More than two decades ago, in 1997, Enterprise Holdings trademarked the term "virtual car," which meant customers could have access to a car when they needed it, for however long they needed it, without owning a vehicle.
"We recognized even back then what was happening," said Enterprise spokeswoman Laura Bryant. "It doesn't matter whether you rent for an hour, a day, a week, a month. It's all the same to us. It's just a different product, but in the end, we're delivering a virtual car when and where you need it."
Rental car companies are partnering with some mobility players, acquiring others and leveraging their scale and expertise to play a key role in the future of transportation. After all, traditional and new forms of rental are part of mobility as a whole, Enterprise and Avis Budget Group both said.
Hertz, the third big player in the rental car industry, declined an interview for this report.
"Today, we consider ourselves a mobility company," said Ohad Zeira, vice president of fleet ventures at Avis. "Even rental itself ... the definition of it is going to be shifting over time. So when we think about mobility, we think about the flexibility, about hitting multiple-use cases."
Avis is doing that with short-term rental subsidiary Zipcar and Zipcar Flex, along with partnerships with companies such as Waymo and Lyft and involvement in connected-car efforts in Kansas City, Mo.
"As consumers choose to own less and share more, that's going to be fruitful and helpful for rental," Zeira said.
In June 2017, Avis began working with Waymo, the self-driving car subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., to offer fleet support and maintenance. Through a partnership established in August of this year with ride-hailing company Lyft, Avis adds thousands of vehicles to the Lyft Express Drive program, in which drivers reserve vehicles to use for Lyft.
Avis plans to add Internet connection to its entire fleet by the end of 2020. Already, 100,000 Avis vehicles, about 17 percent of the fleet, are connected cars. To connect all its vehicles, Avis has partnered with automakers such as General Motors and Toyota. Without automaker partnerships, Avis connects the vehicles through its own retrofit solutions, Zeira said.
"As we go out and connect our vehicles, we are able to create and experiment with new features and functionalities that help our own operations or our own experience and then be able to take those learnings and package it up and roll that out to our other partners."
At Avis' Kansas City mobility lab, which opened last November, all 5,000 vehicles on-site are connected. The lab is a "sandbox for us to trial all these things," said Zeira. It's the first place Avis tests features to determine their effect on the work force, operation, vehicles and customer experience.
Kansas City is a digital city, where parking spaces are mapped and updated online and public transportation is tracked, he said. Avis can combine the city's digitized parking data with its own to help drivers find available spots.
"The integration is really helpful in terms of understanding what these future multimodal collaborations could look like with smart cities," Zeira said.
Because every Avis vehicle is connected in the city, "We can run experiments as a whole. So we're not really extrapolating. We're literally seeing [how] the city's operations could change."
Avis also is exploring ways to improve the tourism experience by making destination suggestions.
The mobility lab, along with Zipcar, is part of Avis' effort to reinvent rental and position itself for mobility, Zeira said.
Avis acquired Zipcar in 2013 and launched Zipcar Flex this year.
Different from Zipcar, which supports a round-trip model where the car returns to its original location, Zipcar Flex is a floating car rental product, which means customers can drive cars and leave them anywhere across a specified zone when they're finished.
In August alone, there were 50,000 Zipcar Flex trips in London, where it's primarily used. All the cars are connected.
"In rental, we see those cars in every transaction. They come back to home. They come back through our locations. When you think about Zipcar Flex, when those vehicles are roaming around London, we don't necessarily see them," Zeira said. "We have to rely on the connected car, on the data that it's telling us, on the signals we get from our members from the app to understand that the vehicle is doing what it should be."
The data enables Avis to understand where the vehicle is and how and when to maintain it.
"Those are phenomenal learnings that apply to business as we make that transition to mobility."