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Car rental companies get more connected

Car rental companies are increasingly adapting their vehicles for a more connected world.

Avis Car Rental announced that it will double its fleet of fully connected cars by early 2018, bringing the total number of such vehicles to 100,000.

Enterprise, which owns National Car Rental and Alamo Rent a Car, introduced LaunchPad. Rather than having to go to a counter, the customer is greeted by an employee with a tablet who has the reservation on file. The employee can immediately take the customer to the car. A receipt is emailed to the customer upon return of the vehicle.

Hertz gives its customers more control over the cars they rent by rolling out a service called Ultimate Choice. The program, available at 24 top U.S. airport locations, lets customers select any vehicle within their assigned zone based on their loyalty status and chosen car class.

“Certainly, ease of use and efficiency is the word of the day in terms of transportation,” says Chris Brown, executive editor of Auto Rental News. “No one wants to have to take a shuttle bus to a rental car facility and wait in line. They want to get where they want to go.”

The companies are reacting to a world in which drivers have immediate access to cars through smartphone apps. Customers also have many more transportation options such as car-sharing services Uber and Lyft and short-term rentals such as ZipCar.

“It’s certainly accelerated the need to take steps further into this new world of smart mobility, and it’s a needed step,” Brown says.

In an interesting twist, both Avis and Enterprise have invested in car sharing companies. Avis owns Zipcar and Enterprise Holdings owns and operates Enterprise CarShare.

Forming partnerships has become a way for the companies to innovate. For instance, Pennsylvania State University has partnered with Zimride by Enterprise to launch an online ride-matching service that connects drivers and passengers heading to the same area.

Avis’ connected cars expedite the rental process during pickup and drop-off by providing real-time access to vehicle information such as maintenance needs. Employees can see fuel consumption measured to a tenth of a gallon, as well as precise mileage readings.

Customers benefit from one-touch returns and instant email receipts. They can lock and unlock the car’s doors through the Avis mobile app. They can even use the app to flash the vehicle’s headlights, so they can easily find it.

The app allows renters to make a reservation, choose the exact car they want, access the rental agreement and get help if they need it on demand.

Scott Deaver, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Avis Budget Group, says the program has improved the company’s operations. He says it has been a boon for business travelers as well.

“Our research revealed that corporate travelers on a tight schedule want speed, efficiency and control over their travel experience,” he says. “When they need something, they expect it quickly and with transparency.”

He added: “Business travelers can focus on work, enjoy some downtime before a meeting or get home from a business trip faster. And from the perspective of their employer, this time can ultimately save our corporate partners tens of millions of dollars in staff time.”

Enterprise is testing LaunchPad across the USA, as well as France.

Lee Broughton, a vice president at Enterprise Holdings who manages the Enterprise brand, says LaunchPad has streamlined the rental process while allowing the company to learn more about its customers’ preferences through pre-filled reservations.

It has allowed employees to get away from the counter so that they can interact with customers anywhere to provide more options. In other words, they conduct business on the customers' terms, he says.

“The opportunity to get to know the consumer in an even more intimate way is something that is available to you, but there has to be an organization to it,” he says. “We’re really trying to take a holistic look. Launchpad represents us addressing the whole flow of how a customer experiences our products and services.”

Broughton says the popularity of Uber and Lyft has not made a real dent into Enterprise’s business. He acknowledges that it has changed consumer behavior in the “hotel world and travel space in general.”

“There’s an expectation they can dictate all travel experiences,” he says of consumers.

That’s partly why Hertz launched Ultimate Choice.

At participating locations, Gold Plus Rewards members can choose their cars from special lots with a wider selection of vehicles if they make a reservation for a midsize car or above. Ultimate Choice will expand to more locations by the end of the year.

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