Contactless Rental Vehicle Inspection: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

October 3, 2023 12:55 PM
This article was featured in Forbes magazine.

Rental car damage is a concern for both car rental companies and for customers. The former, of course, want to be sure that their vehicles are returned as intact as possible, so they can be quickly deployed for the next customer. Customers have their own concerns—like being charged for damage they did not cause. On the other hand, some customers who damage rental vehicles try to cover up that damage. It's a tug of war—and makes for an unpleasant experience for everyone.

But technology to the rescue: Using digital tools, augmented reality, computer vision technology, artificial intelligence and automation, customers can be assured of a fair bill when they return a vehicle and companies can make sure they are treating customers fairly and honestly. This technology, in fact, enables companies to set up contactless returns—where customers simply drop off vehicles and are immediately informed about charges for damage, if any—payable either by them or insurance companies. Perhaps even more importantly, it brings us closer to eliminating uncertainty about whether or not damage occurred during a rental agreement or not.

The key to this industry innovation is the deployment of an automated inspection technology that utilizes advanced vision, scanning vehicles when they are rented out and when they are returned. The images taken upon return are compared to the images of the vehicle taken before it was rented. Any major damage or large scratches will of course be visible immediately—but using AI, you can scan any part of the vehicle to determine if it was in any kind of an accident or sustained even minor exterior damage of any kind—on body panels, trim parts, wheels, bumpers or roof.

A detailed and itemized list of the damages and the costs to repair each creates a clear and objective record of not only who is responsible, but for what, exactly, they are responsible and how much it will cost to remedy. These costs can also be determined by advanced data-analysis which considers the costs of such repairs in real time, based on market prices.

Images could be taken by stationary cameras at a return facility at the agency—at a special airport dropoff point, for example. But with today's sophisticated smartphones—which feature advanced cameras—customers could also simply snap photos of the vehicle and upload them to the rental agency's servers, where the analysis would take place. Augmented reality could help guide the user to scan the car correctly and capture the best images. Thus the customer would save even more time—just dropping off the vehicle without having to wait even the few minutes it would take to analyze the vehicle's images at the dropoff point. That dropoff option could enable painless, quick dropoffs 24/7.

Advanced image analysis isn't just about better customer relations; it can help agencies in other ways. With business dropping to near-zero levels at the beginning of the pandemic, companies sold off much of their fleets in 2020 and 2021, expecting to buy new vehicles when things rebounded. But supply chain issues put a dent in vehicle manufacturing—and when trying to restock, companies faced the same shortages everyone else did. But with demand rising again, companies did the next best thing—keeping their older vehicles and servicing them instead of selling them off as they had in the past.

As a result, many rental vehicles on the road have experienced considerable wear and tear—and companies that want to ensure that their customers have a nice vehicle and don't break down in the middle of nowhere need to do a very thorough analysis of all parts of the car, including the exterior, thus ensuring the vehicle's physical integrity when it's on the road. Using this technology, however, drivers can do an inspection “check-in” on a regular basis, with the data uploaded to the agency, which can remain assured that its vehicle is still roadworthy. With these inspection systems, drivers can also return rentals in a quick contactless manner.

Preparing For Contactless—Learning Curves And Pain Points

Adopting advanced car inspection systems heralds a new era of efficiency and customer service for car rental companies. Before diving into this technological evolution, there are key considerations that potential adopters should be cognizant of:

1. Holistic Integration: Understand that this isn't just a plug-and-play solution. It's a holistic transition that encompasses infrastructure revamp, updated training modules and potentially redefined customer service protocols. A successful transition requires a multifaceted approach.

2. Comprehensive Training: The tech, while sophisticated, is user-friendly with the right training. It’s paramount that both managerial and frontline staff undergo comprehensive sessions to become well-versed with the system's full capabilities. This ensures not only smooth internal operations but also consistent customer interactions.

3. Setting Clear Expectations: Clear communication with customers about the new inspection process ensures transparency and trust. Highlight the benefits, such as expedited returns and accurate damage assessments, so they appreciate the value added by this technology.

4. Pilot Programs: Before a full-scale rollout, consider running pilot programs at select locations. This allows for real-world testing, helps in identifying areas of improvement and builds internal confidence in the system's efficacy.

5. Continuous Feedback: Encourage feedback, both from staff and customers. This iterative feedback loop ensures the system is always optimized and meets the evolving needs of the business and its clientele.

In essence, while the advanced car inspection system promises a transformative leap, its success lies in thorough preparation, effective communication and a commitment to continuous learning and improvement.

And while some may mourn the loss of “personal touch” with automated inspection, the reality is that customers actually prefer it. Industry experts see contactless self-service commerce as a “new reality” not just for inspections—but for all aspects of rental, from pickup to drop off to payment. The benefits to both the customer and the rental agency are clear—and it's just a matter of time before contactless inspections become the norm, not the exception.

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