“Before” and “after” pictures of your rental car? Now that’s customer CRVIS

One of the most common questions I get from car rental customers who are facing a damage claim is: “Why can’t they take pictures of my car before it leaves the facility?”

Actually, they can.

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Hertz is testing a new technology called Car Rental Vehicle Inspection System (CRVIS) that photographs every car leaving the lot, stores high-resolution images and allows the car rental company to compare them with pictures taken of the same vehicle after it is returned.

“It protects customers and makes the claims process far easier for employees,” says Kamil Walus, a location manager at Newark.

CRVIS has been shrouded in mystery since it was announced in 2009. Some industry observers have suggested photographing a rental car – something travel experts have long recommended car rental customers do in order to prevent a fraudulent damage claim – was impractical.

I have repeatedly asked Hertz if I could see CRVIS, and was granted an exclusive tour yesterday at Newark International Airport.

Here’s how it works:

• On one end of CRVIS is a series of cameras installed at what looks like a toll plaza. When any metal object passes over one of two pressure plates, it triggers the system. One camera records the license plate, while six others capture images from the front, back, side and top of the car.

• CRVIS takes 70 images of the vehicle, according to Hertz. They’re stored on a server and available for retrieval, in case damage to the car is discovered after the rental.

• During the claims process, an associate can quickly retrieve low-resolution images of the vehicle and compare a time-stamped image to one taken prior to the rental. If the picture is fuzzy – and none of the ones I was shown were – then they have the ability to zoom into a higher-resolution image to determine the extent of the damage.

I observed CRVIS in action on both the front end and the back end, and although Hertz says it is still tweaking the technology, I came away with the impression that it operated smoothly, if not inconspicuously. Customers did not appear to be aware that their vehicle was being photographed.

Hertz did not tell me how much CRVIS costs or how many images it takes on a typical day in Newark. It currently also operates the technology in Philadelphia and has plans to install another test system in Atlanta soon.

Although the primary use for a system like CRVIS would be in handling damage claims, that isn’t its sole purpose, according to Hertz. It has also been used to track down items left in cars by previous customers, and to identify customers who need extra attention from the rental location.

“If someone has had a bad experience, the system can alert us, and we can have a manager greet them when they return,” says Paula Rivera, a spokeswoman for Hertz.

The obvious question, after having seen CRVIS in action, is: Why haven’t more car rental companies invested in this kind of technology?

Certainly, the biggest reason is cost. Although Hertz won’t say how much it paid for CRVIS, a system like this could easily set each location back by six figures. Hertz, which is known to be conservative with its damage claims, would stand to gain from CRVIS because it only pursues customers who have seriously damaged its vehicles. The system provides the needed evidence to make a legitimate claim that might otherwise be dropped because of insufficient evidence — or to exonerate an innocent customer.

But for car rental companies that pursue claims for minor dings, dents and scratches – or for whom damage claims are a known profit center – a verification system like CRVIS could actually hurt business. Because the system notes all pre-existing damage, it makes it impossible to pursue customers who are falsely accused of harming the car.

Of course, CRVIS doesn’t solve every claim issue. Internal damage can’t be noted by the system, and an intrepid claims adjuster could still fool CRVIS with a few clicks in Photoshop.

But this is far better than the current damage-claim system, which relies on hearsay and often incomplete or unreliable records.

(Photo of CRVIS in action taken yesterday at Newark Airport.)