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Rental Firms' Disaster Readiness May Help Usher The Age Of Self-Driving Cars

Cars sit along the street in Houston following Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 30. Car rental companies made preparations to move vehicles into affected areas even before the storm hit.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Cars sit along the street in Houston following Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 30. Car rental companies made preparations to move vehicles into affected areas even before the storm hit.

With more than 1 million autos damaged in recent U.S. hurricanes, car rental firms have had to move vehicles quickly into affected areas. The ability to manage large fleets involves artificial intelligence and data — tools that are keys to a future of self-driving fleets.

Often even before the first rain falls in a hurricane, rental cars are on the way.

Lisa Martini, with Enterprise Holdings, the nation's largest car rental company, says that in anticipation of this hurricane season, the company started getting ready to send cars. "For example, in Texas we started anticipating the replacement vehicle need ... . We brought in about 17,000 vehicles in Texas and that was part of that recovery process," she says.

First responders, officials, volunteers, residents and reporters need cars in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, Martini says. "We really just understand where the demand is highest and, especially when a disaster hits, we just move those vehicles where they're needed," she says.

Enterprise, which also owns the Alamo and National Car Rental brands, has 6,400 locations throughout the U.S. As peak vacation season ended, just before the hurricanes, cars came from as far away a Green Bay, Wis., Seattle and Cape Cod.

That shift could have had an effect on vehicles in, say, Washington state. Martini says that for a couple of days, renters who didn't have an insurance claim might have had to wait a little bit longer. "The Mustang might have not been where you would have hoped it would have been," she says.

Chris Brown, executive editor of the trade publication Auto Rental News, says preparing for natural disasters is a part of the DNA of the rental car companies. Moving the 2.1 million vehicles in the rental fleet around the country is a microcosm of what's to come.

Rental cars may appear low tech on the surface, but Brown says the companies "have the ability to use artificial intelligence now, big data, combined with the collective wisdom of people that have been in the industry for 30 years to understand a customer's wants and needs."

Despite their low-tech image, car rentals are the wave of the future. Getting you the car you want, when you want it, for the time you want it will be increasingly important skills to have as cars become autonomous.

Fleet management admittedly is not something the average consumer is likely to think about. We just expect that the Mustang we wanted will be there.

Brown says fleet management is paramount to a successful operation. "But more than that, it only gets more important moving forward into this era of autonomous vehicles," he adds.

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Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.
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