The smartest city car… is the one you don’t own

What to do when your apartment has no car park? Walking, busing, and biking are great, but sometimes you yearn for a road trip or need to zoom between lots of different places. For the climate-conscious city dweller, that’s where electric car shares come in.

The concept is simple. You don’t own a car, but there’s one available whenever you need it. You don’t pay for insurance, petrol, WOF, or repairs. You just pull up the app, rock up to the nearest hub, and drive away. Pay by the hour, the day, or the weekend – or subscribe to have a car available every day of the month. During the day, businesses and councils pay a premium to zip around the city; but after-hours, a bargain EV (electric vehicle) is yours for the taking.

In my home Ōtautahi Christchurch, the electric car share of choice is Zilch. They’re also present in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. Other players in Aotearoa include Mevo (Auckland, Hamilton, and Wellington) and GoTo (Tauranga). Cityhop has a restricted electric option, but it’s not their core offering. Traditional rental companies offer electric cars too, but at exorbitant prices – for example GO Rentals have a fleet of Teslas.

Photo of a white car beneath a starry sky.
A GO Rentals Tesla Model 3 beneath the Milky Way in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve

A beautiful driving experience

There’s something very satisfying about driving a Hyundai Ioniq or Kona from Zilch. You unlock the car using your Zilch card or app. The car is nice and quiet. The climate control is dependable. Adaptive cruise control helps you maintain a steady speed and a comfortable following distance. Bring a decent USB cable and your phone turns the car into a state-of-the-art entertainment, messaging, and navigation system (using Android Auto or Apple CarPlay). You can charge the car for free using your Zilch card at any ChargeNet station dotted along the state highway network.

If you’re lucky, Hyundai’s Lane Keep Assist will kick into action, although I’ve found it hit-and-miss. It works in some Zilch cars but not in others, and it’s not as intelligent as Tesla Lane Assist.

The Hyundai Ioniq is great for city driving. It also works for road trips, as long as there’s a couple of charging stations along the way. The Hyundai Kona has a much longer range and more of an SUV feel, making it ideal for road trips. For casual use, the Ioniq and Kona cost the same, but the Kona is more expensive on a monthly subscription (at least in Christchurch). Zilch also offers the BMW i3 – a small car that feels old-fashioned and awkward to drive.

Zilch cars are often overdue for servicing, which can manifest in things like a slightly deflated tire or streaky windscreen wipers. Invariably, the previous renter has changed all the settings, and I have to put everything back how I like it.

Photo of a white Hyundai Kona (with blue Zilch logo) driving uphill from an intersection. There is parched vegetation on both sides of the road. In the background are three motorcyclists.
A Zilch Hyundai Kona drives to the Ōtira Gorge lookout at Arthur’s Pass

Taking the plunge

It’s four years since I bought an apartment and sold my car. I knew it was the right thing to do. It brought me close to the places that matter, and it finally cut my dependence on a petrol guzzler. Restaurants, takeaways, and supermarkets are right on my doorstep. Work is just a short stroll away, along with theatres, bars, and a comedy club. I can hop on a bus and go for a walk in the hills.

I signed up for Zilch long before I moved, but it took me years to take one for a spin. Since then, I’ve been hooked. Any time I needed a car, I could book a Zilch overnight ($29) or for the weekend ($139). There’s a modest excess charge for driving over 180 kilometres per day. This cost can mount on a long road trip. Think $400 all up for a weekend return trip from Christchurch to Queenstown with lots of detours along the way.

It might sound expensive, but you face none of the hidden costs of car ownership – from steep interest rates financing a car, to big unexpected repair costs. Plus I only paid when I actually needed a car. I still had an incentive to walk or take the bus when convenient. Uber still made sense for parties.

Occasionally, a car enough isn’t enough. If I have something huge to lug around, I rent a fossil-guzzling van from Cityhop for a couple of hours. They’re parked up at Mitre 10s around the country.

Better value on a monthly subscription?

For the last few months, instead of paying casual rates, I’ve been on a Zilch subscription. I pay a flat fee of $600 a month. I can drive a modern, dependable electric car whenever I want it outside business hours. I can hold onto it during a workday for $49. The car is mine overnight and on weekends and public holidays. If I have any problems, I just call Zilch and they switch me into a different car. I’ve come to recognise the names and voices of all the staff.

There’s free parking near my apartment on weekends and overnight. It’s always free to park (and charge) at a Zilch hub. I’m not the only resident subscribed to Zilch. There’s usually a few of the distinctive cars dotted around the neighbourhood.

Photo of a grey Hyundai Kona (with blue Zilch logo) in the snow.
A Zilch Hyundai Kona in the snow on the way to Queenstown

Is the $600 per month worth it? I’m undecided. It means going for a drive is a no-brainer, but I often wonder if I’d be better returning to casual rates. I’d save a lot of money by only paying when I really need the car. Plus I could choose the right car for the occasion. The Ioniq is great for lugging bulky stuff around town, while the Kona is perfect for road trips.

One deciding factor for me has been an annoying bug in the Zilch system. An overnight car rental is meant to be capped at $29, but if you return the car before midnight it charges you the full $16 per hour. The thought of returning a car at 8am makes me shudder, but I hate staying up past midnight just to return a car. My nearest Zilch-enabled carpark building closes at midnight anyway. If I contact Zilch, they happily refund the overpayment, but doing that every time is a hassle.

It’s also hard to choose between paying $16 per hour, $119 per day, or $139 for an entire weekend. Just a few hours driving around town and you might as well have booked the car for the full weekend to get your money’s worth. And if you’re paying for a full weekend, you might as well pay $149 per week for an Ioniq subscription or $224 per week for a Kona subscription (prices vary by city).

You can’t learn to drive in a car share

If car shares are the way of the future, one glaring issue is this clause in the Zilch terms and conditions:

“The Driver must be aged twenty one (21) years or over, and have held a full current driver licence for a minimum of three (3) years.”

This begs the question – how the hell is our next generation of car sharing drivers supposed to learn to drive if they’re under 21 and their family doesn’t own a car? I even have someone in their late twenties who I want to teach to drive but can’t because of this prohibition.

Photo of a white Zilch car parked on a street with Lone Star, Pak'nSave, and the Port Hills in the background.
A Zilch Hyundai Ioniq parked in my neighbourhood (photo by Mark Darbyshire)

The way of the future

It’s disappointing that car makers haven’t already made “sharing” a core feature of their cars. Car sharing feels like a poorly-supported, tacked-on extra. Your preferred settings should follow you between cars and integrate seamlessly with a smartphone app. The settings should automatically get flushed out every time you return a car (I once accidentally left a GO Rentals Tesla logged into my Netflix account). The problem is, these companies get more money if everyone owns a car. Cars “as a service” (CaaS) isn’t lucrative enough for companies or appealing enough for customers. But there are promising early signs. In 2019, Toyota New Zealand bought car share company Cityhop.

I hope as Zilch grows in popularity, they iron the kinks out of the system and introduce better off-peak hourly rates so I don’t feel forced into a subscription. Maybe one day car shares will become self-driving. But for now, I’m just glad to be an early adopter of this future-focused driving model.

Mark is a champion for inner-city living. He is the body corporate chair for Atlas Quarter – the first large post-quake apartment development in Christchurch Central. Mark is founding the neighbourhood association CŌNcentric and working with the Body Corporate Chairs Group to better connect apartment developments throughout New Zealand. He has presented to Christchurch City Council on creating a sustainable, affordable, dense, and resident-friendly city.