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CIO interview: Marc Roberts, CTO, HiyaCar

The CTO at a company that is disrupting the car rental sector tells Computer Weekly about some of his major projects

Being CTO at a startup business that uses IT to differentiate itself means there is no legacy hangover and software can be developed quickly to address business challenges.

HiyaCar is a peer-to-peer car rental company, or, as CTO Marc Roberts puts it, “like Airbnb for cars”.

The company, established three years ago, enables members to make their cars available for rent to other members through an online platform.

As head of IT at a startup company that is disrupting a sector through technology, Roberts is in the privileged position of having a group of business leaders around him who understand the importance of digital technology.

When it started up, the company’s initial challenge was not a technical one. The first 18 months of its existence saw its founders trying to get the right insurance policy.

The cars are insured through HiyaCar’s policy when they are in use. “This is the key thing that helps the business run and we couldn’t do without it,” says Roberts. “If there is an accident when a car is being hired, the owner’s insurance is not affected.”

Once the insurance cover was sorted out, the company got running using an off-the-shelf software platform from Compare and Share, which has since folded. Roberts says: “This was not perfect for us, but it proved the market and enabled the founders to raise money.”

It was at that point that Roberts joined HiyaCar and started to build a new platform from scratch. The company wanted to own its own platform that could be used to add value and drive business.

The platform project took about nine months. “We migrated all data and launched the platform in April,” said Roberts, adding that the actual migration to the new platform took only about two hours one night.

HiyaCar currently has about 750 cars listed on its platform, most of which are in London, which is its current focus. It has about 15,000 registered users, with about half of them active.

Viable alternative

The challenges it faces are still not technical, says Roberts. “There is a lot of tech development to do, but the real challenge is bringing users to the platform and showing them this is a viable alternative to traditional car hire.”

IT itself should never be the challenge, but something used to overcome challenges, he says. To this end, HiyaCar’s IT department is constantly working with small projects to improve the business model.

“We have our own platform now and we can add anything we want,” says Roberts. “For example, in the past there was one account per car, but now we can have multiple cars on an account.”

HiyaCar also has an application programming interface (API) that can be embedded into other companies’ platforms.

It is also currently making the platform – which is accessed through the web – available on dedicated iPhone and Android apps.

Keyless technology

But perhaps the best example of HiyaCar’s agile development and ability to add digital services to fix business problems is its adoption of keyless technology.

In a project that is just coming to fruition, keyless technology from QuickStart will enable HiyaCar members to access vehicles without having to get the keys from the owners.

In the past, someone would request a car, the owner would then confirm and the two would meet at the car for the key handover.

But this became problematic, says Roberts. “A lot of bookings couldn’t go ahead because they were short-notice and the owner was not by their car or couldn’t get to a key exchange.”

The QuickStart technology means a mobile phone can be used to unlock the car and a dead key, which is useless without the mobile phone being close by, is left in the car to start the vehicle.

HiyaCar now has 30 cars in London that have been fitted with the keyless technology and plans hundreds more across the UK.

The benefits also extend to security. If a car is stolen, the technology allows the engine to be disabled remotely and the doors locked once the vehicle has come to a safe stop.

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