Rental car companies gauge the benefits of a new technology to measure fuel use

Karen Freeman thought that she’d returned her Chrysler 200 Sedan to the Richmond airport with a full tank. She thought wrong.

“An agent noted that the tank was full,” says Freeman, an architect from Atlanta. The gauge also registered that the tank was at capacity, she says.

But a few days later, when she reviewed her credit card bill, she discovered that Avis had charged her an extra $7.43 for 0.8 gallons of gas, or about $9.29 per gallon. She called the company to complain.

“A representative told me that according to a satellite, when I picked up my car, it had 16.9 gallons in it,” she says. “And when I returned it, it had 16.1 gallons. I checked the ticket from pickup and there’s no mention of the fuel quantity other than ‘G8’ — which means full.”

Avis isn’t the only car rental company measuring fuel down to a tenth of a gallon. Hertz is installing this technology, which is referred to by the industry term electronic fuel metering, in its fleet over the next few months in an effort to ensure that every drop of fuel is accounted and paid for.

Mark Frissora, Hertz’s chief executive, says that his company loses $50 million a year in fuel. Its new system, called Zibox, is capable of shutting off a car engine remotely and operating car locks from afar. It relays location data, tire air pressure and fuel-level information back to Hertz, too. In other words, it will know exactly how much fuel you have in the car at any given time. “This is going to be good for customers,” Frissora says.

An Avis representative said that the technology is part of the company’s effort to be “more transparent and precise” in the fuel measurement process.

“Our new technology automatically measures and records the precise amount of gas in the tank at the time the customer exits the rental facility, and measures and records the fuel level again when the vehicle is returned,” says Avis spokeswoman Alice Pereira. “Both readings are printed on the customer’s rental receipt when the vehicle is returned. Through this method, customers can clearly see exactly how much fuel they are being charged for and the amount of such charge.”

When Freeman phoned Avis to question her bill, it quickly deleted the fuel charge. But she’s unhappy with the way the technology is being used. “Not only do I think it’s unreasonable to hold the consumer to a data point we have no access to,” she says, “but I am certain that there would be no credit if I had returned the car more full than the ‘full’ I received.” (Avis says it would have credited her for any additional fuel.)

Fuel purchasing has always been a hot topic among car rental customers. That’s because the systems either favor the car rental company or the renter but are never entirely fair to either.

As things stand now, if customers choose the fuel-purchase option, prepaying for a full tank of gas, they must return the car with little more than vapors in the tank if they want to break even. Otherwise, the car rental company profits. On the other hand, if a renter agrees to fill the tank before returning it, the rental company — or the next renter — can take a hit if the gauge erroneously registers a full tank.

“It’s difficult to get customers to always return the car with a full tank,” says Sharon Faulkner, executive director of the American Car Rental Association. Privately, some customers have admitted to her that they watch the gas gauge while they’re filling the tank, waiting for the needle to reach “F” and then stopping, as opposed to waiting for the gas pump to cut off automatically.

“A car can read ‘full’ for a number of miles, but the next customer, who gets the car almost full, is the one who is hurt if it isn’t,” she says.

No one knows exactly how much the car rental industry as a whole loses — or profits — from selling fuel. But the new fuel-metering technology is likely to tip the scales in the industry’s favor, say observers.

Chris Brown, who edits the trade publication Auto Rental News, says he believes that the car rental industry is losing money on gas, which is why it’s moving to electronic fuel metering. But the technology is relatively new and little is known about it or how it would be implemented. Freeman’s run-in with Avis didn’t look right to Brown, because once an agent marks the tank as “full,” an agency doesn’t normally reverse course and declare the tank to be partially empty. “Procedurally, it doesn’t make sense,” he says.

For anyone renting a car, the path forward is only slightly clearer.

If you’re renting a high-end, low-mileage car, your chances of having a vehicle with electronic fuel metering are good. You can either prepay for a full tank of gas through a rental company’s fuel-purchase option and time the return of your rental to the moment the tank reaches the “E” mark, or you can fill the tank to the top just before you return it and hope for the best.

It’s always a smart idea to save the gas receipt, which should note the time and the amount of fuel you added to the tank. If there’s a dispute, the invoice could prove to be useful.

And don’t forget to review your credit card bill after you rent.

“You have to watch your car rental company like a hawk,” advises Freeman.

E-mail Christopher Elliott at chris@elliott.org.

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