The Future of Luxury: Avoiding People

By Ian Bogost

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.

The Silvercar website masthead, bearing its evocative motto (Silvercar.com)

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.

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As it happens, Dallas-Fort Worth airport was partly designed based on a fantasy car rental experience. A 1960s Hertz television ad showed a traveler effortlessly floating from plane to car. The curved terminals of DFW, with their characteristically short distances between the gates and  outdoor roadways were inspired by this effortless, unencumbered transition from air to road, the golden age of American jet travel. “Park and fly” wasn’t meant to be the logic of off-site economy garages, but the sleek, reality of daily life for the jet set. But by the early 1970s, a proliferation of hijackings had mandated passenger and baggage screening, and DFW’s architecture quickly became the bottleneck we know and hate to this day. These days at DFW, LAX, and most other airports, rental cars are housed in large, off-site facilities accessible only by shuttle bus. Such an experience contributes to the sense that car rental sucks, but in so doing it makes the experience feasible at scale.

Aerial view of DFW airport, depicting the semi-circular terminals arranged along a central highway. The design was originally meant to offer easy access to and from awaiting flights. (Flickr/Todd MacDonald)

DFW’s design may have made unspoken assumptions about a small jet set elite, but at least it was aspiring for populism rather than its dismantling. Like its techno-automotive cousins Tesla and Uber, services like Silvercar represent a shift from designing products and services to support a general population to focusing on an elite capable of wrangling, negotiating, or paying their way out of the drudgery of ordinary life. If you have the sense that Silvercar sounds great but might also be good to be true, you might be onto something.

Too good to be true for you, anyway. In a customer testimonial featured on the company’s homepage, Silvercar aficionado John T. extols, “Flawless execution from beginning to end. I’m a 14-time Audi owner and felt very much at home in the cockpit. I got tired of Hertz Gold giving me Hyundai’s.” John’s testimonial is instructive. For one part, it codes him as an aspirational customer model for Silvercar—someone with means and standards (who owns 14 cars, even in serial?). But it also reveals that the car isn’t really the heart of the service. After all, Hertz will happily rent you an Audi, (or a Porsche, for that matter). What they won’t do is prevent you from having to encounter the idea of a Hyundai—to pass one under the Gold canopy, for example, or to be seated next to normals on the courtesy bus who might later slum it in an Elantra.

In fact, the slow squeeze of premium services into elite ones may be affecting the not-quite-upper crust even more than the rabble. As I was about step on board my Delta flight from Atlanta to LAX to claim my Silvercar, two men entered the jetway from the tarmac-side door rather than the terminal and proceeded in front of me before stowing their carry-ons and taking their seats in first class. I hadn’t seen anything like it before, and not for lack of opportunity. I’ve got Diamond Medallion status on Delta, which means I fly more than 125,000 miles per year. One of the perks of such status is access to free upgrades when seats are available. But thanks to reduced routes driven by more limited competition thanks to consolidation, and smaller aircraft meant to maximize load, and more aggressive revenue management before releasing them, those upgrades have become fewer and farther between of late. Like many airlines, Delta has also been updating their loyalty programs to focus more exclusively on dollars spent rather than distance flown. One used to be able to become an elite via the “butt in seat” method—simply by scraping together enough travel to be recognized as such; now that achievement has more to do with revenue yield than with repeat business.

I take my seat mid-cabin in coach on the LAX flight, but at the last minute I’m moved up to first—someone didn’t show up. I’m right across the aisle from the jetway crashers. Upon deplaning in Los Angeles I figure out their story when another Delta agent meets the pair, bearing a VIP sign. One of them is Kevin Huvane, “badass Hollywood agent extraordinaire” and managing partner at Creative Artists Agency. “How was your flight?” the agent asks. “Uneventful,” Huvane responds languorously, reminding us both that pleasantries are meant to be exchanged only between peers. His handler is ready to take him to an awaiting car, but Huvane takes a pit stop first. For now, at least, there is no VIP loo service upon arrival.

Delta Private Jets ad, (Delta Sky Magazine)

As for the rest, it’s a service Delta and other airlines have started offering to their first and business class customers. For a few hundred dollars per person extra (depending on the airline and the airport) a host will whisk you to and from ticketing, security, the airline club, and the gate, so as to avoid mixing with the rabble. In Atlanta, Delta provides planeside service by Porsche; that’s whence Huvane and his companion had surreptitiously mounted the jetway, away from prying eyes. It’s a decent stop-gap for those who can’t afford or couldn’t book private jet service. The latter option is available too, by the way; en route, I notice an ad for Delta Private Jets in the in-flight magazine, featuring a grey haired man casting a fishing line. “Perfect moments are often made on a moment’s notice,” it reads. Time is the greatest luxury of all.

