“Smart” rental cars can get even more intelligent in smart cities.
The Avis Budget Group, which operates rental brands like Avis, Budget and Zipcar, will partner with Kansas City, Mo., to allow the city to feed some of its many data streams into its cars. The result means renters, who are often visitors to the city, will have easy access to parking and traffic information via mobile devices using the Avis app.
“From a user experience, we hope this will guide renters to their destinations more efficiently and provide them with local knowledge of things like construction, congestion and other impediments to getting around,” said Bob Bennett, chief innovation officer of Kansas City. “Similarly, by adding parking context — don’t park on the east side of Main Street on the first Wednesday; it’s street cleaning day — and guiding customers to sites that meet their needs, they will have more time to meet or shop in our community with less frustration.”
Kansas City has become a leader in the smart cities arena, deploying an army of sensors, harvesting data and using it to predict everyday problems like what intersections are most vulnerable to potholes. Bennett calls downtown Kansas City “the 54 smartest blocks in the United States.”
According to Avis Budget Group Chief Innovation Officer Arthur Orduña, the company has about 5,000 rental cars in the Kansas City region, a good size for testing. Connected vehicles are those that share real-time vehicle information — location, fuel reading, mileage and other operational data — wirelessly with Avis officials and drivers. For example, a smart and connected car lets users know where to find the next gas station or offers remote access to certain vehicle functions. Plus, with real-time location tracking, the cars no longer even need to be kept in a dedicated car-rental lot.
By the end of the year, about 100,000 of the company's cars will be “connected,” say company officials, with the plan to install the technology on all 600,000 Avis brand rental cars in the United States.
“Connected really means data-driven,” said Orduña, in an interview with Government Technology in Kansas City last month during the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo.
A connected fleet, said Orduña, will transform car rental business operations.
“It’s a completely different business,” he said, calling to mind efficiencies and easily tracking needed maintenance as mundane as knowing when a tire gets low on air.
A natural next step is to partner with cities that have already made headway in becoming smart and connected as a way to get information from cities to visitors via the rental car companies through apps and other digital methods.
“It could be like, ‘While you’re here, do you want to learn about some local events?’” Orduña said.
“Or, we could link you to the [Convention and Visitors Bureau],” he added. “And suddenly, we sort of start this magic journey.”
The pilot has launched with data paths established and network architecture tested, said Bennett.
"But it is not a customer-facing entity yet," he clarified.
The partnership could also offer up practical information. For example, a city’s digital parking network could alert drivers to available meters or nearby garages with open spots.
The data partnership — because at its core, that’s what this agreement is — runs both ways. Not only will drivers and Avis get a free flow of information, Kansas City will get a window into how well traffic is flowing.
“What we hope to get to is to have the rental vehicles serve as ‘sensors’ by letting us know how traffic is flowing every 15 minutes or so,” said Bennett.
However, in any agreement between public entities and private companies, privacy concerns must be fleshed out. For now, Avis only has access to publicly available data streams.
That data is anonymous, said Bennett.
“And aggregated at the block level, so the privacy concerns on our end our minimal. We will not get the Avis customer-specific data.
“Avis is a great partner with us in this endeavor,” said Bennett. “We will implement a data-sharing partnership with them once we get to the point where their data provides feedback and refinement to our existing traffic models. We’ve begun those discussions but have not completed the agreement yet.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.