Stranded in Westborough

On Friday, Andrle and I took a Zipcar out to Worcester to see a friend’s band, Wilderun, open for Turisas at Paganfest 2012 at the Palladium. It was a fun show, and others agreed. I’ve had some exposure to metal and folk metal, although more with some of their origins in prog rock’s folk experiments, but this was my first concert of the sort. I think we were the only ones there with earplugs :oD. I also saw my first mosh pit, and confirmed that I would never want my wee frame in one.

The concert, however, is not the focus of this tale. On our way home to Boston, on Route 9 about 20 minutes outside of Worcester, the Brake Warning Light came on in our Mazda 3, so we immediately pulled off the road into the parking lot of the Westborough McDonald’s to check the brakes and then call for assistance. Through a comedy of errors, we did not make it home until almost 4 hours later. Zipcar did a good job taking care of us in spite of a number of things outside of their control, and have compensated us for the inconvenience, but I do have a few suggestions that might help avoid big waits and a total of 19 incoming and outgoing phone calls. Details below the cut.

Before we even stopped, the first thing I did was to consult the car’s manual, which confirmed that this was a potentially very bad warning light. After we pulled off the road, we confirmed that the parking brake wasn’t stuck on, and decided that the correct course of action was to call for assistance instead of driving a car that could possibly lose its brakes at any moment. It’s entirely possible it was just a computer fault, but we didn’t think it was worth the risk. My dad also called (after seeing our tweets) to make sure that we had checked that the parking brake wasn’t stuck. That certainly would have made for a shorter evening had it been the case.

A call to Zipcar quickly got us connected with Zipcar’s Road Assistance service, and they set up a tow truck, set to arrive in 45 minutes. That sounded reasonable, especially considering where we were; a quick callback later confirmed that the truck would be able to fit both of us in the cab and take us all the way back to Cambridge. We popped inside to grab some fries and wait. The Zipcar rep also told us that they’d refund us the evening’s rental, since it had gone so wrong.

The tow truck seemed increasingly late, so we called back to make sure that they were somewhere nearby and on their way, but he didn’t show until almost two hours in. The tow driver got ready to pick up the car onto his flatbed, but as he lowered it, there was a rather terrible crunch noise. I was at first worried he had hit the car, but this turned out to be the sound of a temporary weld breaking somewhere in the supports for the truck’s flatbed. In the process the flatbed also punctured the right rear tire of the car, so we definitely weren’t driving it anywhere. The driver proceeded to hang around for almost 30 minutes while we called to arrange alternative transportation, I think hoping that somehow we’d pay him for his trouble, which was definitely not going to happen.

We quickly confirmed with Zipcar that they’d be willing to reimburse us for a taxi ride home, and that it was okay to leave the car. They emailed Andrle a form for that and we found a nearby cab company that was open and took credit cards, since the ride back to Cambridge would be ~$75. We then waited. And waited. And called the cab company, whose dispatcher seemed to be confused by either the address we had clearly given them or the landmark of “the McDonald’s in Westborough on Route 9”. A cab finally picked us up at around 12:30 and we headed home. After some navigation from the Allston MassPike exit, we finally got dropped off at around 1:40 am Saturday.

A long night, caused by pretty much everything possible going wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a tow truck breaking before, but it sounded like maybe the driver’s manager was being lazy about permanent repairs. I felt a little bad for the driver wasting time and not getting paid, but at the same time, he accepted a job that he didn’t have the equipment to do. On top of that we had a lost, sleepy cabbie.

A few folks have commented that it’s likely that Zipcar cuts corners on maintenance, and that that is why we got a dud car. While that’s certainly possible, Andrle has been a Zipcar member and regular user for 5 years, and this is the first time she’s had serious trouble. I would think that if maintenance were consistently bad/delayed, we’d have had more problems with the cars. It’s also worth reiterating that while maintenance issues may have been the proximate cause, a lot of what happen was just bad timing.

I do have a few thoughts on how to improve the interaction in these non-accident emergency situations. First, the priority should be to get the driver and their passengers either a replacement Zipcar or transportation to their destination. Because of how far out of Boston we were, the former was understandably not an option. I get cost-wise why they’d rather us travel with the tow, since we were more or less going back in the same direction, but we could have left the car in a taxi a lot sooner (even with the cabbie getting lost finding us) . Had it been earlier in the day, we would have been willing to just get a ride to the nearest commuter rail station to get back into town.

There is also a problem with layers of indirection. We had to interact with Zipcar and Zipcar Roadside Assistance, who in turn worked with some auto club (which I discovered by accidentally calling back the wrong number), who called the tow company, who dispatched a driver. On the one hand, it was handled for us, but on the other hand, we had no idea how long we’d be waiting since we weren’t in direct contact with the tow company.

A third minor thing is that it would have been nice to use caller ID to immediately associate all of our calls into some kind of currently open ticket. That way we could have quickly jumped the queue as events developed and talked to the same rep we’d worked with, without waiting for follow-up calls

Even before this was totally resolved, we knew we’d remain Zipcar members – the annual costs for our moderate usage are well below the cost of owning even a cheap used car, and while our current apartment has a parking spot, there’s no guarantee of one at future locations. I don’t even want to think about how much it would have cost us to tow and repair our own car had this happened, not to mention having to stay with it until a second tow truck arrived.

Since Friday, Zipcar has refunded the cost of our trip, started processing our taxi fare reimbursement, and credited Andrle’s account with 25 dollars of free driving. I don’t know what the exact conversion of our lost time is, but this gesture, which wasn’t even promised, is really nice. I am somewhat curious what turned out to be wrong with the car, as well… on the other hand, I might not want to know if it would have been safe to continue driving home. Overall, a stressful and late evening, but I think Zipcar did right by us in resolving things as best they could as things went hilariously wrong.