Self-driving cars may be the future, but there are still some things that technology can’t fully disrupt–like oil changes, refueling, and a good old-fashioned cleaning. After all, hopping into a driverless car won’t be so fun if the seat is mysteriously sticky. Waymo, which has pilot autonomous vehicles on the roads in Phoenix, has a partner that takes care of the less glamorous sides of running a self-driving fleet: the rental car company Avis Budget Group, which owns about 580,000 vehicles and 11,000 locations in 180 countries.
The two companies announced their partnership last summer, and now Avis has outfitted three of its Phoenix-area rental offices and lots, chosen for their location and size, to maintain and clean Waymo’s vehicles. Avis is also helping Waymo before its cars even get on the road by providing license plates and registration. It’s something a rental car company like Avis can do because of its close relationship with DMVs in every state.
“What we’re doing for Waymo is getting their cars street ready, legally,” says Arthur Orduña, Avis’s chief innovation officer. “As they’re purchasing their fleet, we’re getting them registered and titled in the different states in which they’re operating, as if they’re our fleet.”
The partnership has required Avis to reconfigure some of its rental car locations, which it will continue to do as Waymo expands into other states, particularly when the company launches its first driverless ride-hail service later this year. To revamp these locations, Avis has built hard canopies in its parking lots to protect the cars from the elements, upped its Wi-Fi and broadband capacity, cordoned off entire areas of the rental facilities for Waymo employees to work, and even provided extra security to patrol each site’s perimeter. In other words, Waymo’s cars get the royal treatment.
There are clear benefits for Waymo–it doesn’t have to do the work of maintaining, cleaning, or finding parking for its car–but the opportunity for Avis is just as strategic. The company believes that the world will soon be dominated by self-driving cars–and that it needs to get in on the action. “It will be part of the change of consumer demand, part of the change of what it means to own a car,” Orduña says. “What can we do now to learn about it and understand what it means to manage, to own, to operate autonomous vehicles, and how does it change the business we do today?”
Teaming up with a leading self-driving car company is an obvious answer. Orduña believes that rental car companies like Avis are uniquely positioned to help bring about the self-driving revolution. “You’re really talking about people needing to have more mobility and more vehicle access, whether they drive the car themselves or are driven, if it’s by a driver behind the wheel or a brain inside the dashboard,” he says.
While Avis doesn’t do that yet, Orduña thinks that the company is well-positioned to own and manage the fleets of cars that people use in the future–just as other companies have embraced new technology and radically changed the mechanisms by which they provide services. “A lot of traditional rental is going to go away because it’s going to evolve. What used to be the American Telephone and Telegraph is now AT&T,” Orduña says by way of example. “What was known as Avis, your car rental, should be Avis, your mobility-on-demand provider.”
Avis isn’t the only company thinking about how rental car companies’ futures could be entwined with self-driving cars.
Greg Stubblefield, the chief strategy officer at Enterprise, is also keeping his eyes on the technology. “I don’t think it’s a revolution, I think it’s an evolution,” he says. “The vehicle as we know it is the asset that moves people to and from, whether it’s being driven themselves or they have a driver. We manage those fleets. As cars become more connected and cars become more autonomous, we’ll continue to have the need to have those managed for a host of different things, same as today.”
Stubblefield thinks that Enterprise will have an edge in rental companies’ play for self-driving dominance because the company has two-thirds of its rental locations in cities, rather than at the airport. But the company views car manufacturers as its future partners, rather than tech upstarts like Waymo, which Avis is betting on.
Regardless, as self-driving cars get closer to the streets and battles ensue over regulation and safety, someone has to do the dirty work of keeping them clean, gassed up, and ready to chauffeur. Even seemingly magical technology, like a car that can drive itself, could be brought to its knees by the realities of trash or a pesky oil change light. After all, self-driving cars can’t change their own tires.
In a world where nearly everything is available at the tap of a button, Orduña views the less glamorous parts of Avis’s services in the same techno-utopian vein: “It’s like maintenance on demand.”