Your next rental car from Avis could help you find the best BBQ in town

Avis mobility

While automotive technology advances annually, the process of renting a car rarely seems to evolve. Avis began nudging it into the 21st century several years ago when it launched a smartphone application that lets customers bypass the dreaded pick-up counter. It’s now going all-in on connectivity to manage its immense fleet, streamline the renting process, and even help renters plan a trip.

It’s adding a new function to its app that lets users find places of interest. The pilot program will begin at the end of June in Kansas City, Missouri, the town Avis’ Mobility Lab calls home. Digital Trends talked to Arthur Orduna, Avis’ chief innovation officer, to learn about how it works.

“We’re mobility experts, not culinary experts. We have to do this through a local partnership.”

Imagine you hop on a plane to Kansas City. When you land, the app displays a message welcoming you to the City of Fountains. It also gives you the option to answer a few basic questions about your interests in order to receive personalized notifications while you’re on the ground. If you’re a fan of John Coltrane, it will suggest you check out the American Jazz Museum. If you’re a history buff, it will send you to the National WWI Museum and Memorial. Or, if it’s the local brews you’re after, it will draw suggestions from the list of the city’s best breweries. It’s like an interactive travel guide in your pocket.

Orduna stressed Avis doesn’t force its customers to use the application or collect data without their consent. “Everything we want to do has to be opted in by the customer,” he told us.

The application also uses geofencing technology to suggest nearby points of interest. If it’s about noon and you’re meandering around downtown, it might point out you’re around the corner from one of the city’s top-rated barbecue restaurants. And, depending on the businesses Avis partners up with, it could even send you a coupon. This is where the tricky question of deciding which establishments to recommend enters the stage. The answer, according to Orduna, lies in local partnerships.

“We’re mobility experts, not culinary experts. We have to do this through a local partnership,” he said.

Avis already started working with local partners, including the Kansas City Conventions and Visitors Bureau, to suggest places of interest. They range from museums and monuments to restaurants and bars. At this stage, however, the company isn’t able to make the important distinction between a family with five kids who might not want to go to the bar, newlyweds on their honeymoon with no interest in going to the zoo, or a business traveler with no time to check out the Union Station. It hopes to offer more personalized suggestions as it improves the app over the coming months and years.

“Everything we want to do has to be opted in by the customer.”

“The ultimate holy grail way down the line would be that, with your permission, we’d know a lot about you and we could learn about your preferences. That’s what happens on digital retail sites. We’d then be able to tailor a journey in a new city specifically for you,” Orduna explained.

The notifications pop up on the user’s smartphone or tablet, not on the rental car’s touch screen. There are several reasons for this. First, it makes the service compatible with any type of car regardless of the level of connectivity it offers. Second, it lets users receive notifications if they park to visit a city on foot.

Avis regularly works with OEM partners so automotive integration could come at a later date. It’s no small task for a company that manages a national fleet of up to 700,000 vehicles with separate software platforms and features, however. It can’t offer OEM-dependent connectivity services. Not all infotainment systems are created equal, like Apple and Google have learned, and not all cars get along.

The pilot program will morph into a full-fledged service and expand outside of Kansas City sooner or later.

Delivering personalized suggestions means gathering data, which opens the door to an array of complicated security issues. Orduna – whose resume includes positions at ADT – told Digital Trends that, from an IoT perspective, the Avis app is as secure as the mobile networks make it. His experience at ADT, an unusually common target for hackers, taught him good enough doesn’t cut it.

“At ADT, we lived with the fact that you’re under constant siege on the security side and you know there are always going to be incremental improvements on both sides. We’re bringing the same view to the connected space here, which is that network security is an area in which you can never rest when it comes to making constant improvements,” he noted.

The pilot program will morph into a full-fledged service and expand outside of Kansas City sooner or later. “We don’t see ourselves taking this down. We see ourselves adding or changing what the attractions are, being able to add more partners, and so on,” Orduna stated during the interview.

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