Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read MoreRead More
I Own an EV But Won’t Rent One on Vacation. Here’s Why.
Hertz backtracking on EV rentals is not a surprise.
A year ago, before a vacation to see the eruption of the Hawaiian volcano Kīlauea, I found myself scrolling through my rental car options. A few users on the car-sharing service Turo offered up their Tesla Model 3s, and I was tempted by the idea of driving electric on holiday just as I would at home. One problem: There are no superchargers on the Big Island. I opted instead for a dependable, decade-old Hyundai Sonata — one that cost half as much per day.
An electric rental car is an easier sell in a big city with plenty of fast chargers. Even so, it appears that Americans at large are making the same choice that I did. Rental car giant Hertz made a big splash by adding Teslas to its fleet in 2021 and using NFL legend Tom Brady to advertise them. Now, instead of scaling up to 25% EV by this year as it had once planned, Hertz says it will sell off a third of its EVs because of weak demand and higher costs. The company plans to use the money to shift back toward more gasoline-powered cars.
I can’t say I’m surprised. EVs are, at least for this moment, an awkward fit for America’s rental car economy.
On the one hand, a rental is a great way for someone with no time behind the wheel of an EV to experience the reality of ownership. As a member of the car press, I got to test a Model 3 for several days before I bought my own. Believe me: A brief test drive from the dealership is nothing compared to what you’ll learn from puttering around in one of Hertz’s EVs for a few days, getting accustomed to its user interface and to the task of recharging. If you’re thinking about buying an electric car and you have a vacation in the near future, I’d encourage you to take the opportunity. An EV rental car is also an attractive option for lowering a vacation’s environmental footprint, since you’re probably already flying in a carbon-spewing airplane.
A rental car is also a good excuse to drive something fun or goofy. On a business trip a decade ago, I fulfilled a boyhood daydream by taking the bright red Jeep Wrangler and bombing around the San Francisco Bay Area with the top down (thanks, corporate card). A weekend car rental offers the chance to hop in a Tesla, which remains an usual or exotic experience in most places outside of California. However, Hertz’s struggles suggest that allure isn’t enough to overcome the higher cost of renting an EV. Especially when the bottom-dollar beater gets you where you’re going, if not in style.
The biggest issue, of course, is the fear of the unknown. Because so few Americans own a pure EV, renting one means learning a new driving paradigm — a chore, if not an outright headache. The last thing most people want to do while traveling to a conference in Boston or vacationing to the beaches of Los Angeles is to figure out how to put a Tesla into reverse or worry whether there’s a supercharger close to the hotel.
In truth, it’s not so bad. Once you’re inside an electric vehicle, the experience is built to be as idiot-proof as possible. Most modern EVs feature a big touchscreen with a map that will route you to available charging locations. The car will make sure to warn you, repeatedly, if it thinks you’re letting the battery get too low or straying too far from available chargers.
As much as the vehicle’s UI strives to inspire confidence, though, it’s easy to see why drivers who don’t already own EVs feel wary. The Biden administration’s big push may indeed expand America’s charging infrastructure. For now, though, there are still plenty of horror stories of people beset by busted plugs, slow chargers, long lines, or lousy interfaces. Vacation is supposed to be about decompressing, not range anxiety. Until chargers become much more reliable and get closer to ubiquitous, travelers will choose the known quantity: pump gas and put away the climate part of their brain.
That’s not to say EVs are doomed in the rental car market, or that tourists will forever spew carbon emissions from the backs of their battered Nissan Altimas and Honda CR-Vs. As Bloomberg reports, Hertz is paying close attention to GM’s attempts to revive the Chevrolet Bolt and introduce an electrified Equinox crossover as entry-level EVs in the low $30,000s. At that level, an agency could rent out EVs at prices more competitive with their traditional gas-burners. As EVs grow cheaper to rent and drivers grow more confident about charging, some of them will think hard about renting electric — especially in times of spiking gas prices. Perhaps a day will come when companies require their traveling employees to rent EVs instead of combustion cars as a way to keep costs down or to contribute to the firm’s green claims.
In the meantime, the question of rental EVs hovers in the same moment of uncertainty that clouds everything EV. Sales of electrics are not slowing, despite reports to the contrary. However the legacy automakers are seriously struggling with their electric transitions. Heatmap’s reporting has shown a major partisanship-based gap in EV buying interest, and that drivers in much of the country aren’t nearly as interested in buying electric cars as Ford and GM have suddenly become in selling them. The bad vibes are enough to make one wonder whether those living outside of large, EV-friendly large cities will ever embrace owning an EV, let alone become comfortable enough to rent one the next time they fly the family to Disney World.