[Editor's note: Story has been updated to clarify availability of Zipcar Flex]
That was Jeff Kaelin’s initial brief response to the question, “How are rental car companies changing their approach to the end consumer?”
But Kaelin, who is vice president of product development for Avis Budget Group, talks at length when asked to elaborate on what he means by that. He has a lot to say about the company’s “journey to a connected fleet,” noting that it’s all about shifting control from the rental company to the consumer.
Avis Budget has worked to provide what Kaelin describes as “a mobile experience that allowed customers to control their end-to-end rental experience.”
Examples of that would be notifying the customer that the vehicle has been assigned to him or her and letting the customer know before he or she arrives at the rental facility where that vehicle is located. The customer can change his or her assigned vehicle to a different one.
But Avis Budget has been active in other areas of technology such as subscriptions, and one program allows customers to rent vehicles for a month or multiple months. Avis Budget in 2013 acquired carsharing company Zipcar and recently began a Zipcar commuter offering, providing commuters access to a vehicle and a parking spot. A Zipcar “flex offering” allows the customer to pick up a Zipcar vehicle in one location and drop it off at another.
(Zipcar Flex is only available in London. It is not available in the U.S.)
Other major rental car companies have also stayed on top of the technology trends and have worked to change their end consumer approach “completely,” as Kaelin puts it. In Minnesota, Missouri and Nevada, Enterprise this past April launched what it said was the U.S. car-rental industry’s first vehicle-subscription service, called Subscribe with Enterprise.
Hertz in June unveiled Hertz My Car, which provides customers access to Hertz’s fleet of vehicles through a monthly subscription. Hertz also introduced an app this year, providing its renters with access to reservations, rewards and receipts.
Avis Budget’s mobile app lets renters see when the next shuttle bus will arrive, how to navigate the airport to get to the rental car facility, and how to change the drop-off location or date and time of their rental if their travel plans change.
And all that information is paired with a connected car, which allows the company to provide access to information such as real-time fuel and mileage monitoring, real-time ability to capture the vehicle’s location if the driver needs roadside assistance, and the ability to lock and unlock a vehicle and flash the lights.
“We use that integrated with the connected car technology to enhance the rental experience,” Kaelin said. “From there, we really have put connected cars at the center of digitizing our business.” Avis Budget Group currently operates more than 100,000 connected cars in its rental fleet.
More on connected cars
But before continuing the conversation about connected cars, a definition of the term is probably in order. Kaelin of Avis Budget said his company’s definition of a “connected car” was simple:
“It’s a vehicle that communicates with us and that we can communicate with,” he said.
In addition to fuel and mileage information, Kaelin added that a connected car provides the rental company with information such as diagnostic trouble codes.
“So how’s the vehicle feeling? Is there a check engine light on? Is there low tire pressure? This helps us to better manage the fleet as well as our customer experience,” Kaelin said. “The location of the vehicle. And we’re able to integrate that information and data into our existing business processes to better manage our fleet, to help us locate vehicles on the lot and to help us better prepare a vehicle to be rented.”
Enterprise corporate vice president of innovation Ryan Johnson defines “connected car” by looking at it from a passive and an active perspective. Passive connectivity to the cars means Enterprise is taking information from the car and using the information that the car is providing.
“Active means I’m going to try and interact with the car to change the customer’s experience by actively addressing that connection,” Johnson said.
Enterprise is running pilot programs involving hundreds of connected cars across its network.
“We should have a couple hundred thousand connected cars over the next two years,” Johnson said. “To get the whole fleet connected, you’re talking about manufacturers all over the world, different makes and models, etc., but just the early stages of piloting hundreds of vehicles moving toward a couple hundred thousand vehicles meshed across the millions of transactions we have.”
This year, Avis Budget expanded its partnership with technology company, Continental. Avis Budget will increase its number connected cars in the U.S. and Europe by equipping 50,000 vehicles with Continental’s Key-as-a-Service, or KaaS, technology.
The technology allows for two-way data communication between a vehicle and Avis’ cloud-based system and its mobile app, which Avis says effectively “connects” the car. Continental’s aftermarket system also eliminates physical car keys, and Avis customers can use the Avis mobile app to unlock the car and start the engine.
Avis Budget is providing fleet vehicles to Lyft drivers in various major metropolitan areas.
“So now we’re providing our fleet to supplement their needs to be able to provide available vehicles to drivers,” Kaelin said, adding that those and other capabilities allowed the company to perform “fleet management-as-a-service (FMaaS).” About two years ago, Avis and self-driving technology company, Waymo, signed an agreement in which Avis Budget will provide fleet management services for Waymo’s autonomous vehicles.
More on rental companies’ technology innovations
Coolfire. Launchpad. Deem. Zimride. Mobility-as-a service (MaaS). Most people would have to do an Internet search to learn what those companies and terms are all about. But the major rental car companies are on top of this latest-technology stuff.
Johnson says Enterprise has been working with “more advanced technology partners” by acquiring technologies or technology companies.
The company earlier this year acquired Deem, a managed-travel technology platform that includes online booking and technology products for groups such as business travelers and travel managers.
Johnson said Deem “allows me to book across lots of different platforms and allows us to kind of move into that managed travel software space.
“We’ve got software products like Zimride to allow people to book one-way, one-time trips to share a ride together,” Johnson said.
Avis Budget also sees the benefit of working with technology partners. In June, on-demand public mobility company Via deployed a microtransit system for seniors living in Newton, Mass. In partnership with Avis Budget, the new service will include a fleet of Mercedes Metris vans and wheelchair-accessible vehicles.
Technology is also helping the rental companies themselves work more efficiently. Enterprise partnered with Coolfire Solutions to build a tablet called Launchpad that Johnson said “effectively allows our employees to do transactions anywhere remotely.”
If a rental customer’s car breaks down, or if a customer needs a vehicle delivered to a specific location, Enterprise can use Launchpad to “launch our employees out to anywhere where they need to do the transaction,” Johnson said.
“It’s another example of us trying to use these partnerships to accelerate the innovation within the company to make sure we’re able to provide whatever transportation solution our partners need wherever and whenever they need it, versus being beholden to a traditional branch,” he said.
And it’s just another example of how technology has helped rental car companies transform the way they do business. Completely.
“I think what’s interesting as a whole is that as a car rental company, we recognize that the mobility landscape is changing,” Kaelin said, adding that the company’s recent partnerships demonstrate the company’s recognition of that change.
“So whether that’s access to keyless vehicles that allow us to put our existing products and services in new markets, that we’ve done through Continental or our partnerships to support ride-hailing fleets with Lyft or Via, or if it’s carsharing and our acquisition of Zipcar, we’ve been making significant investments in and around that space,” Kaelin said.