Hertz IT needs some work

Renting a car for the first time in two years and change proved to be more high-maintenance than I’d expected, and I can’t even blame the crack this vehicle sustained in its windshield after a passing truck in southside Virginia kicked up a rock at just the right time.

Instead, my surprise was waiting in the mail two weeks after I’d wrapped up my drive testing for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks report: a letter from Hertz Vehicle Control informing me that this car was “seriously overdue” and if that I did not return it within 10 days of receipt, “felony grand theft auto charges will be promptly filed with law enforcement.”

The problems with this letter started with its third line, complaining that I had not parked the car at the BWI rental-car center. Pursuant to the rental-car agreement for this assignment, I had dropped it off in Atlanta at the ATL rental-car center–where I had waved over a Hertz attendant to point out the windshield damage and then seen her note that by writing a large X on a window.

I had not asked for a printed receipt because I’ve spent a few decades renting cars on and off and had never had an issue with my return of a car vanishing down a bit bucket. I should have noticed that Hertz did not e-mail me a receipt, but I had a family trip to distract me and I had not received any feedback suggesting this car was lost–no e-mails, no phone calls, no late charges. Plus, my prior Hertz rental in the spring of 2019 had been completely satisfactory.

Not for the first time, Twitter made it easy to resolve this customer-service problem. My cranky tweet mentioning @Hertz about the nastygram got a prompt Twitter response inviting me to provide details via direct message; I did, and less than an hour a Hertz rep DMed to say “I have just sent an alert to the location to have them close out your contract and email you the final receipt.”

The next day, I got a reply to the e-mail I’d sent first to the address listed in that Hertz letter, apologizing for the mixup: “There was a delay in the contract being closed, which triggered the automatic overdue letter.”

I couldn’t resist writing back: “I have to ask: Is your normal first notice of an overdue vehicle involve a threat of felony grand theft auto charges? I did not appreciate being treated that way.”

The response: “I do apologize, unfortunately, the letter is standard verbiage that is sent to every file that is triggered as an overdue. That’s why we include at the bottom if it’s sent in error, to please let us know.”

I appreciate these apologies–especially if they stick and I don’t get any other letters asking about this vehicle–but the opening notice of an overdue car really shouldn’t include a threat of felony charges. On the other hand, I recognize that this could have gone much worse.

Post-road-trip reflections

Ever since fleeing my rural upbringings for college in D.C., I have taken pride in how little I rely on driving to get around–to the point that I didn’t buy my first car until I was 26. But over the last week and change, I clocked 1,117 miles in a rented vehicle and did not hate it.

Getting paid for the time I spent behind the wheel as part of PCMag’s upcoming Fastest Mobile Networks report made a difference. But having each day’s drive be a one-off proposition instead of the latest iteration of a dreadful commute made its own difference. The first multiple-day road trip I’ve had in about 25 years took me to some interesting places, away from home and around the District.

Photo shows a black Chevy Spark with Hawaii plates, with the High Museum of Art across the street and midtown Atlanta buildings in the background

To start, having to stop and test the wireless carriers’ performance at multiple places scattered around each city on my itinerary–Baltimore, D.C., Raleigh and its Triangle neighbors, Charlotte, and Atlanta–allowed me to indulge my interest in transportation and development just by looking around.

All of these cities feature beautiful neighborhoods I wish I’d had time to walk around on this trip, and all made some dreadful mistakes decades ago with urban highways. (Spoiler alert: They often shoved them through Black people’s homes.) Some now seem to be making amends for those auto-centric excesses with bike lanes, light-rail lines and streetcars, sights that delighted my Greater Greater Washington-reading heart.

After months of having all three meals almost exclusively at home, I also had the challenge of getting breakfast, lunch and dinner without falling back on chain restaurants. All the mandatory test stops often got in the way of this and led me to atrocious lunch times after 2 p.m., but I did meet that challenge and now have a short list of places to return to. I’m not sure when I’ll next have a chance to get lunch at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack in Atlanta or NoDa Bodega in Charlotte, among others, but Open Crumb in Anacostia is only a few blocks off a bike trail I’m overdue to return to.

PCMag’s instructions for this drive testing encouraged avoiding Interstates between cities in favor of smaller, more rural roads that might expose the limits of the carriers’ networks, and that changed up the journey a little more. The four- or two-lane roads I found ate up more of my time but also relieved me of the sight of other cars’ brake lights–and often, of other cars at all. Large swaths of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia remain forests with only the occasional town of a few intersections to change up the scenery.

