End the highway robbery: disrupt car hire

I hired a car this week for the first time in a few years, wondering if things had moved on a bit. I was disappointed. It still feels like venturing into a dark forest inhabited by shady characters, each of them wanting to take money from you for mysterious reasons. Denizens of the industry, someone is going to disrupt car hire.

I was visiting a client in the Cirencester, and rather than spend five hours in a car or trains, I opted to fly from Newcastle to Bristol (one hour) then hire a car to drive the remaining ninety minutes or so. This would take half the time, and cost considerably less than using the train. What could go wrong? I booked my flight, hotel, airport cark parking and car hire, and checked in, all online. So easy! When hiring the car I was faced with the usual list of names of care rental firms all offering apparently the same thing at different prices, so I opted for a name I recognised which came in cheaper than most. They had a mobile app I could use to show my booking, although it did advise me that for this particular trip I would have to print out the voucher (park that thought).

easyJet really is easy, and digital

The flight to Bristol was incident-free. I breezed through security (hand luggage only, and my boarding pass was on my mobile) and onto the plane. As it was the last flight from the airport that evening and I was the last passenger on board, they took off early and we arrived at Bristol an amazing thirty-five minutes after the scheduled departure time. From my front door to Bristol in two hours – result! Now I just needed to pick up the car… but where was the rental firm’s kiosk?

The voucher advised me to call a number… It turned out that the rental firm was not actually at the airport but near it, and they would send a shuttle bus to pick me up. Sigh. Ten minutes later a car arrived and picked me up, drove past the hotel I was staying in, and a mile or so to the rental firm’s cabin.

After waiting for other customers work through a complicated-looking transaction involving bits of paper, it was my turn. I was apparently supposed to have brought my DVLA code to prove I had no motoring convictions (luckily I could obtain it on my phone, because the DVLA is quite digital these days).

Here come the stings

They then asked me for a damage deposit of £1,500; although I had paid for full insurance, if I had an accident then I would have to fork out and claim back from the insurance. I didn’t fancy handing over this amount of money to two blokes in a shed, so I caved in and paid £35 for a ‘waiver’, i.e. to insure the same thing again.

Finally, there was a fee of 30p per mile for every miles over 100. If I wanted to avoid this, I could pay another fee for unlimited miles. This despite the fact that I had to pay for all the fuel I used anyway.

I checked into the hotel a full seventy minutes after leaving the airport, i.e. it took me twice as long to pick up the car as it took to travel from Newcastle to Bristol. I was also £35 lighter. How could this experience be so rubbish? I wondered whether I had simply forgotten the maxim “You get what you pay for”, and that if I’d gone with a premium brand such as Hertz I’d have found the experience to be much smoother and actually no more expensive. The last time I used these top brands I had had the same experience of having to complete paper forms, and had run into the unexpected hidden fees for waivers, fuel deals, extra insurance etc., but maybe things had changed in three years?

They’re all still at it

A quick bit of Googling revealed that nope, nobody has taken the opportunity to disrupt car hire, and shady practices abound. Firms routinely overbook in the expectation of cancellations and no-shows; the car you booked may not actually be available. They massively overcharge for insurance, and for fuel if they have to top it up when you return the car. The firm I booked with is a franchiser, which isn’t apparent unless you read the very small print. Hertz is at least attempting to disrupt car hire by offering a fast track service, but you have to be registered with another service that enables you to get through the security barrier. The problem is that it’s predicated on the arcane way that car rental currently works (i.e. a car lot in the airport grounds). This also means that it’s currently available only in one UK airport.

Leaving aside the dodgy stuff, the experienced just sucked. Why do I have to wait in a queue then fill out paper forms at a desk? Why do I have to provide information that I could have provided when I booked online? Surely there is an opportunity for someone to provide a service in which all of this nonsense is sort out upfront in a transparent way, so that I can rock up at the airport and drive away?

Time to disrupt car hire

No doubt those in the car hire business would say “Ah but that’s not how the industry works. We make our money from insurance kickbacks, and keep costs low by overbooking and not bundling in optional costs.” Cobblers, I say. It’s a rubbish experience full of traps and hidden costs. I feel sure that many people would pay upfront for a service that guaranteed that:

  • a car was there waiting for them,
  • they wouldn’t have to repeat information they’ve already provided, and
  • they wouldn’t be put through any hard selling before driving away.

If that meant paying a little more to insure the provider against me not showing up, then just say so. There must be an opportunity for someone to sweep away the rotten incumbents in this industry with a simple, transparent and honest service! I would do it myself were it not for two things:

  • I know nothing about the undoubted labyrinthine regulations and commercial realities of operating such a business. I’ve worked with startups in this are before, and know that it’s a minefield. You need to be deeply engrossed in it.
  • Someone is probably already working on it. Yeah?

It’s clear that there is an opportunity for someone to disrupt car hire. As a business traveller, I want to borrow a car so that I can complete my journey. Acceptance criteria: Minimal delay and fuss. It must feel like an honest transaction. I must know what I’m going to pay up front. No nasty surprises. Car hire industry, please provide the solution to this user story. If you work in the industry, we may be able to help.