The major car rental agencies now offer electric vehicles (EVs) as part of their standard inventory, but knowing what it takes to operate an EV may not yet be a part of your own repertoire.
At rental lots operated by Avis, Budget, Enterprise, National, and many others, EVs are being loaned to many drivers for the first time. You can practically hear the naive exclamations at the rental counters: I'm saving the environment! Wheee!
Flash forward to the end of the rental period, when drivers are slammed with extra fees for returning their EVs without a full charge because customers didn't know that refueling a battery can be more involved than refueling a gas engine.
If you're thinking of renting an electric vehicle for the first time, there are some things you need to know.
You must budget travel time to keep recharging.
You may have heard that a typical EV can cruise for 200 to 300 miles before needing a new charge.
No so fast, says the AAA—or, more accurately, not so far.
Those numbers actually represent ideal conditions. EVs use energy to warm up or cool down in response to the weather, and that depletes the battery level you use to travel. The AAA found that when outdoor temperatures hit 95 degrees F (35° C) and you use the air conditioning, the average driving range for an EV is knocked down by 17%.
It's worse if you use the heater in cold weather. When it's 20° F outside (-6.7° C) and you turn on the HVAC, the average distance range of an EV plummets by 41%.
So you will have to budget a lot more charging time into your journey than you might expect.
Not every charging station will be compatible.
It's not necessarily hard to find charging stations—the car's software or free apps can tell you where they are. It's also not hard to do the charging itself, because plugging in a car is much easier and cleaner than filling it with gas.
But it's not correct to assume that any station will do.
Tesla runs its own network of recharging stations. After you enter your destination into the vehicle's iPad-like system, those recharging stations will be automatically displayed along your route.
But you might be driving a rival brand of EV, such as Polestar, Nissan LEAF, or BMW, that makes use of a different public charging network. (Some Teslas come with adapters that let you use either network, but you must ask at the rental counter if your vehicle has that equipment.)
It's a common observation that states in the Western U.S. seem to have more plentiful recharging options than points east, but that's changing all the time.
Not every charging station will work or be fast enough for your schedule.
Charging stations can break down, too, and service is not always swift. The AARP warns members that the location data you find for stations on the public network may not always be up-to-date.
Then there's the issue of timing. Level 3 chargers, also called DC fast chargers—which you often find along busy motorways—can charge an EV to 80% full in about 20 minutes. But many chargers you'll find at places like hotels and restaurants are often rated Level 2, and they top off the car battery at a much slower rate.
Using a Level 2 station can take 4 to 10 hours (yes, the power can vary that widely) to replenish the same battery. So the type of charger you use and the time it takes to use will also figure into your plans.
Level 1, the most basic type of charger, is mild enough to be safe to use with a wall outlet in your home, but it only juices EVs with 2 to 4 miles of driving distance an hour. That's not much of an option for road trips.
You might also have to wait in line to use a charger. That's more buffer time you have to remember to build into your itinerary when you rent an EV.
Don't waste vacation time waiting around for the EV to charge to 100% each time.
To protect battery life, most vehicles slow down charging once levels hit around 80%. That's why, as Car and Driver explains, "it may take just as much time to charge from 80 to 100 percent as it does from 10 to 80 percent."
Most regular drivers of EVs are content to hit the road again when the charge level hits about 80%, and most rental companies won't require you to return the car at levels higher than that. Check your contract to be sure, and don't sign one that insists you bring the vehicle to full battery power. You might have thought that filling up an EV would be as quick as filling up the tank of an oil-guzzling car, but that isn't so.
You must budget extra time so you can return the vehicle with a charge.
With a standard car rental, you simply need to stop at a gas station to fill up the tank just before you return the vehicle at the end of the contract period. But because EVs can take 20 minutes or longer to top off, they require more advance planning. You'd better not get a late start for the airport, because you might have to wait for another driver to finish using your targeted charger before you can jump on.
All of that takes time, and if you don't have the time and you return your car with a low charge—for Avis and Hertz, that means below 70%, reports the Washington Post—you could get slapped with a fee of around $35. If, that is, your car has enough energy to make that final push to the rental lot.
Sure, for the majority of travelers who do not yet own an EV, renting one is a terrific way to become familiar with the future of road travel. EV technology and infrastructure grow measurably by the month, and soon all of these considerations will either be smoothed over or forgotten as part of the initial learning curve we have to go through to master a new method of transportation.
Humankind went through something similar when motor cars were introduced. Back when gas-powered personal vehicles were the newfangled thing, drivers had to buy gasoline out of a barrel at hardware stores or grocery stores, notes the National Museum of American History in Washington. And there were no apps to help travelers find the nearest ludicrously explosive barrel.
Our current leading edge of transportation started off much better (and safer) than that, and it will only get better and more convenient. But you must be prepared for the ways that renting an EV differs from what you're used to.