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Airbnb for cars is here. And the rental car giants are not happy.

The traditional rental-car model is run by corporate brands that promise safety and predictability. [Matt McClain | Washington Post]
The traditional rental-car model is run by corporate brands that promise safety and predictability. [Matt McClain | Washington Post]
Published Mar. 30, 2018

They have fleets with hundreds of thousands of vehicles and command multibillion-dollar streams of revenue.

But in the rapidly shifting transportation landscape, even the Goliaths of the rental car industry — some of the best-known brands in the world — worry about being left behind.

That may explain why some of the largest rental car companies have spent several years waging a quiet legislative war against start-ups led by a company called Turo that are trying to change the way people rent and own vehicles. Turo is a peer-to-peer car-sharing company — think Airbnb for cars.

Like Uber versus the taxi industry, this fight is a clash between an old-school business model and a modern technology platform inspired by the sharing economy.

The traditional model is run by corporate brands that promise safety and predictability. At any airport in the land, for instance, a customer is assured he will get a car ("Nissan Sentra or similar").

The new model offers a more customized experience. In a process that mimics online dating, a customer can choose that flashy Tesla for a joy ride or that Ford F-150 to haul garden mulch.

While each offers a way to rent a car, the ultimate factor in their long-term success might actually depend on changing attitudes about the value of car ownership.

In America, the average price of new vehicles has zoomed over $33,000, leaving people to wonder whether there's a way to get more value from them.

Turo, and other car-sharing companies, say they offer a way for car owners to maximize the value of these expensive assets, or even help to pay for them, by earning money off them when they might otherwise sit parked. For drivers, they offer flexibility and convenience.

If you've rented a car at an airport, you may understand why such start-ups think they should come out ahead. After landing and baggage claim, you wait in line for a shuttle that drives you to a rental car company, sometimes miles away.

Once there, you may encounter another line, as well as paperwork and prices that can vary depending on the city and demand. Sometimes the process goes smoothly, but other times — when inclement weather or rowdy children strike — picking up a rental car can be the punctuation mark on an exhausting day of travel.

Jon Norris, 42, a former rental-car company employee who lives in Bethesda, Md., and works in cybersecurity, believes that sort of unnecessary stress explains the growing appeal of Turo, a peer-to-peer car-sharing network that he's been using since November to rent out his two Audis. He often meets his customers at the airport, handing them the keys to their rental as soon as they walk outside. There's no paperwork, no credit cards and no hassle, Norris said.

"When I do curbside delivery, everything is downloaded to the app beforehand, and literally within two or three minutes they're in the car and on their way," said Norris, who earns about $1,500 a month renting out his vehicles. "At the airport, people want to get the car and go."

The ease of the transaction, all of which occurs using a smartphone, may explain why airports have become the front lines in an emerging war between companies such as Enterprise and Hertz and Turo, a relatively unknown Silicon Valley upstart with about 180 employees.

Turo allows its 200,000 members to post vehicles online and rent them out for as little as $10 a day. Turo officials say their company is a technology platform that allows car owners to earn extra cash, not a rental car company. Because Turo owns no vehicles, they say, the company shouldn't be subject to the same regulations as traditional rental companies.

Those rental companies, represented by the American Car Rental Association, say that car-sharing companies such as Turo are clearly car-rental companies. The only difference between Turo and Enterprise, officials say, is that Enterprise complies with state and federal laws governing rental car companies, while Turo has so far avoided them.

"If you're renting a vehicle to another person for compensation, that is a car-rental transaction," ACRA lobbyist Gregory Scott said. "Just because I tell you it's not a duck doesn't mean it's not a duck if it looks and acts like a duck."

Instead of waiting for the competition to comply, the rental industry has introduced bills replete with new regulations for car-sharing companies in more than a dozen state legislatures nationwide. If turned into law, those regulations would treat car-sharing companies like traditional rental car companies.

