Thursday, January 8, 2015

The nefarious new ‘NeverLost’

Sliding into the driver's seat of a Hertz rental car at Sacramento Airport (SMF) over the Christmas holiday, the first thing I noticed was the next-gen version of the company's famous NeverLost navigation system. As it turns out, it's much more nefarious than simply being an updated version of what had become an outdated GPS system.

When I started the car, the unit displayed a “Welcome” screen that included my name. "Fine," I thought, they know who is renting this particular car, so it’s not much of a stretch to add my name to the display. But other features of the device made me much less comfortable with the new technology.

Hertz (NYSE:HTZ) is deploying the new device differently than previous versions. When it made its debut years ago, customers had to ask for a vehicle equipped with – and pay extra for – the NeverLost system. The newest version will eventually be in all the company’s rental cars according to Christopher Elliott, a travel reporter and blogger with BoardingArea.com, who attended a Hertz event that included the unveiling of the new device.

New NeverLost with camera
(highlighted)
The new devices include upgraded technology that will enable the company to track the exact GPS location of each vehicle, to remotely start and stop the vehicle, and – here’s what I found most troubling – to see inside each vehicle.

Hertz acknowledged all of this in my rental agreement, which said, “The Vehicle may be equipped with telematics technology that allows us to track or otherwise locate, disable and repossess the Vehicle and to obtain data about the Vehicle’s use during your rental, including fuel used and miles driven.”

While the tracking and control features made me uncomfortable enough, it was nothing compared to the feeling that crept over me when I spotted the camera lens pointing toward the driver. I flashed to an unpleasant image of George Orwell’s Big Brother, then quickly decided to cover the lens with a business card, which remained there for the duration of my rental.

In the article he wrote after getting a preview of the new units, Elliott said a Hertz executive assured him the company would only use the technology when a car has been stolen or after it’s been returned, not during the rental period. I’m neither convinced nor comforted by that assurance, and the fact that the company can track a renter’s travels so very closely opens the door to all manner of potential abuses.

For example, most rental cars are not to be driven off-road and there are often penalties for doing so. However, “off-road” could conceivably be defined as heading down an urban alley, a stretch of road that is graded but not paved, or crossing a patch of dirt a few feet wide to access a right-of-way. Using the GPS technology, Hertz could easily “prove” that a renter violated the letter, if not the spirit, of the contract and the renter would then be guilty until they prove themselves innocent. In such a case, the renter’s choices are to pay whatever the company charges or go to arbitration or small claims court. Jury trials and class actions are expressly waived by the contract.

Finally, the new units cannot be turned off.

When TheTravelPro contacted the NeverLost help desk to ask questions about the unit and its use, company representatives provided some contradictory information. One rep said there was “A power button on the far right side,” but when she was pressed, she admitted it only put the unit into “sleep” mode and did not turn it off completely. She said the cameras were “Inactive at this time” and were for “future use” though she said she was not sure what that use would be. She also said she was not aware that the units were to be installed fleet-wide, but admitted that could be the case.

Another area in which TheTravelPro got contradictory information involved pricing. Company literature implies that renters who use the “Get Directions” feature will be charged for that service if they decide to use it. However, another help desk rep had a different take: he said if the car has a NeverLost unit and it wasn’t specifically ordered, renters could use the directions feature without charge. Forgive me for being skeptical, but I wouldn’t want to risk using it for directions once or twice, then finding I would be charged a daily fee for the unit for duration of my rental.

Lest you think that too cynical, allow me to point to Hertz's precedent for such an approach. When a driver uses Hertz’s electronic toll payment system called “PlatePass,” they are charged “[A] service fee of $4.95 per each day of [their] rental including prior or subsequent days on which the PlatePass service is not used (capped at $24.75 per rental) plus incurred tolls." [emphasis added] That means a renter who crosses a toll road or bridge twice during a one-week rental will be charged the two tolls plus up to five daily service fees. It could also be thus with the NeverLost; I was not able to get a definitive answer from Hertz.

The company says the new devices will also offer travel guides, the ability to teleconference with Hertz representatives, and the ability to synch one's cell phone. But at what cost?

For me, the risks of unexpected charges and infringements on my privacy far outweigh the potential rewards of the new NeverLost. Although I have been a Hertz #1 Club Gold member for more than 20 years, for future rentals I will more strongly consider renting from the competition. I, for one, am willing to pay a few dollars more if necessary to keep my private affairs private.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.



Photo provided by The Hertz Corporation
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2 comments:

  1. Hertz responded via Twitter: "Carl, thanks for the important feedback in your blog. We never take pictures of our customers and the camera is not enabled."

    ReplyDelete
  2. Really Hertz... Random unused security equipment... If you are not using it, are you monitoring for its use as there are hackers who love that stuff.

    ReplyDelete

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