(As a native New Jerseyan and now Northern Virginia resident, I did wonder how often I’d see Confederate battle flags on these rural stretches. I only spotted four such displays, which is more than I’d like but much less than I’d feared.)

All of this driving in not-straight lines and my own lack of experience with the drive-testing routine, however, left little time for me to play tourist or even meet people along the way. My late departure for Raleigh barely allowed the minutes for a detour through Richmond to see Monument Avenue devoid of most of its Confederacy whitewashing; I wrapped up my testing around the Triangle in time to go to a Durham Bulls game last Friday; I made sufficiently good time between Charlotte and Atlanta to get a quick lunch in Athens, Ga., and gawk at the remains of the trestle pictured on the back cover of R.E.M.’s Murmur; that was about it. I finally met a friend for dinner Monday night in Atlanta–better yet, it was at his house and he cooked.

Since coming home Tuesday night, I have yet to open the door of our car, much less take it anywhere. That’s been a pleasure, but I have to admit I won’t mind the next chance to drive somewhere on an indirect, inefficient route if it’s part of a reasonably well-paying freelance gig.

Weekly output: out of office

CHARLOTTE, N.C.–For the first time since January of 2019, I have no work to my name over the past week. That’s mainly because I’ve tied down since Tuesday working as one of the drivers for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks report, as I noted here yesterday; days spent clocking a couple of hundred miles between cities or driving in circles around those cities leave little time for outside work. Fortunately, the jaunt through the Southeast that brought me here Saturday afternoon ends Tuesday in Atlanta. I’m looking forward to falling asleep in my own bed and not having to think about where to get breakfast the next morning.

Road trips, now and way back then

CHARLOTTE, N.C.–I’m in the middle of my first multiple-day road trip since… um… 1996. Things about motoring around the U.S. have changed just a bit for me since that trip from Los Angeles to D.C., much less the 1992 trek from Sacramento to the District that was my first cross-country drive.

The biggest differences are that I’m doing this trip solo instead of with a college friend–and that instead of having a room in a group house or apartment awaiting at the end of the trip, I am looking forward to seeing my wife and almost 11-year-old daughter again.

Then comes the fact that this road trip is for work instead of fun, or what passes for fun when you’re in your twenties. I’m spending a week as one of the test drivers for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks project, taking a rental car and six specially configured test phones to locations picked in a series of cities.

Photo shows my rental car with the door open, six test phones sitting on the passenger seat, and a row of storefronts in the Little Five Points neighborhood of Raleigh.

This freelance gig on wheels started with a train–I boarded Amtrak Tuesday for the first time since February 2020 for a short ride to BWI to pick up this car Tuesday, after which I met the previous driver in Baltimore to get the test phones and spend the afternoon driving around Charm City. I devoted Wednesday to driving around D.C., went from home to Raleigh, N.C. Thursday; spent all of Friday on the roads of the Triangle; and had a considerably shorter day of driving Saturday to reach here. My tour of the southeast wraps up in Atlanta Tuesday, after which I fly home.

The vehicle in question, a Chevrolet Spark, isn’t much bigger than the Toyotas involved in 1992 and 1997. But it’s as new as rental cars get, versus the 1977 Corolla with a four-speed manual transmission that made it across the U.S. in 1992 or the 1986 Tercel with a crack in the windshield that did the same in 1996. And it has such modern conveniences as air conditioning, power windows and a backup camera.

And instead of driving entirely offline–taking old cars across deserts with neither GPS nor the ability to communicate must seem bizarre to my kid–I have a smartphone to navigate and keep me in touch via calls, text messages, e-mail, multiple social networks, and the Slack channel PCMag set up for this test. Plus the six test smartphones that spend each day on the passenger seat running their automated tests, as seen in the photo above taken in Raleigh Friday morning.

(I wrote a more detailed explanation of the testing process for Patreon readers Friday.)

But in one respect, the technology of road trips may have backslid a bit from the 1990s. Those old cars lacked CD players but did include tape decks, while this Chevy is like many new cars in not including any playback hardware for prerecorded music. I can plug in a flash drive or pair my phone via Bluetooth, but I have yet to get around to cobbling together a road-trip-relevant playlist on my phone or copying one to a flash drive. Instead, I have instead relied on a more traditional soundtrack source: the radio. And since I had an excellent college-rock station to keep me entertained around Raleigh, that hasn’t been so bad.

7/22/2021: Updated to fix a couple of inaccuracies I only realized when checking this post against old photo albums.

Weekly output: Google’s “security hold,” how to read wireless-carrier rankings

Both posts this week had me circling back to topics I’ve covered before and learning something new, which is always nice.

