COMMENT: What's With The Hating On The Car Rental Biz?

Ah, the tech world, where if it's not disruptive, it sucks. If it's an oligopoly, it's the root of all evil.

I wonder how many people at Avis Budget during the past few weeks have asked, "Who the hell is PandoDaily?" and "Since when does TechCrunch know anything about travel?"

Both great tech blogs, the former published one of its most childish rants a few weeks ago in response to the Avis Budget acquisition of Zipcar. The author, site founder Sarah Lacy, in a post titled "There are just so many reasons to hate the Zipcar/Avis deal," wrote that she loathes Avis and the car rental industry. Here are her claims and the reasons behind her hatred:

  • There's no innovation in the industry.
  • At least partly because it's not a tech firm, Avis will probably kill innovation at Zipcar.
  • Venture capitalists who invested in Zipcar did not maximize their return.
  • It makes other startups like Getaround, Uber and Silvercar look less valuable.
  • It's a "bummer" because Zipcar was a disruptor.
  • It's a "bummer" because Zipcar is a pioneer in the sharing economy.

Then this week, in a presumably "exclusive" "First Look At Silvercar, The Future Of Airport Car Rentals," TechCrunch's Ryan Lawler opened with: "For those of you, like me, who hate incumbent car rental firms, Silvercar seems like a breath of fresh air." He also referenced the "typical horrible experience of airport car rental" and, like Lacy, doesn't really back up those assertions.

The post detailed Lawler's trip to Dallas/Fort Worth, hosted by Silvercar, to check out the startup's new operation there.

His only point seems to be that he didn't have to talk to a person to drive off in his car, which isn't an advantage for a lot of customers. As some of Lawler's readers commented on the post itself, Silvercar's pricing is not competitive and the experience isn't all that innovative relative to some of the traditional car rental firms' "express" programs.

I especially liked this comment from a TechCrunch reader: "Not sure why this is called a tech startup. Most industries are moving towards a more streamlined user experience through the use of technology and channels like mobile. If having a mobile app and self-service iPad kiosks is what you need to be tech startup, then my local legacy grocery store has long been a tech startup. There is a difference between use of existing technologies and innovating new technologies."

Now, the car rental business has become an oligopoly, as Lacy pointed out. Anyone can debate whether it's better or, as Lawler argues, worse to have to deal with a person at the car-rental desk than to use only technology to make a car rental happen. And the Washington Post's WonkBlog offers compelling arguments about the challenges of integrating corporate cultures.

But why the vitriol?

I'm not a frequent car renter. I still appreciate that when I rent, a stranger happily hands me keys to a car thousands of miles away from my home without me doing any more than showing him a piece of plastic. Point is, by and large, when I need to rent a car, it works.

Sure, it bugs me when they try to sell me additional insurance. And yeah, it's annoying to search for a gas station near the airport so I don't get hammered by fees.

But basically I have no complaints, and I'm not even close to a top customer who gets a slew of well-known benefits that ease the experience.

If J.D. Power is to be believed, and it's probably as good a source as any on this kind of thing, overall satisfaction among rental customers actually has risen during the past three years.

"The rental car industry continues to step up its game, building on improvements in the rental car customer experience made over the past several years, while also benefiting from higher satisfaction levels with cost and fees relative to prior years," according to Stuart Greif, J.D. Power's travel practice vice president. "However, there still are tremendous opportunities to leverage technology to address customer pain points in the rental car experience."

Fair enough, and it would seem that those pain points are among the top reasons Avis wanted Zipcar. What Zipcar and Silvercar, as well as Hertz and others, are doing is to introduce new technology and pricing models.

And all that's helping address a complaint I do have about the car-rental business: It's freakin' boring!