Seven years ago, a team from VERC Car Rental had an idea: use cameras and Web technology to help recover hundreds of thousands of dollars in vehicle damage costs. By making this vision a reality, VERC reports it is eliminating pencil and paper condition reports, selling more coverage and increasing damage and fuel reimbursement.
To get from innovative idea to viable product, Jack Vercollone, owner of Massachusetts-based VERC Car Rental, partnered with ExtensionEngine, a Web and mobile software development firm headquartered at the Harvard Innovation Lab in Boston.
Teams from both companies explored solutions that used hard-mounted cameras combined with facial recognition technology, scanning techniques and picture overlays to find minor damage. These methods proved to be costly and complicated — and they presented problems such as false positives from mud, snow, ice and shadows.
A Breakthrough Idea
The team continued to brainstorm and, by introducing smartphones into the mix, came up with a breakthrough idea.
“The technology choices were evolving alongside our ideas,” explains Ofri Markus, ExtensionEngine’s director of product management and operations. “Once smartphones became affordable and accessible, the pieces began to fall into place.”
Matt Vercollone stepped in to work with ExtensionEngine’s team to push the final concept from drawing board to working model. The result is Damage ID (DID), a technology solution that flags damage using mobile devices to take photos of VERC’s vehicles in conjunction with a Web-based app.
How DID Works
When a customer walks into a VERC Car Rental office, the rental agent goes through the standard rental procedure, including sales of coverage, from behind the counter. Upon completion, the agent informs the customer, “We’re now going outside to inspect your car. This will only take a minute.”
With the car running, the agent uses the smartphone camera to snap a photo of the dashboard to log the fuel level and mileage. The agent then takes pictures of the car’s exterior from six different angles, explaining that this is done to document damages to the vehicle.
The agent explains that upon return, six more photos will be taken from the same angles to document any new damage, which will be the responsibility of the renter and must be taken care of at that time.
Once complete, the initial photos appear on the screen for the customer to review and give initial approval by pressing either “Accept CDW” or “Decline CDW,” a subtle second offer to sell coverage.
From there, the photos are uploaded to a cloud server and arranged into cases, which also act as a catalog of a vehicle’s damage history.
When a rental vehicle is returned, the second set of pictures is taken. If new damage is spotted, rental agents take additional close-up photos. Those photos are labeled “Ready for Review,” enabling agents to compare before and after pictures side-by-side with a Web-based app.
All information is stored on the Amazon cloud, which gives VERC a large computing capacity without the hassle and cost of maintaining physical servers.
Since DID has been in place, VERC reports that its CDW/LDW sales are up, reversing a downward trend.
A More Efficient Way
Although the human eye still works best when inspecting for new damage upon return, using DID to document vehicle condition encourages rental agents to take their time, look closely and flag any damage they see.
VERC reports that more than 100 cases of new damage have already been detected — most of which would have been missed using the previous damage assessment process. In addition, DID is being used to improve fuel reimbursement, which is up significantly from 2012.
Under Matt Vercollone’s direction, the team at VERC plans to extend the Damage ID pilot to other car rental companies. “With more data from more rental companies, we can continually enhance the user experience and improve DID’s capabilities to contain costs and drive revenue,” says Vercollone.
VERC plans to unveil DID at the Car Rental Show in April.