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Why Do Rental Car Companies Attach Both Keys?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro April 2017

Hello Oversteerage, and welcome to the latest version of Ask Doug, where you Ask Doug various questions about cars, and Doug attempts to answer them with occasional insight and typical rambling incoherence.

If you'd like to participate in Ask Doug, you can! Just email me with your question at OversteerDoug@gmail.com, and make sure it's good. Ask Doug does not take bad questions, such as "I bought a 2002 Audi allroad and now it won't work, what do I do?" The answer to this is simple: It will be cheaper to build a time machine, go back in time, and buy something reliable instead.

Anyway, on to this week's question, which comes to us from a reader I've named Pedro, who's asking a question I often hear about rental cars. He writes:

Good day Doug,

Can you please explain to me why rental car companies insist on giving me two sets of keys/fobs attached together using a non-openable metal ring, instead of just one set of keys. It's not like you can use the two separate sets. I think it's just so they can charge you $600 to replace both fobs when you lose the keys.

Thanks,

Pedro

For those of you who don't know what Pedro means, allow me to explain the situation when you rent an automobile in today's America. What happens is they give you the car -- usually with some sort of stain that has inexplicably found its way to the headliner -- and they also give you the key.

Except they don't give you the key, they give you the keys -- both of the car's keys, stuck together on one impossible-to-break key ring. Usually, there's also a notice that says something like "AVERAGE KEY REPLACEMENT COST: $200", just so you're aware that you shouldn't lose the keys lest you be charged something like $400, because both keys are stuck together on the same ring.

Now, this begs the question that Pedro is asking: If the rental car company doesn't want you to lose the keys, why is it giving you both keys on the same ring? It's not like you can even give one key to one driver and another key to another driver. They're both stuck together, and these key rings truly are impossible to break, so they're not going anywhere. It makes absolutely no sense, unless you're one of those weird superstitious people who wants to switch off which key you use to start your car, and also you occasionally consume staples as a late afternoon snack.

So why does it happen? Simple, Pedro: I worked for a rental car company once, many years ago, and I know how disorganized it is. The rental car company does it because they're afraid they will lose the keys if they don't keep them together.

Here's what I mean: Rental cars travel all over the country with amazing regularity, which is why you'll sometimes rent a car in California with Texas plates, or Illinois with Tennessee plates, or Alabama with Michigan plates. The last car I rented was a Subaru Forester in Portland, Oregon, with Montana plates.

So what used to happen was one key would go to the customer, and the second key would stay behind in the office where the car was originally rented. But this led to a problem when it came time to sell the car or when the key was lost. They'd have to figure out which office was involved, that office would have to find the keys, and it was always a nightmare on the part of the rental car companies. So they decided to pass along that nightmare to the consumer.

So in today's world, the rental car company no longer has to keep track of the second key. Now they don't have to go looking for a second key when they want to take a car out of service: Instead, all they have to do is get the keys that have been fused together and they're good to go. Meanwhile, the keys are no longer lost in the various regional offices, which was a costly problem for rental car companies. Now, the keys are lost by the consumer -- and the rental car companies can charge said consumer when they lose the keys, rather than absorbing the costs on their own.

It's a great situation for the rental car company, and it's an even greater situation for you, Pedro, because now you get to walk around with two enormous rental car keys in your pocket -- and the knowledge that you'll get charged about $500 if you lose them. Isn't travel great?

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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Why Do Rental Car Companies Attach Both Keys? - Autotrader