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Is this fuel issue a rental-car ripoff? There's a reason, but drivers beware

Is this fuel issue a rental-car ripoff? There's a reason, but drivers beware
Car rental agencies are planning to keep track of your rental. (Jason Ford / For The Times)

Three colleagues. Three rental cars. One problem. That problem was gasoline, or rather the gyrations required to ensure compliance with rental car refueling rules. Often in touch with my inner conspiracy theorist, I began to sense a cabal, which is so much more interesting than business practices at the bottom of this. What I discovered in the course of my misguided inquiry, however, is a coming revolution in rental cars that may rock your world.

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In the last month, three of us in the Travel section rented cars, two for short trips, one because of car repair. All of us received cars (from different agencies) that didn’t come with full tanks of gas.

The tank on the car I rented was between half and three-quarters full, and I was told to bring it back at the same level, which made me wish I had listened during the fractions discussion in elementary school. I was sure that held the key to knowing how much gas constituted five-eighths of a tank.

Two others picked up cars whose tanks were empty. They had differing reactions: The first one said she would not take a car with an empty tank and to fill it, which was done. The second one took the car with no gas and put gas in twice. She returned with it more gas than she started with, asked for a credit and was told no.

“Has to be about money,” Renter No. 3 said. Isn’t everything? Let the conspiracy theories begin.

And stop immediately upon talking to Chris Brown, executive editor of Auto Rental News, which covers the industry.

These fueling issues aren’t new and occur mostly with “neighborhood operations,” Brown said, referring to those rental car sites tucked in the nooks and crannies of your town. All three of these rental outlets were in such sites.

Smaller sites don’t have refueling on site as their larger airport brethren do. “You’d have to send someone to refuel the car and bring it back,” he said. So, yes, it is about money — the amount you spend on personnel who are turned into gas jockeys. Is that the highest and best use of their time? From a renter’s perspective, the answer may be yes, but not necessarily from the manager’s.

What if you bring the car back to this place with slightly less fuel than, say, five-eighths? (I didn’t, despite my inattention to Mrs. Hall’s lessons on fractions.) “I do know from my experience that there is a little give and take” on how full a car’s tank must be, Brown said, although he noted his evidence is largely anecdotal.

The evidence won’t be anecdotal for long. Here’s the world-rocking change that will sweep the industry: the connected car. Quibbles over fuel will go the way of the dodo (we mean the extinct bird, not the renter) thanks to telematics.

“Telematics is essentially the integration of informatics [information technology] with telecommunications,” Robert Broxup wrote in his short treatise called “Effective Telematics.”

When it comes to rental cars, telematics may solve your fuel problem. You won’t check your gas or mileage manually; it will be done electronically, Brown said, and those quarrels over how much gas is in the tank will be pointless because your car can make a quantitative electronic assessment. In the future, renters of connected cars may receive a credit for a fuel overage. (Sorry, Renter No. 3.)

Further, a connected car may help you find a gas station close to your drop-off point, said Michael Nolfo, chief information officer for Enterprise Holdings, the owner of the National, Alamo and Enterprise rental car brands. The company hopes to have its fleet fully connected by 2020.

That’s not all a connected car will do. “It will tell us its location, its odometer reading and fuel level,” said Jeff Kaelin, vice president of product development for Avis Budget. “It will report back to us diagnostic trouble codes,” including issues with tire pressure, which is more integral to a car’s performance than you might think. The company also expects to have a fully connected fleet by 2020. Apps will be integral to increased convenience.

The location tracking, from a rental car company’s point of view, has advantages. If a car is beyond the scope of the rental agreement — that is, across the border, which may not be allowed in the terms of your agreement — the company may know that.

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Even if you’re not doing anything that violates the policy, privacy and security may be concerns, said Xiong Yu, a professor of civil engineering at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. These questions will be key to developing policies, procedures and technologies that keep your data are protected.

Kaelin said Avis Budget is using location information only “to facilitate the start and end of the rental and facilitating the return of the vehicle.”

In the not-too-distant future, the connected car may come with an opportunity for a subscription service that tells you where to eat, Yu said, what to see or where to grab a cup of coffee.

Help or hindrance? Good or evil? As always, it depends on the quality of the information, the source of it and how the data are used. One thing is clear: The reach of telematics isn’t limited to rental car fleets.

Think of the day when individualized insurance premiums, for instance, are based on how far you drive, how fast you drive and where you drive. As information technology speeds up, it may be time — literally — for you to slow down. Because the information age, where data are like currency, certainly isn’t going to.

Have a travel question or dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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