Spying Car

We've all heard maxims expressing that privacy in the modern era is impossible. Maybe Rockwell was ahead of the curve in the mid-1980s -- we have ample evidence today that any incident that's potentially embarrassing is almost certain to have video taken on a cameraphone! What happens as rental car companies have begun a shift toward "connected cars"?

Rockwell's dad was the CEO of Motown Records; good friend Michael Jackson sang background.

The rental car companies already have "connected cars" in their fleets and Avis has announced a program to double their number of connected cars over the next year. Avis' concurrent update to their Privacy Policy had some users questioning just how private a rental may be given rapid advancements in technology:

Information on how our connected cars permit us and our service providers to activate features such as remote lock/unlock, remote disable engine/cancel ignition and automatically transmit vehicle data such as location, odometer, fuel level, and other data during your rental.

Features that help customers get into vehicles or recover stolen rental cars are helpful but a company being able to monitor location, odometer, fuel level, and other data? Turns out, Avis announcement earlier this year was actually a late entrant to the game. The other major rental car companies were already there with disclosures of the information that may (or may not) be collected by your next rental car. In fact, many Hertz vehicles have had visible cameras in cars for years.

Did you just turn "Somebody's Watching Me" to 11? 

The Hertz NeverLost device next to the radio has a camera, and some models even greet the renter by name.

There are Cameras and Microphones in Many Rental Cars?

Yes, and we'll address that before coming back to how the information collected by rental cars themselves is really used. Even the privacy-conscious would have to accept the rationales from the rental car companies. Hertz envisions a future where customers might want to have a live chat with an agent, like at many check-in desks across the country. The company simply 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 -- whether bought for personal or rental use. We don't recommend syncing a personal phone to a rental car's entertainment system but have you ever used a service like OnStar or made a phone call through a car's speakers? Those are common, everyday implementations for microphones in cars.

The Information Collected is About Protecting the Car. 

Avis' statement provided a fairly straightforward case that the information collected is intended to serve the company's needs. There is no intent to spy on customers by any of the major rental car companies. The rental car operators are in an unenviable position -- these companies buy new cars, rent these cars for a period of time to users like you and me for rates that barely cover operating costs, then have to sell the depreciated used car within a year or two. The financial viability of rental car companies is largely dependent upon the sales prices of vehicles leaving their fleets -- the rental car companies that frequently come to mind have billions of dollars worth of cars that have to be sold each year. The average new car now costs over $34,000 and well-maintained cars (often sold as "program cars" at dealerships) help the companies avoid massive losses when vehicles are no longer used as rentals.   

How is the Information Used in Practice?

Technology is simply a tool. While we can't claim the rental car companies are saints -- we frequently hammer the companies when deserved in our blog posts -- the rental car companies are just using cheap, easy to maintain technology to protect their vehicles!

  • GPS -- Is 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 had this great case of missing 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. 
  • 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 -- Is 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. I wish these practices were in place when I had a Ford CMax hybrid get less than 20 mpg highway
  • Fuel levels -- Although it's not expressly listed in Hertz's policy, that company was the innovator on fuel metering. Fuel levels -- when monitored -- are usually only checked at the time of pickup and the time of return. Have you ever had a rental car that moved off "Full" immediately upon leaving the parking lot? We all have! And Hertz -- in 2013 -- declared that the difference between "apparently full" and "actually full" was costing the company approximately $50 million per year.  

Is the Information Used to Punish Customers?

Here's the good news. The rental car companies are not out to punish rule-following customers! However, there are 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. Our own Chris 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 -- the alternative would be to wait for a locksmith!

Then there are the blatant rule breakers. Violators of the rental car contract can expect to pay hefty fees for their transgressions. For instance, each rental car company has "geographic restrictions" -- areas where the rental car cannot 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. The rental car company really doesn't care about activities such as cranking the sound system -- otherwise, our entire team would be in trouble! 

