USA TODAY US Edition

Car rentals go high-tech

Firms up ante with apps, Wi-Fi,

- Christophe­r Elliott chris@elliott.org Special for USA TODAY Elliott is a consumer advocate and editor at large for National Geographic Traveler.

Coming soon to a rental car near you: apps that let you make voice-activated reservatio­ns, programs that track the health of your vehicle and wireless hotspots.

The upgrades are incrementa­l, leading toward a future when self-driving rentals pick you up from home, the train station or the airport. That day is just around the corner.

“I believe it to be inevitable,” says car rental analyst Neil Abrams. “Autonomous vehicles are on the horizon and in the next several years.”

Would you rent a car that drove itself ? Me, too.

Back to reality, all these new developmen­ts do raise the question: Are drivers ready for these brave new cars?

Car rental companies are upping the ante with their apps. Avis, in late 2015, became the first car rental company to launch an app for the Apple Watch. It lets you email yourself a car rental receipt and retrieve car rental reservatio­ns right from your wrist. The company also upgraded its Android app to allow consumers to make reservatio­ns by voice, which is a great feature if you’re driving. And Audi surprised observers by introducin­g an app that allows “on demand” direct bookings that bypass the car rental agency entirely.

New technologi­es can also monitor the car. Record360, an app that tracks vehicle damage before, during and after your rental, promises you won’t get stuck with a bogus car rental bill. Another product, DropTag Drive, a sensor that keeps tabs on your rental like a black box, can help determine what happened to a car in case of an accident. Industry observers expect these gadgets to be more widely deployed in 2016 and beyond.

Car manufactur­ers are slowly coming around to the digital age, with better adoption of Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay. GM, for example, recently added wireless hotspots to its vehicles. Many

car rental manufactur­ers already rent hotspots for an additional charge, but the idea of a more connected vehicle, where your smartphone is interfacin­g with the vehicle at a deeper level, is just starting to become a reality for car rental customers.

For customers, even a wireless signal is a big deal, particular­ly on an internatio­nal rental. Chris Brown, executive editor of Auto Rental

News, recently found a hotspot in his rental in Mexico, which saved him from having to rack up roaming fees. “In-car WiFi was a lifesaver,” he says.

But do customers really want all of these new gizmos? They might. For example, an app that tracks car rental damage can exonerate a customer who didn’t damage a car, saving thousands of dollars in unnecessar­y damage claims. But drivers don’t usually ask for something like that until they see a questionab­le claim.

“A car is a car,” says Jim Strebler, a frequent renter based in Phoenix. “I’m not concerned about extravagan­ces.”

Renters like him don’t mind technology that could improve a rental, and they aren’t against having a connected or autonomous car. But they would settle for something small.

Strebler is not alone. I’m no Luddite (despite what my 13year-old-son will tell you), but for the life of me, I can’t figure out the radio on most rental cars, either. They’re actually referred to as “infotainme­nt” systems, and I haven’t found one that’s in any way intuitive. Rental companies would be doing us a huge favor by ripping them out and replacing them with an Android Auto or CarPlay system.

When it comes to technology, renters have less lofty ambitions. Ed Kummel, an engineer from Sterling, Va., wants a car that comes with all the necessary electronic toll tags for a single, reasonable charge. “Not a daily charge, which is a complete ripoff and frequently exceeds the cost of tolls,” he adds.

In other words, car rental customers are looking forward to the newest rental cars. Just make the upgrades practical and don’t charge us extra for everything.

DropTag Drive, a sensor that keeps tabs on your rental like a black box, can help determine what happened to a car in case of an accident.

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