The auto manufacturers are starting to rent cars. And they’re doing it better than you.
Audi, BMW, Mercedes, General Motors and Ford, to name a few, are implementing a wide range of programs that use technology to connect their brands directly to potential customers in new ways. The key word is mobility; the key phrase is “vehicle access over ownership.”
Launched April 27, Audi on demand is a premium rental service in beta testing in San Francisco, with the potential to expand nationally. I used Audi on demand with my family over the Independence Day weekend. For our family of four, mobility on this trip entailed a plane, airport shuttle, light-rail train and a car rental.
As is the case with any new mobility service, the app is the center of the universe. After downloading the app, I entered my driver’s license and credit card information and my auto insurance policy.
Renters can use their own insurance, which actually delivers a slight discount on the rate, or they can take the service’s loss damage waiver (LDW). I chose my vehicle (a new Audi SQ5, the sporty version of Audi’s compact crossover), my rental days and pickup and drop-off points.
While Audi on demand’s carsharing telematics technology makes the service truly mobile, the length of rental follows the traditional model of one to 28 days.
Audi on demand is carving a new niche that you might call “premium mobility.” Matt Radack, sales & marketing manager for Audi on demand, says that Audi is bringing a more high-end and personal treatment to car rental, similar to a business class experience in hotels and airlines. “Rental car has moved in an opposite direction,” he says.
For Audi on demand, this means more human touch points, embodied in its concierges and 24-hour call center that connects to a live staffer immediately. In the San Francisco test program, the concierge will meet you anywhere within the 7-by-7 mile San Francisco city limits, at different drop-off and pickup points.
For first-time rentals, concierge contact is important. Meeting our concierge, Kevin, at a light-rail BART station, he showed us how to unlock and enable the vehicle, either through a key card or a “digital key” stored in the app. Understanding the keys took some getting used to, but became second nature after a few operations. The digital key allows future rentals to be transacted without a concierge, if desired.
Kevin instructed us on how to install the car seats, a process more laborious than anticipated, as well as the vehicle’s features and functionality. I initially thought this was unnecessary, because as an automotive writer, I know everything. But I don’t know everything, which I found out when he actually walked me through the car.
We left Kevin and hit the city for some sightseeing, then headed out to the suburbs to visit relatives, enjoying the SQ5’s blend of five-door functionality and 354 horses.
Our family travel use case for this service was just one in the spectrum of leisure and business travel; the operative appendage with this service is “in style.”
All Audi on demand vehicles come in premium trim with built-in navigation, satellite radio and all-wheel drive (quattro). The exact model we chose on the app was the model that was delivered. Save for LDW, all ancillary products are included in the daily rate, including child seats, bike or ski racks on appropriate models and a complementary toll transponder.
If the car isn’t returned full, fuel is billed at an average rate found in the city.
On our return we were running late for our plane and two screaming kids didn’t help. Before arriving at our drop-off point, my wife called Angelo, our drop-off concierge, who relayed train departure times to the airport. The drop-off was seamless, which was what we needed.
A Brand Experience
Is this service “better” than traditional car rental? It has to be. Audi on demand is a “brand experience,” and a premium one at that. But as such it’s dedicated to a niche audience.
Is this business model a trend? At this point, it’s too early to tell. But automakers have made clear that they are planning for a future with increased urban congestion, autonomous driving and a buying public that doesn’t see owning a vehicle in the same way their parents did.