Silvercar, the company that rents only silver Audi A4s, announced a $28 million funding round last week, its largest yet and said Audi was that round's biggest investor. The Austin, Texas-based company, which operates out of 11 U.S. airports and one Manhattan location and has raised about $60 million since its 2012 founding, eschews the traditional car-rental counters and lets its customers rent and access cars via smartphone. Luke Schneider, the CEO and former Zipcar executive, spoke with hotels editor Danny King by phone from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week.
Q: Who are your customers?
A: We first thought it would just attract business travelers looking for consistency. We found out that not only does the technology help the experience be more consistent, but people love the car, and we're seeing a pretty good balance of leisure travelers. The thing they all have in common is that they want to simplify their lives.
Q: Why the Audi A4?
A: Audi is really a kindred spirit. It's an industry challenger, a consumer champion and a leader in design.
Q: But it's also owned by Volkswagen, which is going through a public-relations disaster with its diesel-emissions scandal. Has that impacted demand?
A: It hasn't affected us in any way.
Q: What's your annual revenue?
A: We can't publicly disclose those numbers, but the business has tripled over the last two years, and we're now Audi's biggest customer in North America. With this capital raised, it'll enable us to extend to additional airports. It allows us to continue expanding at the same measured pace, which is two to four new airports a year. Also, Audi has created a mobility group [to speed up technology that lets cars better communicate with drivers and other vehicles], and they're looking to aggressively expand in the mobility services area, so we think this could be a great partnership.
Q: What are you trying to accomplish at CES?
A: These are our customers, the early adopters of Silvercar, and there's also a good confluence of B-to-B and online media. I've been at the intersection of technology and transportation for 20 years. So much of what's being talked about at CES is this big change in transportation and mobility. What people are realizing is that the way people consider consumer transportation is changing: Buy what you need, pay for what you use and buy it on your phone.
Q: Do you consider the surging growth of Uber and the rest of the ride-hailing sector a threat?
A: Absolutely not, we're thrilled. That's the best example of technology completely reinventing a segment of transportation. There is a massive shift as people urbanize, and the beneficiaries are Uber and Lyft. However, there are still thousands of cases where people need to drive.
Q: G.M. invested $500 million in Lyft, and both companies say they're working on an autonomous-driving plan. Could that be in the works for Audi and you?
A: For Lyft and Uber, that's a Holy Grail. We think cars that drive themselves are in the center of the fairway. But personal transportation isn't an either/or kind of game, it's both/and. Sure, in some cases, you want to be in "Johnnycab" from "Total Recall." But sometimes, you want to be Steve McQueen in "Bullitt."