Cars are getting smarter all the time, with computerization gradually transforming vehicles from mechanical devices into electronic appliances.The rental car companies have been quickly ramping up the number of "connected cars" in their fleets.
First, what exactly is a "connected car"? It's a telematics-enabled vehicle that allows the company to locate it on demand, collect vehicle data, and access the vehicle for on-demand rentals.
If a customer gets locked out of a vehicle, the connected car features can help the rental car company unlock it remotely or even locate and recover a stolen vehicle—and they can also let the rental companies monitor the car's location, odometer, median speed, fuel level and more.
How prevalent are connected cars in the rental car space? Many Hertz vehicles have had visible cameras in cars for years. Avis had 200,000 vehicles connected at the end of 2019.
The Hertz NeverLost device next to the radio features a camera, and some models even greet the renter by name.
Hertz envisions a future where customers could have a live chat with an agent, like at many check-in desks across the country. The company doesn't have the capacity to do so at the moment, so the cameras are inoperable at this time.
Microphones are fairly ubiquitous in new cars, which means they are found in many rental cars. While we don't recommend syncing your personal phone to a rental car's entertainment system, be aware that services like OnStar that operate through a car's speakers are also implementations for microphones in cars.
Information Rental Car Companies are Collecting
In general, the information collected is intended to serve the company's needs. There is no intent to spy on rental car customers but the companies do want to keep an eye on their own assets.
- GPS: Used to report the location of vehicles with mechanical problems, recalls, accidents, and also to help when vehicles are stolen or suspected as stolen. Enterprise once lost a car for more than two years without noticing, then used OnStar to quickly locate the car. Avis also uses the GPS settings when a customer declares that a vehicle was dropped off as an unattended (but allowed) return after hours.
- Remote Lock / Unlock: Leave the keys in the rental car? The most common case for unlocking the car remotely is to help customers who lock keys in the car.
- Remote Shutoff: If the car still running after an accident or stolen, remote shutoff precludes the vehicle from moving.
- Operating Statistics: Rental car companies extensively document the service history of cars; operating statistics help plan maintenance and alert the rental car company of problems.
- Fuel Levels: Although it's not expressly listed in Hertz's policy, that company was the innovator on fuel metering. Fuel levels are usually only checked at the time of pickup and return.
What Rental Car Companies Do With the Information
Here's the good news. The rental car companies are not out to punish rule-following customers. There are, however, limited circumstances where the data collected might lead to a fee or a sanction.
At times, the rental car companies do assess fees based upon the use of the telematic resources. A member of the AutoSlash team was once charged a $15 fee by a rental car company for the few minutes required to unlock his rental car remotely. While the fee was for a task that required little effort by the agent, he much preferred the opportunity to unlock the car and get on his way, and the alternative would be to wait for a locksmith.
Violators of rental car contracts can expect to pay hefty fees. For instance, each rental car company has "geographic restrictions" that limit where the rental car can be operated. If these restrictions forbid activities such as border crossings and trips on ferries, a user who decides to make an impromptu drive to Tijuana, Mexico instead of returning the car at the Cross Border Xpress is a probable candidate for the rental car company's "Do Not Rent" list. Causing an accident due to negligent driving would also be known by the company, and would also result in an entry on the "Do Not Rent" list.
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