we have this call when I was in Delhi. The rep again very politely agreed and explained how I could call back. Full marks for politeness.

The app now informed me that I had ₹4000 due and my credit card was going to be charged automatically at 1 PM the following day without my consent, but I had the option of consenting to be charged immediately. No option to disagree with the charge. This is practically Aadhaar’s voluntary-mandatory territory.

I told Vinayak that this interaction reminded me of Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch. Zoomcar and I disagree about the damage. I’m now hundreds of kilometres away from the car. The person I’m having a disagreement with has obviously never seen the car. Has anyone from Zoomcar actually seen the car? We are arguing over a dead parrot, and the ridiculousness of this situation is such a glaring design flaw in Zoomcar’s processes that it needed to be acknowledged at the least. The pleasant experience I had over the past week has crashed into a wall at full speed.

From Delhi I called Zoomcar again and asked the rep to guide me to the damage charges page. These charges, fair or not, are what I consented to when renting the car, so I will pay. The disagreement is over whether the damage is a single scratch (rated at ₹500) as I believe, or major damage including dents (at ₹4000) as Zoomcar insists. You, the reader, are not expected to judge. I will not show you pictures. This is not a call for vigilante justice. What I expect is for Zoomcar to present evidence for their claim, just as I did for mine, and to appoint a neutral arbiter of the dispute.

The rep on this second phone call agreed to a review of the charges. An employee I met later explained that when a customer disputes a charge, the charge is held until a resolution is arrived at. Zoomcar violated their own processes by charging my credit card ₹4000 at 5:09 AM, exactly 24 hours after the first emailed claim.

Since I have not consented to this charge, this is fraud. I’m now fully within my rights to demand a chargeback from my bank. (My email to Zoomcar’s customer service has not been answered at the time of this writing.)

Charges without documentation. Also, 5387→6047 is 660 km, not 1135 km, so either the hidden GPS or the odometer is broken, or the data entry operator failed at math

Wither justice?

Zoomcar played lawmaker, judge, jury and executioner here. They made the rules, became the arbiter of whether I had violated these rules, evaluated the evidence without me, and then took money from my pocket without my consent. To wit, I am a serf in their digital feudalism, with my fate entirely at the lord’s mercy. I have no rights. If Zoomcar is a benevolent lord, I shall have a good life. If Zoomcar is in a bad mood, I am doomed.

You know what? We no longer live in a feudal society. People have rights! In modern society, this is called a property dispute, and society has invented institutions such as the rule of law and courts of justice where disputes can be heard and settled fairly. Zoomcar may have no respect for these institutions within their domain, but they stepped into the real world when they stole my money.

What should Zoomcar do?

I trust Vinayak to be a decent fellow who is not interested in swindling customers. I trust Greg Moran has overcome his distrust of customers and now wants to genuinely build an institution that transforms how we live and travel. I trust they want to build oversight mechanisms that do not require customers to have high-ranking friends.

However, this is not going to work in a feudal setup or its modern derivative, a benevolent dictatorship. As the aforementioned CCTV example suggests, all accumulation of power will be misused unless explicitly governed in the public interest.

Following the principle of subsidiarity (problems should be resolved at the lowest level possible), rather than invoking government oversight (which seems inevitable), Zoomcar should appoint a non-profit trust with an explicit charter to protect the interests of customers, and then give it teeth in the form of stock and a board seat. Governing boards are legally only responsible to shareholders and this creates the basis for the benevolent dictatorship problem that plagues all platform companies. Facebook’s troubles are a stunning example. An equity stake dedicated to customer interests will go a long way towards restoring a balance of power.

There’s also the matter of whether the charges are fair since accidents are by definition not intended, and a charge that restores the property’s value accumulates to the owner and not the customer who paid for it. Minor damages should be insured against, with the premium billed to the customer. Ironically, from Zoomcar’s own home page:

Oh really?

Zoomcar, you owe me evidence for your claims, or a refund and an apology. This is easier than fixing your governance mess, and maybe I will be your customer again.

And what should you do?

Don’t sell your car. When you own property, you have rights. Don’t give them up to be a serf at Zoomcar’s mercy. Any conciliatory statements they may make are only damage control and not enforceable rights. As for me, I will be buying a car again.

Update: Zoomcar has refunded me ₹4000. Customer service doesn’t appear to understand what the fuss is about, however.

Your author presents a vision of a digital lord in the cloud dispensing justice. Photo by an unidentified professional who quoted a ₹200 fee and received it