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A half-hour later, as I speed up the 405 in my borrowed Audi, I can’t shake the fractal structure of bespoke, luxury white-glove service. Everyone is both someone’s vassal and someone else’s lord. For the shlubs waiting at the off-site car rental stop, I’m their Kevin Huvane, just another L.A. asshole getting delivered a flashy car I don’t deserve. But just then, the pecking order of silvercars reveals itself once more, as I pass a silver Ferrari convertible merging north from the westbound 10. Its plates read JOES EGO.

The truth is, my qualifications for Silvercar are just as tenuous as my qualifications for Delta Diamond Medallion. I’ve stumbled into status rather than buying it. Nick the Silvercar Social Media Coordinator had promised me “An Audi for your influence. No kidding,” when he first contacted me last fall, presumably hoping I’d tweet about my experience or write an article like this one after Silvercar comped my one-day rental (disclosure: they did).

The economy of social influence has always existed, but such influence used to be a proxy for wealth: the Hollywood actress, the successful businessman, the professional athlete. Today, social influence has become a special variety of alms seeking. And as with all begging, it has a subordinating function. Like the underling invited as a special guest to the black tie gala, the subornation of social influence does more than produce public attention. It also reminds us tramps of our place. Back when Delta first launched its partnerships with Porsche, I managed to score a couple of free Panamera rides from the tarmac back to my car in the Atlanta airport garage—a service offered exclusively to select Medallion flyers. I realize now that I wasn’t just being shown that I was a good customer, but also that I wasn’t the best customer. Like the first class upgrade, the courtesy Porsche keeps aspirants in their place. It says, “Remember, this isn’t really for you.”

A VIP courtesy Porsche, picking me up on the ATL tarmac after a flight in December 2011 (Ian Bogost)

When Silvercar sells you car rental that “doesn’t suck,” they’re really selling you car rental that doesn’t involve ordinary people, that end arounds the inefficiencies of large-scale practice by buying out of it. The truth is, Hertz doesn’t suck. Avis doesn’t suck. Sure, things about them suck, like the usurious fuel charges they impose if you return a car without refilling its tank. And Silvercar has good answers to nuisances like this one: it will bill you the fair market cost to top off the tank plus a $5 service fee. But such a move isn’t a disruption so much as it is a more pleasant business policy—one Hertz or Avis might even be able to adopt if they didn’t have to turn around hundreds of Hyundais an hour. It’s not car rental that sucks, but dealing with the everyman, being in his presence, even knowing he exists.

Unable to overcome habit, I stop at a Venice gas station on my way back to LAX to top up my Audi. The joke will be on me in the end. When I arrive at the Silvercar office, an open rolling garage door reveals a mostly empty facility, only a handful of silver Audis awaiting deployment. It’s early, and the man working the shop sees me even before I get out of the car. He closes up, and silently gestures to me to jump back in the car I’m returning. He doesn’t even bother reading the gas gauge. Meanwhile, the filling station pump had failed to issue a receipt, and now I can’t expense the fuel charge. As I sink into the cool leather of the Audi’s passenger seat, I catch myself taking notice of such a piffling detail. Kevin Huvane wouldn’t bother with such trifles. Even John T. wouldn’t care.

The Silvercar LAX office, overlaid atop its less disruptive predecessor, the Oakstone Center (Google Street View/Yelp/Reya L./Ian Bogost)

Dawn is breaking as we speed past the warehouses and freight depots that surround the airport. For the moment, I am the sole customer of Silvercar LAX. I ask my driver—he’s my driver now, Tom Friedman-style—if business is growing. “More and more people are using us,” he responds. I consider grilling him further on how the business can “scale,” to use the term in that intransitive sense common to tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, but I stop myself short. Whether or not Silvercar can scale is beside the point. It doesn’t need to scale. Or better put: it scales to those whose measurement matters. This isn’t a business meant for the public anyway. It’s a tech startup ultimately destined to service the beau monde elite produced by entertainment, by energy, by finance, by other tech startups. A luxury car only gets to be a luxury if not everybody gets one.

My driver pulls up to the Delta terminal, curbside, directly in front of the Medallion priority check-in (I nod as he asks, “You have priority with Delta, right?”). I check in for my flight—my upgrade had cleared—and head to the Delta SkyClub to cash in on unearned elitism. As I sit in the quiet of the lounge sipping my complimentary latte, I try to remind myself how good I have it. How can I even tell this story, full of privilege and fortune? Few will empathize with me and my privileged upper middle-class lifestyle perks, nor should they. But no matter. Soon enough, you won’t have to.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/04/the-future-of-luxury-avoiding-people/361001/