What do you really want from a rental car?

By | March 13th, 2016

Coming soon to a rental car near you: apps that let you make voice-activated reservations, programs that track the health of your vehicle, and wireless hotspots.

The upgrades are incremental, leading toward a future when self-driving rentals pick you up from home, the train station or the airport. That day is just around the corner.

“I believe it to be inevitable,” says car rental analyst Neil Abrams. “Autonomous vehicles are on the horizon and in the next several years.”

Would you rent a car that drove itself? Me, too.

Back to reality, all these new developments do raise the question: Are drivers ready for these brave new cars?

Car rental companies are upping the ante with their apps. Avis, in late 2015, became the first car rental company to launch an app for the Apple Watch. It lets you email yourself a car rental receipt and retrieve car rental reservations right from your wrist. The company also upgraded its Android app to allow consumers to make reservations by voice, which is a great feature if you’re driving. And Audi surprised observers by introducing an app that allows “on demand” direct bookings that bypass the car rental agency entirely.

New technologies can also monitor the car. Record360, an app that tracks vehicle damage before, during, and after your rental, promises you won’t get stuck with a bogus car rental bill. Another product, DropTag Drive, a sensor that keeps tabs on your rental like a black box, can help determine what happened to a car in case of an accident. Industry observers expect these gadgets to be more widely deployed in 2016 and beyond.

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Car manufacturers are slowly coming around to the digital age, with better adoption of Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay. GM, for example, recently added wireless hotspots to its vehicles. Many car rental manufacturers already rent hotspots for an additional charge, but the idea of a more connected vehicle, where your smartphone is interfacing with the vehicle at a deeper level, is just starting to become a reality for car rental customers.

For customers, even a wireless signal is a big deal, particularly on an international rental car. Chris Brown, the executive editor of Auto Rental News, recently found a hotspot in his rental in Mexico, which saved him from having to rack up extra roaming fees. “In-car Wi-Fi was a lifesaver,” he says.

But do customers really want all of these new gizmos? They might. For example, an app that tracks car rental damage can exonerate a customer who didn’t damage a car, saving thousands of dollars in unnecessary damage claims. But drivers don’t usually ask for something like that until they see a questionable claim.

“A car is a car,” says Jim Strebler, a frequent renter based in Phoenix. “I’m not concerned about extravagances — just basics.”

Renters like him don’t mind technology that could improve a rental, and they aren’t against having a connected or autonomous car. But they would settle for something small. “I’d like to be able to operate the radio, for starters,” he confesses.

Strebler is not alone. I’m no Luddite (despite what my 13-year-old-son will tell you), but for the life of me, I can’t figure out the radio on most rental cars, either. They’re actually referred to as “infotainment” systems, and I haven’t found one that’s in any way intuitive. Rental companies would be doing us a huge favor by ripping them out and replacing them with an Android Auto or CarPlay system.

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When it comes to technology, renters have less lofty ambitions. Ed Kummel, an engineer from Sterling, Va., wants a car that comes with all the necessary electronic toll tags for a single, reasonable charge. “Not a daily charge, which is a complete rip-off and frequently exceeds the cost of tolls,” he adds.

In other words, car rental customers are looking forward to the newest rental cars, and a self-driving car would be great, too — just make the upgrades practical and don’t charge us extra for everything. Who wouldn’t want to rent a car like that?

Your technology checklist

Before you rent a car loaded with new technology, make sure you’ve answered these questions:

Is there an extra charge? Car rental companies generally don’t invest in new technologies unless they can easily monetize them. Ask before you accept a car with any extra technology and be aware of any additional fees that might apply.

How does it work? The newest navigation systems, infotainment systems and wireless hotspots aren’t always intuitive. Fire them up and test them before you drive away — doing so while driving is a dangerous distraction. A helpful employee can walk you through the basics of operating them.

Do you really need it? If you’re being offered a tech-heavy car and you’re uncomfortable with the screens and devices, you might be in the wrong car. The wrong technology can frustrate the driver. You may be better off asking for a different vehicle.

  • fshaff

    New technology just equals more money the rental companies can squeeze out of you, including something they can claim you broke.

  • Greg Paul

    When I saw the headline for this article asking what we wanted from a rental car, I was worried this would be a story about the rental car companies emulating their airline cousins (unbundling the tires or seats?) for those cheapskates who allegedly are demanding unbundling.

    I was glad to see I was wrong…

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