Avis Bets Connected Toyotas Will Make Car Rentals Easier

Traditional car rental is up against a growing number of alternatives for getting around. Both automakers and rental agencies are starting to take advantage of the connected technologies that have given rise to new transportation options.

Avis Budget Group, one of the world’s largest car-rental companies, announced a partnershipearlier this month in which it will buy at least 10,000 connected cars from Toyota. The move was part of Avis’s plan to make its whole global fleet of more than 500,000 vehicles connected by 2020.

“Connected car” can mean many different things, but most involve the vehicle having its own cellular radio. For rental companies, this can help to increase convenience and safety. Connected features should cut down on the hassles of picking up and dropping off a car as well as dealing with problems on the road.

For example, the connected Toyotas that are bound for Avis beginning late this year — as 2019 models — will allow the rental agency to read the odometer and the fuel level over the air as the customer brings the car back, saving employees and renters time, according to Avis.

The vehicles will also let customer-service representatives diagnose some problems remotely if a customer calls in from the road with car trouble, Jeff Kaelin, Avis’s vice president of product development, told The Connected Car. Knowing what’s gone wrong can help Avis get the right kind of help to the customer.

Cellular connections will also help with location, letting Avis know where the car is if it breaks down and helping the customer find it in a crowded parking lot. Avis’s smartphone app can give them directions to the vehicle.

Other connected features, some of which will come in future models, could change the rental experience much more. The biggest would be the ability to unlock and start the car using a phone. That could lead to unmanned rental facilities with no counter and no lines, Kaelin said.

Through a smartphone app, consumers would reserve and pay for the rental, get directions to the car they’ve been assigned, and unlock the doors when they got there. In some vehicles with a keyless ignition, they could even start the car through the app.

Avis has already started trials of some of this technology. It’s initially looking to put the unmanned rental locations in urban and suburban settings, not at the big airport lots where many tourists pick up cars, Kaelin said.

It isn’t a completely new idea.

In fact, startup Silvercar lets customers handle every part of a rental through its app after their initial rental, when they have to show their credit card and driver’s license to an attendant. Silvercar also breaks from car-rental tradition by stocking only Audi A4 sedans and Q5 crossovers.

Silvercar is only one of the new connected travel options that conventional agencies are up against.

In addition to the ubiquitous ride-hailing services in most cities, there are services for sharing cars with local residents, which include Getaround and Turo, as well as other renters who book time with a specific car in a particular spot (Zipcar).

Not to be left out, Avis Budget Group acquired Zipcar in 2013. Zipcar members use a card, not their phone, to unlock their rental, but it’s an unmanned process that lets Zipcar place cars just about anywhere.

Avis is exploring future services that would be in between the card-carrying member model and traditional rentals. For example, first-time customers might pick up a car parked at a big-box store if they needed it to take a large purchase home, Kaelin said.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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