For years, electric cars have been available for rent – but most people preferred to stick with the gasoline-powered vehicles they already knew. Since 2017, however, public interest in electric car rental has been rapidly growing – and it’s now expected to be a major growth segment within the vehicle rental industry. Here’s what you need to know about these vehicles and how they’re impacting things.
Gasoline vs. Electric
While gasoline vehicles are going to be the dominant part of the market for the foreseeable future – at least until self-driving vehicles are widely and publicly available – electric vehicles have become increasingly popular as consumers turn to them.
There are several major reasons that people choose to rent electric.
First, electric vehicles are better for the environment. Since they don’t produce any exhaust when used, they reduce pollutants and help protect nature. They’re also healthier for people who are sick and particularly sensitive to pollutants.
Next, many rentals take place in and around cities, with people who only want to travel short distances to their destinations. This is especially true with the tourism industry, where the ability to cheaply visit destinations in and around a city can be a major boon.
Finally, electric vehicles prominently feature the use of technology, a direct contrast to many of the forgettable low-tech vehicles used in the past.
As a side benefit, electric vehicles tend to be more impressive to business leaders and other important visitors and renting one may be part of an effort to get on their good side.
How Electric Vehicles Perform
Performance varies wildly – but there are a few points of comparison we can make to gasoline-powered vehicles. At the moment, the iconic electric vehicle (and one widely available through companies like Enterprise) is the Tesla Model S. This vehicle starts with a range of over 200 miles and can recharge in as little as 30 minutes if a Tesla Supercharger is in the area.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Model S comes with a minimum of 302 horsepower, easily outperforming most sedans and making it possible to smoothly carry passengers and cargo to almost any destination. Most of the vehicle’s settings can be changed from the center control console, making it that much easier to adapt for any driver.
Other electric vehicles don’t have quite this level of performance, but they still compare quite favorably to their gas-powered competition. Performance is likely to continue improving, too – researchers recently announced a breakthrough in energy storage that could reduce recharging times enough to completely recharge a vehicle in the time it takes to buy a few groceries.
What Categories Are Electric Rental Cars Available In?
Electric rental cars mostly fall into the mid-size range. For example, the Enterprise Intermediate car rental program offers sedans with plenty of space for passengers and luggage alike – an important consideration. Most people who need rental cars need enough space to carry their things to and from an airport or other mass transit station – so going too small just doesn’t make sense.
Problem #1: Range Anxiety
One of the biggest factors holding electric car rental back is the presence of range anxiety, the fear of being stranded because a vehicle doesn’t have enough range. Even Tesla’s Model S (among the best-performing of all electric vehicles available for rent) has a significantly shorter range than many of the latest gasoline-powered sedans… and that’s not considering the needs of people who want to drive away from cities and their plentiful charging stations.
Manufacturers are working on several solutions for this. First, many of them are deploying wider charging networks, making it easier for people to find and recharge their vehicle’s battery before it fully depletes.
Next, some manufacturers are installing battery-swapping stations where the entire battery can be changed out to allow a trip to continue. Tesla specifically designed the Model S to permit this, and existing tests have already demonstrated swapping a battery in about 90 seconds (less than the amount of time it takes to refuel a gas tank).
Finally, some electric cars are actually plug-in hybrids that have a backup combustion engine, and this almost totally alleviates range anxiety in drivers.
Problem #2: Climate Control
Gasoline-powered vehicles are actually quite efficient at heating their interiors, especially once the engine has warmed up. Heat is produced as a byproduct of the combustion process and diverting some or all of that heat into the cabin of the vehicle drastically improves its overall efficiency.
Electric vehicles are, unfortunately, not so lucky. The engine system doesn’t heat up too much, requiring climate control to expend energy much like a plug-in heater or air conditioner. That can sharply reduce the range of the vehicle. As things stand, there are three solutions in place.
First, electric vehicles connected to the grid can easily be preheated or precooled, allowing them to be kept at the desired temperature at all times. When this is combined with a super-insulated cabin, it’s possible to keep EVs at comfortable temperatures for minimal cost.
Aside from that, many companies are looking into using heat pumps as a way of regulating the temperature. So far, this has been the most promising method – the reduced energy drain prolongs the life of the battery and the vehicle’s overall energy efficiency.
Problem #3: Recharge Costs
Charging costs vary by area, and some locations – like California – actually make it more expensive to drive an electric vehicle than a gasoline one. This isn’t as important for rental vehicles, where the short-term use means fuel costs aren’t too visible, but it does affect things like the rental company’s guidelines.
It remains to be seen if municipalities will begin offering more incentives on charging costs. If they do, the decreased rates may encourage more people to rent electric vehicles, thereby increasing the adoption rate.
Problem #4: Technical Issues
Modern cars are difficult for amateurs to repair – and electric vehicles even more so. While most of them are highly reliable, the simple truth is that it’s unlikely anyone passing by can help to resolve a breakdown or broken part.
This creates a major issue for vehicle rental companies, who may find themselves having to shuttle out replacement vehicles on short notice if things break down. Manufacturers are keen on reducing the chances of this as much as possible, but there’s really no telling what will happen in the rental industry. On the bright side, this problem is likely to decrease in frequency as issues with electric vehicles become more understood (and, therefore, easier to plan around).
Problem #5: Vehicle Pricing
As things currently stand, electric vehicles are significantly more expensive than their gas-powered counterparts – and that’s not a minor consideration in the rental industry. Put simply, if there’s no increase in rental demand, it’s hard to justify buying more expensive vehicles for their fleet.
Out of all the problems on this list, this is the one with the single greatest impact on the rental market. One proposed solution is simply leasing electric vehicles from the manufacturer and offering them to consumers at a somewhat higher price – but this could complicate the used-car market that many rental companies use to pad out their profits.
If electric car costs come down enough to compare favorably to gasoline vehicles, this may cease to be an issue. Until then, it’s likely most rental companies will continue to have a split fleet, with gasoline cars they own serving as the largest component.
Problem #6: Passenger Capacity
There’s no real competition for a gasoline-powered 8-person SUV right now. That’s an issue for the electric car rental industry, especially when many electric cars only have space for 2 passengers. People like to travel with family and friends and renting one large vehicle is almost always cheaper than renting two smaller ones.
This problem is likely to be resolved, but not until electric vehicles have become a larger part of the market. Manufacturers are currently focused on entering the most valuable segments of the market, and anywhere outside of this won’t see the benefits of electric vehicles for quite some time.
What Does the Market Forecast?
The global electric car rental market is expected to have a compound annual growth rate of 11.0% from 2017-2021, a solid (if not exemplary) rate. The biggest factor in this is research on self-driving vehicles, which many people expect will drastically alter the rental landscape. Many people might choose to not own a vehicle at all, simply calling for a vehicle from a central depot whenever they want to go somewhere.
Electric car rental from companies like Enterprise isn’t something in the distant future – they’re already available. However, despite the projected growth in car rental rates, they’re not going to be the dominant choice in the industry for the foreseeable future.