LAS VEGAS — Key fobs someday may be a thing of the past, at least for rental-car customers.
Avis is testing a smartphone app that enables customers to order a vehicle, pay for it, unlock it and drive it away -- all without a key fob.
To enable the service, Avis installed transponders designed by Continental AG in 5,000 vehicles in Kansas City, Mo. The vehicles are stationed in small lots around the city and in office complexes.
The app tells the customer which vehicles in a lot are available. After the customer orders, Avis authorizes the transaction and transmits the customer's ID to the vehicle's transponder.
After the customer gets in, visual controls on the smartphone act as a smart key fob.
Avis will launch the service in the second quarter. It has not yet decided whether to expand its test, but there are two powerful reasons why it might catch on.
First, managing car keys is a headache for daily rental companies, which struggle to keep track of hundreds of vehicles in their airport lots. Second, smartphone "keys" would allow the rental companies to disperse many vehicles in small lots closer to customers.
In effect, Avis wants to see if it can adopt a Zipcar-style business model — without a traditional service counter.
"This service works only when it's keyless," said Anthony Tuorto, an Avis representative who has been working on the program. "We realize that our business paradigm needs to shift. We need to put cars closer to the customer."
Avis has stationed the vehicles in 20 locations around Kansas City. The company's Mobility Lab — which tests connected-car technologies — manages the fleet.
The transponder is an aftermarket product installed by Avis technicians. If Avis expands its fleet of keyless cars, it seems likely that automakers would offer transponders as original equipment.
That would pose a major opportunity for Continental.
Conti also has been tinkering with other products that could substitute for key fobs. At CES here last week, it showcased a ring that a motorist could use instead of the key fob.
A tiny transponder in the ring emits a signal when the motorist approaches the car. The car door unlocks itself and the motorist can start the engine.
Continental does not expect automakers to replace all key fobs with pinky rings. But the company believes that "virtual keys" — via a smartphone app or other device — will prove popular with car owners.
If so, the motorist's frantic search for missing car keys may become a thing of the past.