Vehicle: Car: Fuel: Gasoline
Rental Car Gas Account   (+3)  [vote for, against]
Unused gallons apply to subsequent rentals.

When you rent a car these days, you can buy the entire tank at a supposed bargain rate and try to return the car with an empty tank (good luck!), or pay exhorbitant prices for gas/petrol not in the tank when you return. Of course, filling the car yourself just before returning it is the best option, but because you're usually in an unfamiliar locale and often under time pressure (e.g., to catch a plane), this is easier said than done. And if you're headed to a business function, you risk arriving smelling like gasoline. Of course, this is exactly the dilemma the car rental agency wants, because it generates profits for them when the car is returned less than full.

But is it in the agency's interest to earn profits by methods that make the customer feel like (s)he's been "had?" I suppose it's better than not earning the profits, from the company's point of view, but here's a way to earn the profits, and more, by offering the customer a valuable service:

Offer a third option, whereby the customer may buy the entire tank, perhaps even at a price a bit above the "bargain" price. When the car is returned with 11 gallons in the tank, those 11 gallons go on the customer's account, to be used for a subsequent rental. So with the next rental, if you want to buy the entire tankful up front, you buy the tankful minus 11 gallons.

This way, if the customer never uses the 11 gallons subsequently, the rental agency gets to keep the money originally paid for them. If the customer does use the 11 gallons, the profit is reduced, but the agency still earns the interest on the money until the subsequent rental. Most important of all, this system creates a powerful incentive for customer loyalty to one rental car agency, which does not exist now, and which companies spend big money to encourage. On top of that, with this system the rental car company is making life EASIER for the customer, rather than playing "gotcha" with him/her.
-- beauxeault, Oct 03 2000

Ask jutta about frequent flier miles. From a business perspective, it's too paper-intensive. Just put some gas in the car. The head, wallet and gas nozzle are easily touched by those things used to type.
-- thumbwax, Oct 03 2000

Miles: in a differen thread, I complained about the four different kinds of miles that one airline periodically sends me statements for. Correspondingly, I bet they'd introduce Premium, Super, and Regular accounts for gallons.

Peter, think business travellers. Most airlines don't carry cars that haven't been through the de-bigerator.

If a rental car agency were to claim that they're not playing games with the gasoline, I would expect them to simply refund the money for gasoline I didn't use. If they want to carry that money in an account until my next rental, that would be acceptable; but keeping separate accounts for money and gallons would start being a bit silly.
-- jutta, Oct 03 2000

My previous job was working for Avis at the Tampa airport, so I've got some experience of the other side of this. [Caveat: All of this is in America, in Florida. Your mileage may vary. <grin>]

The cars are cleaned on an industrial basis, and the charge for the gas is a service charge that includes the price of the gas, and the time necessary for the cleaner to stand and watch the gas pump refill the car. The automatic things are not very reliable, and spilling gas in an enclosed space is a Very Bad Thing Indeed.

This slows the 'service agents' down, so they can't clean as many cars in an hour. This means the counters don't have as many cars available, which means people have to wait till cars become available which means that they're likely to go to one of the other companies that are present in the arrival area.

The option to buy a full tank of gas is actually a pretty good one, as <Again, at least where I worked and when I rented a car from them just recently> the gas is cheaper than what you can buy at a station because the rental companies buy in bulk. <We had two 50,000 gallon tanks back at the office area, and another in the airport itself. I paid 1.09 for the gas when I bought a full tank, when the cheap gas was 1.30. The premium that you're supposed to put in was 1.49.> You're going to have to buy gas anyway, if you're going to use the car for more than a few hours, and you might as well get cheaper gas. You don't have to worry about allowing time to find a gas station to fill the car, and if you do it right, it costs you just a few bucks in making sure the car has enough gas to get back to the rental location.