The Rental Car Company Policies

Want more detail than the abbreviated descriptions above? Here are the privacy policy components for each rental car company, listing how telematics might be used on your next rental. 

AvisBudget Group (owns Avis, Budget, and Payless)

"Some vehicles you rent from ABG may be equipped with devices which allow us to send commands to and receive certain information from the vehicle, including geolocation data from a global positioning system (GPS). These devices are turned on all the time, even when other services or other media in the vehicle is turned off.   ABG and its partners may collect and process vehicle data about the vehicle itself, such as fuel level, odometer, speed, diagnostic and performance data, tire pressure, accident or damage data, and location and direction of travel data. This information assists us in providing our services (such as responding to unlocking door requests, remote start and stop and our unattended vehicle pick-up and return), software updates, product support, locating and responding to accidents, identifying reported lost, not returned, suspected of being stolen and stolen vehicles and as may be requested by law enforcement agencies.  We may also use this information to determine certain fees to be charged in connection with our services.
This data also helps us understand vehicle or driver related behavior such as traffic patterns, fuel efficiency, driving behavior, vehicle usage, environmental impacts and vehicle maintenance improvement.  We may share vehicle data with third parties who assist us in providing and improving our services and with law enforcement agencies and others to protect our rights or to enforce the terms and conditions of our services.  To learn about how we share the data we collect, scroll down to Information Sharing.
Services such as OnStar or other similar manufacturer provided features, which may be included in your rental, may collect vehicle data as well. We encourage you to go check out their privacy practices."

Enterprise Holdings (owns Alamo, Enterprise, and National)

"Enterprise Holdings’ vehicles may be equipped with OnStar or another vehicle telematics system (“Telematics System”). Some or all Telematics System functionality may or may not be active during rental periods. Telematics Systems may provide use, disclosure of, or access to (1) location information, (2) crash notification and related crash data and, (3) operational condition, mileage, diagnostic and performance reporting of vehicles (“Telematics Data”), as permitted by law.

Use of the Telematics System is subject to the terms and conditions and privacy policy posted by the applicable Telematics Systems provider and/or vehicle manufacturer (in the case of OnStar, information is available at www.onstar.com), which may include system and service limitations, warranty exclusions, limitations of liability, wireless service provider terms, privacy practices, descriptions of use and sharing of information, and user responsibilities."

Hertz Global Holdings (owns Dollar, Hertz, and Thrifty) is the most succinct, collecting information

"Through our in-vehicle or in-equipment technology or through other telematic devices"

And the information collected may include:

"Location data such as geographic location of electronic devices used to contact us or to access our mobile “apps” or of the vehicle or equipment you have rented.
Information regarding the vehicle or equipment rented and its operation during your rental."

Sixt Rent A Car

"You acknowledge that the Vehicle may be equipped with a telematics device, global positioning satellite (“GPS”) technology, an electronic locator device, and/or an event data recorder. We may find, monitor, or disable the Vehicle through such systems if we deem it necessary, without warning or notice, to the extent permitted by applicable law. Remote monitoring may include the collection of Vehicle data, such as location, odometer, oil life, fuel level, tire pressure, battery charge, diagnostic trouble codes, and other elements that we may deem necessary. You should have no expectation of privacy related to the use of this Vehicle. We are not responsible for the operability of any telematics navigational or other system included with the vehicle. You acknowledge these systems may use cellular telephone, wireless technology, or radio signals to transmit data, and therefore your privacy cannot be guaranteed. You authorize any person’s use or disclosure of or access to location information, automatic crash notification, and operational vehicle reporting conditions of Vehicle as permitted by law. You shall inform any and all drivers and passengers of vehicle of the terms of this section and that you have authorized release of information as provided herein. You agree to release us and agree to indemnify, defend and hold us harmless for any damage to persons or property cause by failure of the telematics device to operate properly, or otherwise arising from the use of the telematics device. Third party telematics service providers are not our agents, employees, or contractors."

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