Jan. 14, 2013 at 9:50 AM ET
What do you get when you cross Southwest Airlines’ approach to fleet management, Zipcar’s approach to mobile technology and 200 brand-new Audi A4s?
If you’re Luke Schneider, you get Silvercar, a new rental car company launching on Monday. Starting with one location at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Schneider and company believe they’ve come up with a concept that leverages all of the above and, in the process, eliminates the usual annoyances of renting a car.
“The idea is to take the traditional rental car counter out of the equation,” said Schneider, the company’s CEO, “to transfer the experience out of the physical and paper domain and put it in the virtual and mobile domain.”
The system is based on the company’s mobile app, which is connected via the cloud to the car’s internal telematics. Using their mobile device, renters can manage their entire booking from making a reservation to unlocking their car to receiving their receipt when they’re done. (The app is currently available for iOS and Android devices; others can reserve online or through on-site staff.)
If it sounds a bit like Zipcar, there’s a good reason as Schneider was formerly that company’s chief technology officer. “The technology is so much more broadly applicable than in just a car-sharing, urban environment,” he told NBC News. “The question was, ‘Can you take car-sharing technology and put it in a private fleet?’”
Needless to say, it helps if the fleet in question is equipped with advanced technology, which is how the company settled on the A4. And not just as part of its fleet. The company offers nothing but A4s (and, yes, they’re all silver).
“One of our cofounders got the idea of using a single car type based on Southwest Airlines using a single airplane type,” said executive chairman Bill Diffenderfer. “It keeps things simple from an operational standpoint.”
It also eliminates the traditional mystery inherent in renting a car by category or class. If you’ve ever reserved a generic “full size” or “intermediate” class car and been disappointed when you got to the lot, you’ll understand when Schneider says, “This way, you’re never surprised and never have to worry about getting that purple PT Cruiser.”
The single-car approach also effectively separates Silvercar from the major rental companies that try to be all things to all renters. The concept is clearly targeted toward business travelers who typically like a nicer ride almost as much as they dislike standing in line at the rental counter.
“The rental counter is one of the least efficient and least favorite parts of business travel,” said Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com. “(Business travelers) want to fly in, they want to get in their car and get moving. When they return, they just want to get moving again.”
With Silvercar, the speed and convenience factors are further facilitated because renters can take any car on the lot. Instead of being assigned a particular vehicle in a particular space, renters use their smartphone to scan a QR code on any car windshield. That not only pops the locks but also activates the reservation, which, in turn, raises the exit gate, tracks gasoline consumption and even syncs your device for hands-free use.
Upon returning the car, the vehicle’s navigation system triggers the facility’s entry gate, calculates the gas used and creates a receipt that’s automatically emailed to you — no waiting on a lot attendant required.
According to Schneider, the company is targeting 5 percent of the airport market, a niche that includes those business travelers but also leisure travelers interested in taking a road trip in “a car they don’t have to loathe.”
In fact, Silvercar rentals are less pricey than one might expect. A recent search for a two-day rental in mid-February returned a rate of $115 per day ($312 with all airport fees and taxes). That was more than a Nissan Maxima from Enterprise ($95 per day/$260 total) but less than a Chevy Impala from Avis ($130/$352.) Note, too, that all Silvercar rentals include in-dash navigation, satellite radio and in-car Wi-Fi, all of which typically cost extra elsewhere.
Reed of Edmunds.com, for one, considers the concept intriguing: “There’s the potential cost savings, the telematics and the additional benefit of convenience, plus they’re enticing you with a very nice car,” he told NBC News.
“Put it together and people may say, ‘It’s only for two days; let’s go for it.’”
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.