ACRA officials, who support attempts to regulate car-sharing networks, say their goal is to level the "playing field." The networks enjoy an unfair advantage and put public safety at risk, ACRA says. Their members might bypass annual inspections and not track recall notices, making the roads more dangerous. They also operate freely at airports instead of in designated areas, which adds to chaos and congestion.

The trade group is supported by airports with a big stake in this dispute: the billions of dollars they take in annually to lease lots to rental companies. But Turo, the most outspoken opponent of the legislation, says rental-car giants have another objective in mind: destroying competition by squelching innovation.

If car-sharing networks are allowed to thrive, experts say, the legacy rental companies might have cause for concern.

"The advantage peer-to-peer has over traditional rental companies is they don't own the fleet and they're more lean and adaptable and have a better understanding of the local market," said Alexandre Marian, a director in the automotive and industrial practice at consultant AlixPartners. "The rental car companies see it as a potential threat. And they should if they want to remain in business."

Founded in 2009, Turo and Getaround — another popular service that ACRA accuses of skirting the law — are the most well-known start-ups in the peer-to-peer market. Whereas rental car prices differ according to demand and location, these companies allow members to determine the price of rentals.

The average owner, they said, makes about $500 a month through the service.

Nearly 5 million people have signed up to rent vehicles via Turo in the past two years, and the company is already valued at around $700 million. Getaround operates in 14 U.S. cities and says it has more than a half-million users. The business model has proved so promising that even General Motors and Ford, an early investor in Getaround, have taken notice.

In March, GM confirmed plans for launching a pilot program that will allow owners to rent out their vehicles when they're not being used, generating revenue that will be shared with the massive automaker.

ACRA officials say traditional companies are supportive of the peer-to-peer model and recognize its growing popularity. In a statement emailed to the Washington Post, Enterprise Rent-A-Car — one of ACRA's more vocal members on this issue — said that it was itself "an industry disruptor 60 years ago" and that the company has "always been open to new ideas and innovation.

"However," the statement said, "we believe the playing field should be level and fair for everyone involved in ground transportation — and that's especially true when it comes to safety issues like designated pick-up airport locations as well as any legal restrictions concerning manufacturer vehicle recalls."

Though they have been largely unsuccessful outside of New York, the bills typically seek to impose taxes or regulations on Turo, such as forcing the company to commit to annual vehicle inspections and additional registration.

In Maryland, a bill introduced by Enterprise would force Turo to collect sales tax, introduce safety inspection and remove cars with recall notices from their site. The bill under debate would also force Turo to abide by the same permitting process at airports as rental car companies.

Airports have become the front line in the battle between car-sharing and rental companies. For decades, rental car companies have paid airports on average 10 percent of their gross receipts — an amount worth billions — for the privilege of setting up shop. For ignoring this traditional arrangement and meeting customers at the curb, Turo has been sued by the City of San Francisco and received a cease-and-desist letter from the Maryland Department of Transportation, which operates Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

"Enterprise Rental Car is a multi-billion dollar company with so many benefits afforded to them, and they are trying to snuff out this tiny little startup that barely has a foothold in Maryland," Turo's head of government relations, Michelle Peacock, said. "It doesn't make any sense.

"Does Airbnb have to get a lead paint certification for every single home listed on their site?" Peacock said. "No, they don't."

Without access to vehicle titles and VIN numbers, Turo doesn't have access to recall notices, Peacock said.

But Rosemary Shahan, president of the Consumers for Auto Reliability, said Turo's leadership is ignoring the potential disaster that awaits if a single recalled car on the Turo platform results in a deadly crash.

The company should, at the very least, force users to check their VIN number before they can join the platform, Shahan said. Often car owners don't know their vehicle is subject to a recall, and by the time they find out there's a "body count."

"All it takes is one high-profile crash and their name — that's what they'll be known for," she said. "I hope they can learn from the experience of other companies. Whatever they think they're saving, it isn't worth it."

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