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Tech reporter stranded after driving out of cellphone range in app-powered smart car
Canada Created: 20 Feb 2020
'There was a lot of confusion over where to tow the useless car to get it to work,' says Kari Paul.

Kari Paul and her partner were planning on driving into the northern California wildness for a Valentine's Day weekend getaway. But when they left the city behind, they left behind a strong cellphone reception and ended up stranded on a remote highway.

The couple were driving in a smart car they rented through the car-sharing app, Gig Car. When the app lost a stable connection with the car, it eventually shut the vehicle down.

Paul happens to be a technology reporter and wrote about her ordeal. Gig Car has since refunded her trip and added a credit to her account.

In a statement, Gig Car's parent company, American Automobile Association, told As It Happens they "deeply apologize" for what happened adding, "we are committed to improving our service and customer care, and will assess this situation for learnings."

Paul spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about her ordeal and what improvements she thinks need to be made to Gig Car and similar car-sharing apps.

First of all, walk us through how this car-sharing app works, at least in theory?

It's pretty convenient. You just download the app on your phone and then upload, I think, a driver's license and some of your payment information.

Then you can just find on the map a car parked and unlock it with your phone and then drive away.

How often have you used it?

I've probably used it 40 or 50 times. I use it pretty often.

OK. What happened on this trip?

We ended up going to a kind of remote area about three hours north of San Francisco and we ended up getting a bit stuck without cell service to update the car's software.

Why does that matter?

Basically, a phone unlocks the car using a combination of cell service and Bluetooth. So when you're out of cell range it can be difficult to unlock the car.

Usually, you can call Gig and have them remotely unlock it. But if you have been in a range out of cell service for a long enough time they lose the ability to remotely do anything to the car.

Well, then what happens when your car isn't able to talk to its owner?

In our case, it wouldn't start. We had gone down to the beach on a little hike for about 30 minutes. And when we got back the car would not start. It said we didn't have a key, I guess because it couldn't sense that the cell phone, which works with the key, was near it.

We called Gig [and] asked them what to do. They said we had to be towed. We ended up waiting a couple hours for a tow truck to come get us. And there was a lot of confusion over where to tow the useless car to get it to work.

You have to tow it to someplace where there is cell connection so the car can re-establish a connection with its master?

Yes, exactly. So it had to be towed to an area with cellphone service.

So we initially had it towed to our AirBnb because we had Wi-Fi there and thought that would be enough to start the car, having our phones securely connected to Wi-Fi.

But it turned out it actually needed to be towed about 30 miles (48 kilometres) away to the nearest town with cell service. So, it did involve two tow trucks and a lot of time on the customer service lines.

OK. So, I don't understand. You were on the customer service line on your cellphone?

Correct. We had enough cellphone service to call customer service and get this figured out luckily, because otherwise we would have been completely stranded.

They were unable to ping the car because, I don't know, they hadn't updated, or synced, the software in 24 hours.

So you had hours of this ordeal. Two tow trucks. How many phone calls did you have to make?

More than 20. It was a lot of back and forth.

What does Gig Car say about this? I mean, is this a glitch in its system, or is it just a glitch in your experience, or what?

I think in this case, it's the combination of it being so remote. I mean, it's a 40-mile (64-kilometre) stretch of land with no cell service and about one tow truck serving the whole community there.

What Gig also told me is that they offer RFID (Radio-frequency identification) technology cards, similar to Zipcar and other car rental services, where you kind of scan the card to get into the car. So in the case that you don't have cell service or Bluetooth, you can still get into your car.

We did get a statement from Gig Car saying that they deeply apologize for your experience. They did mention this Gig card that you could get and that this would get around this. So could you have avoided all of this if you'd had one of those cards?

In theory this card could have helped me avoid the situation.

It also seemed to be an issue with the software and the car being unable to think due to the lack of cell service. I think the other issue here is that I'm a tech reporter. I'm pretty tech savvy. I've used this app 40 or 50 times, as I said. I've never heard of this card.

So I think it's also kind of a user experience issue and that the app does not tell you about this card. I know that Gig said they're going to start making it a bit clearer that if you go anywhere out of town you should get one of these cards in advance.

But it does take two weeks to ship to your house. So I think it's a bit at odds with their 'hop in and go' advertising language. So, I think maybe that's why it's not stressed so much on their website.
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Source: CBC, Chloe Shantz-Hilkes and John McGill, 19 Feb 2020

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