Figuring out gallons is impossible, or at least overly difficult. The little handheld computers they use to check the cars in don't have that much memory. They do have a radio connection to the main computer, but it's slow, and if you want to wait for it to find the type of car, find the tank capacity, figure out how many gallons that is and transmit it back, it's going to take you longer than '<beep of laser scanner>, Enjoy your trip? Make sure you pick up your things, here's your reciept, have a nice day'.
-- StarChaser, Oct 05 2000

Damn, can I stop a discussion dead in its tracks, or what?
-- StarChaser, Oct 15 2000

Actually, Starchaser, I appreciated your insight. It's quite common that an outsider has a brilliant idea that loses much of its brilliance once the inside story is learned.

I did not know how much actual cost is incurred in keeping rental cars re-rueled. Since my idea could increase the car company's cost, I'm less confident they would be eager to embrace it. However, I do maintain that repeat business is valuable to the rental agency, and it's possible that my idea could save enough in this area to more than offset the increased refueling cost. Also, for the option I propose, it may not be necessary to offer a discounted price per gallon.

I should have been less sarcastic in suggesting that the "buy the tank" price per gallon was not actually a bargain. In my experience, the price per gallon is in fact significantly lower than prevailing local rates. My problem with this option, though, is that you cannot come out ahead if you return the car with even two or three gallons still in the tank. And especially for business travel, trying to pull this off is next to impossible. And as jutta recognized, it is for business travel that it is also most difficult to return the car recently topped off. Often there are no service stations on the route to the airport. Typically, you're unfamiliar with the area, so you can't find service stations that might otherwise be available. And even if you find a service station, you're typically pressed for time. At that point, the risk of missing a flight is much more critical than the risk of putting a few more dollars on the expense account.

I had considered the difficulty of figuring out how many gallons should be credited. And I had in fact assumed that the person checking the car in would enter in the fuel gauge reading and the handheld computer would calculate the gallons based on the make of car. I did not realize that memory limits and slow communications with the main computer would make this unwieldy. I agree that you would need a quick enough accounting to print the gas account balance on the receipt, and that this has to be done quickly. I do think, though, that if you intended to offer the gas account option, it would not be a particularly daunting technological challenge to improve the system so you could provide a quick accounting.

Thumbwax, I disagree that it would be too paper-intensive. In fact, I don't see that it _need_ generate any paper at all. I do, think, though, that the rental company would find it profitable to remind the customer of the remaining gallons in their account for subsequent rentals, and so quarterly mailings might result, but only to the extent that this improves profits.

Jutta, I don't fly the airline that offers different flavors of miles, so I didn't consider the problem of distinguishing between regular, super and premium. I agree that that would be cumbersome. As for the silliness of separate accounts for gas and money, I don't see it that way, but I can see that some would. I'd imagine that the rental agency would maintain existing options alongside the gas account option for those who do.
-- beauxeault, Oct 15 2000

//I should have been less sarcastic in suggesting that the "buy the tank" price per gallon was not actually a bargain.//

The reason rental companies offer such an apparently-cheap price for the buy-the-tank option is that they can resell the same gasoline more than once. If you rent a car with a 12-gallon tank and 'buy' the gas at $1.25/gallon, and return the car with two gallons left (trying to return it with less is dicey, and in fact forbidden by some rental contracts) your net price for the gas is $1.50/gallon. If you return the car with six gallons left your net price is a whopping $2.50/gallon.

//I had considered the difficulty of figuring out how many gallons should be credited. And I had in fact assumed that the person checking the car in would enter in the fuel gauge reading and the handheld computer would calculate the gallons based on the make of car. I did not realize that memory limits and slow communications with the main computer would make this unwieldy.//

Simply subtract the number of gallons it takes to fill the tank after the car's returned from the number of gallons paid for. Since the exact figure won't really matter until the next time this person rents a car, it can be computed when the car is refuelled in the normal course of business. Using the fuel gauge for fuel estimation purposes is a notoriously bad way of computing things; while some companies do that in the hopes that customers won't complain, I've read reports of some investigative reporters renting a car, using a calculated amount of gasoline, returning the car, and checking how must gas they were charged; some were charged for more than twice as much gas as they actually used (and at the $2.50/gallon rate)! Indeed, once person who returned a car "3/8 full" was charged for 14 gallons of gas even though the car only had a 12 gallon tank!
-- supercat, Dec 13 2000

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