In recent years, technology has solved most of the pain points of travel and logistics. Uber now delivers a car to you in just minutes with the press of a button. Waze gets you around traffic. Hotwire's app and Hotel Tonight let you book a same-day hotel with a couple taps. But have you tried renting a car lately?
If traditional car rental companies have been consistent in one area, it's making the process of renting a car one of the worst experiences on the planet. They've tried to innovate by adding ways to bypass the counter and head straight to your car, and now you can rent "cool" cars from some companies, but they're missing the point. In fact, in Seatac's new car rental building, Hertz has one of the most absurd solutions to making things easier: a luxurious waiting area.
When I walked by the Hertz rental counter a couple days ago, I almost thought there was a movie theater in the building. The chairs were large, there was plenty of leg room, and it was masterfully lit; the only thing it was missing was a movie screen.
Has Hertz's ability to innovate come down to simply building a nicer waiting area while your significant other stand in line?
But I digress.
I reserved a car through another company and approached the counter. I'll spare you the sob story: They didn't have the car I had prepaid for. (I needed a large SUV as I was planning on carrying a lot of people.) Despite receiving confirmation that my Yukon (or similar vehicle) would be waiting for me upon arrival, it turns out that the closest thing they had was a Jeep.
I cancelled my reservation and went to another counter.
Thrifty had a Yukon XL. Great. However, at Thrifty, you can't rent an SUV directly - it's only available as an upgrade. In order to rent an SUV, you must first make a reservation online for another kind of car (like economy), then have the counter upgrade your reservation. As I stood at the counter, I had to pull out my laptop and make a reservation online and wait about 5 minutes for it to make its way through the system. (Are carrier pigeons delivering my reservation?) The attendant then had to try to upgrade me and no one knew exactly what rate she would be able to get me.
Hi. It's 2014. Is this really where we're at?
Oh, but this isn't over yet. After I get my reservation packet, I head downstairs to the garage to find the car. Three attendants and 15 minutes later, we find the SUV. First they tried to put me in a full-size car. We explained we rented a premium SUV. They said they didn't have any, but we could have an Xterra. We then point to a large Yukon sitting over in the corner. Finally we had our car.
I detail this story to make a point: Renting a car (especially if you care about what car you end up with) is still one of the worst experiences on the planet. Leaps and bounds in innovation clearly isn't going to happen with the big car rental companies, unfortunately. It's going to end up coming from Silicon Valley.
We're already starting to see out-of-the-box challengers. FlightCar gives you free airport parking by allowing you to rent out your car to others while you're out of town. But it's going to be a long, uphill battle. We've already seen airports make a fuss about UberX because it cuts out their airport on their ~$4 fee they charge to Uber Black Cars (and they make money from taxis, too). (They say it's an insurance issue, but let's be real.) Already when you rent a car at an airport, 20%-40% of what you pay goes to various local tourism taxes and, of course, the airport.
What we need is a new sort of company that starves the traditional rental car companies. Without that, we will never see real innovation, because they don't have anything to fear. When I rent a car, it shouldn't take interfacing with a total of 10 people to rent a car, especially when I prepay online.
"The old empire" of unionized industries is crumbling, but one of their remaining pillars is the car rental industry - a $10 billion/year industry. It will take some time, but that pillar is bound to come down. And I can't wait to watch it unfold.