7/25/2019: Locked out of your Google account? Why it can sometimes take days to get back in, USA Today

Once again, I tried to shed some light on how Google goes about resolving a forgotten password for a Google account. This time, I got the company to document a hitherto-undocumented “security hold.” Alas, much of the process here remains mysterious, and the reader in question here may have only gotten her account back so quickly because I inquired on her behalf.

7/26/2019: Why so many wireless carriers seem to have “America’s best network”, Fast Company

My work updating the Wirecutter guide to smartphone service required me to spend a lot of time with studies ranking the performance of the big four wireless carriers, so I decided to write an explainer about how these surveys get their results and how you should interpret their findings. That effort revealed a couple of finer points about these projects that I was able to add to the Wirecutter update, which should be up any day now.

Weekly output: smartphone-only Internet access, data discussion, Credit Karma, GDPR notices, ad agencies, Sprint and T-Mobile’s networks, live music, encryption politics, future of the FTC

I spent most of this week in New Orleans for the Collision conference–that event’s finale there, as it’s moving to Toronto next year. (The clip the organizers put together to announce the change of host cities includes a snippet at the 0:21 mark of a panel on VR and AR that I did at Collision last year, something that completely escaped my attention when they played that clip Tuesday.) I’m sad that I won’t have an obvious reason to put NOLA on my Schedule C next year, but I don’t want to complain too much after three years in a row of being able to do just that.

Meanwhile, Conference Month continues with my departure Monday for Google I/O in Mountain View. I return Thursday, and then Tuesday of the week after has me off to Toronto for RightsCon.

4/30/2018: Study: 1 in 5 American homes get broadband through smartphones, Yahoo Finance

After filing this write-up of a new Pew Research Center study from a “real” computer, my editor sent back some questions as I was boarding my flight to New Orleans. I had free Internet access on my phone thanks to T-Mobile’s deal with Gogo, so I wound up finishing this post on smartphone-only Internet access on my mobile device. My comment to my editor: “I’ve basically become one with the story.”

5/1/2018: Data do nicely: Metrics that matter, Collision

My first of four panels at Collision had me quizzing Node co-founder Falon Fatemi and Branch Metrics co-founder Mada Seghete about how their firms collect and crunch large amounts of data for various clients. About five minutes in, I realized that I only had 15 minutes’ worth of questions for this 20-minute panel–a clock-management fail I should know to avoid–and started improvising. As I watched the timer tick down and silently implored each of my fellow panelists to keep talking, I thought the situation vaguely reminded me of watching the Caps grinding out a penalty kill.

 

5/1/2018: From 0-$4bn: Building Credit Karma, Collision

Tuesday’s second panel was an onstage interview of Credit Karma co-founder Nichole Mustard. After the morning’s timing troubles, I took care to write down more questions than I thought I’d need, then didn’t have to worry about timing since my panel partner could hold forth on everything I asked about.

 

5/1/2018: Pay attention to those privacy notices flooding your email, USA Today

This column explaining why so many sites, apps and services are rolling out new privacy policies effective May 25 was one of two posts that benefited from an interview I did with the Federal Trade Commission’s Terrell McSweeny–as in, one of my Web Summit co-panelists last year–on her second-to-last day in office.

5/2/2018: The agency of tomorrow today, Collision

I had a great chat with DDB Worldwide’s CEO Wendy Clark about the state of the ad business. This panel also featured some audience questions–routed through the Slido app, so I could pick which ones to answer instead of pointing to somebody in the audience and hoping they wouldn’t begin “this question is more of a comment.”

 

5/3/2018: Why Sprint customers should hope the T-Mobile deal succeeds, USA Today

This column walked readers through four independent assessments of Sprint and T-Mobile’s networks–three of which found Sprint’s to be well behind, even after notable improvements.

5/3/2018: Tech changed consumption: What’s the next disruption?, Collision

My last Collision panel had me quizzing Ticketmaster’s Ismail Elshareef (with whom I’d worked in 2012 when I did a talk at his then-employer Edmunds) and the UCLA Center for Music Innovation’s Gigi Johnson about the state of live music. You’ll hear a couple of shout-outs from me to such current and former D.C.-area venues as the 9:30 Club and Iota.

 

5/3/2018: The Trump administration is pushing hard for smartphone backdoors, Yahoo Finance

I’m not sure what led this recap of recent developments in encryption politics to get 1,280 comments, but I’m not going to turn down that kind of attention.

5/3/2018: The agency that protects your privacy is in for big changes, Yahoo Finance

Most of my notes from the McSweeny interview went into this post, along with a few conversations with outside observers of the Federal Trade Commission.