When I power on my phone upon landing at LAX, a text message is already waiting for me: “Hi Ian, Silvercar here! We have your res at 1:00pm today. Let’s roll!” Silvercar rents a fleet of silver Audi A4s at airports in Austin, Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. A slogan speaks plainly on the company’s behalf: “car rental that doesn’t suck.”
For Silvercar, “not sucking” means not being like traditional rental car companies. The rest of my on-arrival text message drives the point home. At the end of their detailed instructions, Silvercar urges me: “do NOT go to the purple ‘rental cars’ sign. That’s for those who’ve already given up ;)”
It’s not exactly true. I’m instructed to take the Lot C bus from the blue Shuttle Airport Connections stop to “the first stop after leaving the terminal.” This is the stop for off-site rental car shuttles, a fact Silvercar cleverly omits from its instructions. As with the Google bus, the best way for technology companies to make use of public infrastructure is to do so quietly, without acknowledgement.
The off-site rental car stop sits at the corner of one of LAX’s enormous long-term parking lots. It hosts cut-rate rental services without authorization to operate terminal shuttles to collect and deliver passengers. The services you’ve never heard of, like Midway, Advance, Geo, Atlas, Lucky. These are the agencies for those who have truly given up, so long as “giving up” means not being able to afford the rates at Hertz and Avis, or not having a credit card to guarantee them.
Silvercar has a smartphone app (an app is what makes your company a “tech startup”, even when it’s just an ordinary service business). I was instructed to load it and tap a “pick me up” button when I had successfully boarded the Lot C bus. Actually, all the button does is compose a text message with an identifying code, which I then sent manually. I receive the kind of faux-eager, informal reply that startups have adopted in response to the impersonality of traditional corporate speech. “Awesome! I’m on my way!” along with a link to track the driver’s location via a location sharing service I’ve never heard of, but apparently ought to know if I fancied myself hip enough to use Silvercar.
It’s clear and warm in Los Angeles, and the bright midday sun glances off the tract of white pavement that sits between the Lot C bus stop and the off-site rental pickup shelter. By the time I reach the curb, my Silvercar had already pulled up to meet me, as if our movements had been scripted and blocked for filming. A stubbly twenty-something man sits behind the wheel; he looks like he should be writing Ruby code at a standing desk in Palo Alto rather than dropping off a rental car, but he’s unfazed: all energy and excitement.
“Are you familiar with Audis?” He asked me as I step out of the bright sun into the passenger’s seat. I stumble to answer; it’s a car, I guess, a nice one. I’ve driven cars before. But Silvercar needs me to experience the car as the phoenix that has risen from the ashes of rental car mediocrity. A guided tutorial commences, which includes pairing my iPhone to the car for handsfree operation, learning the navigation system, and touring the satellite radio service. Myriad technical baubles bubble up, some useful and well-conceived like the 12v USB charging port, others not quite so perfected, like the QR code scanning feature of the Silvercar app, which I’m meant to use to check into my car. After some fiddling, my agent tells me he’ll just deal with it when he gets back to the office.
I step into the driver’s seat and speed off in my Audi, while my Silvercar agent disappears, presumably extracted by the identical silver Audi that has pulled up behind me. Meanwhile, a handful of rabble sit under a pointless, transparent plexiglass shelter amidst the southern California sun, waiting to be conveyed to their discount rental car vendor of choice. Cut-rate milkroute meets white glove chauffeur.
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Like so many tech startups, Silvercar seems desperate to claim that it is “disrupting” an incumbent industry. The company’s pitch is direct and candid: “We’re an early stage startup that is, frankly, sick of the typical rental car experience. You know, the one where you wait in line, get upsold, only to end up with a run down, econo-class Dodge Neon that has a faint smell of ‘is that ham?’”
But is this really the typical rental car experience? It depends on what you mean by “typical.” It might be typical for the low-grade services that share a pickup spot with Silvercar, but it’s not really true of established vendors like Hertz and Avis, especially not at their airport locations.
I raise the question with Nick, a Silvercar Social Media Coordinator. As a Hertz Gold member, I tell him, I don’t wait in line, I don’t get upsold, and I don’t get a run-down vehicle. And on top of that, I can get that service anywhere—Reno or Cincinnati or Sacramento or Des Moines.
Nick admits that Silvercar’s service area is limited, but reports that many of their customers have abandoned premium rental memberships like Hertz Gold due to Silvercar’s excellent customer experience, a factor he bolsters by citing the company’s net promoter score. Of course, a consumer satisfaction score won’t bring a car to you in Topeka—or even in Houston or Atlanta or Chicago, for now.
More than anything, Silvercar sells a suite of exclusivities. “Use your smartphone. Rent an Audi A4. Every time,” reads its marketing. Using a smartphone to rent a car is superfluous at best, annoying at worst, but its utility is beside the point. Given the personalized drop-off service, this is technology for show, produced for rhetorical effect rather than functionality. The point is to have an app, to interact with customers by text rather than voice, to be with-it and modern. When tech startups flaunt their apps, they’re often pandering to an audience that identifies with mobile and web technology, rather than one that needs to make use of it. People don’t like Uber because they like technology; they like Uber because they like car services but hate making telephone calls.
Silvercar’s exclusivity of locations is likewise not just a vestige of a new service that hasn’t yet rolled out nationally. It’s a statement about places that are worth bothering with in the first place. San Francisco and Austin, hotbeds of tech entrepreneurship (the company is based in Austin and principally funded by Austin Ventures). LA and Dallas offer convenient second-bets, big cities in the same states, with sprawling aerotropolises sufficient to insert offices without succumbing to the ghetto of rinky-dink, small-time operators. Silvercar doesn’t want you to wait for it to open shop in its destinations, so much as it wants you to plan your destinations so that they correspond with Silvercar’s open shops. Who wants to go to Des Moines anyway? Silvercar whispers the secret Austin and San Francisco believe they have realized: all business travel is technology travel, because all business is technology.