Friday, September 29, 2023

Electric Cars Are the Future. But Renting One? Good Luck.

As a carless New Yorker, I sometimes get a little smug about my carbon footprint. I regularly bike, use public transit and when I do need a car for the occasional getaway, I rent.

But that all changed this summer, when I booked a car to drop off my daughter at sleepaway camp in New Hampshire. The audio selection I chose for the return drive? “The Climate Book,” by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist.

The vibe of this annual summer road trip, traditionally a celebration of parental freedom, soon turned somber. There I was, driving down I-91, listening to endless tales of human suffering wrought by the burning of fossil fuels that were currently powering my rental car.

If I needed more convincing, a week after drop-off, catastrophic flooding in Vermont came dangerously close to the camp. (Other camps in the area fared worse.)

That was it. I would be picking up my daughter in an electric vehicle.

E.V.s are not a perfect solution — the manufacturing of their batteries can involve pollution and questionable labor practices. However, they are far better for the environment than gas-powered cars.

But was renting an electric vehicle possible? And would I, someone still flummoxed by a car’s Bluetooth, be able to hack it?

A basic Google search (“E.V. Rental NYC”) confirmed the first question, at least. Hertz was one of the top results. A spokeswoman said the company was “seeing solid growth in E.V. rentals,” and that 3,750 plug-in cars were available for rent in the New York City area.

But for the date I needed, those thousands of Hertz E.V.s didn’t seem to be available. Kennedy Airport had some options, but getting a car there would have added about five hours of subway schlepping to my trip. Similar searches using Avis and Enterprise proved unsuccessful.

I chalked up the inconvenience to the possibility that commercial rental car companies were still catching up to a moment where E.V.s have become the fastest-growing segment in the auto industry. This year, nearly 300,000 new electric cars were sold in the United States between April 1 and June 30, an increase of about 48 percent from the same time period in 2022, according to Cox Automotive, a market research firm.

By 2030, there could be 30 to 42 million passenger electric vehicles on American roads, requiring 174,000 and 211,000 public fast-chargers, according to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That’s roughly six times the number of public fast-chargers out there now.

Until charging infrastructure has expanded, renters might be gun-shy about trying out E.V.s. But I was determined. UFODrive, a European company with locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan, ended up being my best option. It had an electric car — within walking distance of my home — on the date I needed.

The reservation process involved downloading an app, which controlled everything from payments to turning the car on. It takes you through a vetting process, then asks you the mileage you are expecting to cover, which affects the price, and for a refundable $750 deposit.

On a Friday evening, having just binged a round of E.V. how-to videos, I showed up at a garage near Columbus Circle. Minutes later, I was staring at a gleaming, white Tesla Model 3.

Suddenly, I remembered nothing. I started to sweat.

First things first, I thought: Charge the phone. I looked around for the USB port. Nada. What kind of high-tech car was this? I couldn’t go anywhere if my phone wouldn’t charge.

This was when the parking lot attendant, watching me in benevolent amusement, leaned inside to help. He placed my phone on a slanted, wireless charging surface to the right of the steering wheel.

“What else do I need to know,” I asked him. “And is everyone this stressed?”

All first-time electric car renters are, he said. He quickly explained how to use the app to lock, unlock and turn the car on.

I thanked the attendant profusely and coaxed the vehicle out into the streets.

Immediately, my biggest issue was the footwork involving the accelerator (known in olden times as the gas pedal). Whereas releasing a gas pedal gradually slows a car down, releasing this car’s accelerator kicks in an energy-saving process for the battery. When you’re new to it, it also makes the car jerk to an almost-stop.

I’d become the city’s worst taxi driver.

I headed to Harlem to pick up my 18-year-old son, whom I had enlisted as my co-pilot. But as I pulled up, I realized I’d forgotten to ask the garage attendant how to turn the car off.

This was when my range anxiety (a common fear among rookie E.V. drivers of being stranded with nowhere to charge) started. I was losing precious battery juice — and I hadn’t even left Manhattan. Would we make it to the supercharger?

The goal was to get to Brattleboro, Vt., where we would spend the night and visit a Tesla supercharging hub in the morning. My (very) rough calculations had us arriving with about 40 percent of our battery left. But once we were on the highway (and my foot had figured out how to nuance the accelerator for a smoother ride), I noticed the battery level was dropping fast.

It was not unlike watching it drop on my iPhone, except for the fact that I was driving in a very expensive metal box, on a dark, desolate highway. By the time we reached the hotel, the battery icon had turned a scary yellow color signaling we had dropped to 20 percent or under.

It was 10 p.m., but I still hadn’t figured out how to power the thing down. I got out of the car and tried locking it with the app; thankfully, the car turned off.

The next morning, when we pulled up to one of 16 superchargers, a man standing next to his car in the lot squinted at us.

“It’s his way of greeting the other Teslareans,” my son joked. But the guy looked concerned. He eventually let us know that one typically backs into a spot, to better access the charging cable. Cool, cool. We turned our car around and, after watching a quick how-to video on my phone, waited for about 30 minutes until we had 98 percent power.

Leaving Brattleboro with a full charge was crucial; we would soon be entering rural New Hampshire — the land that cellular companies forgot. There was a smattering of regular chargers in the area, but they would have required a detour plus several hours to fully charge.

The helpful Squinting Teslarean told me that he and his family were on their annual summer road trip to Vermont, and that they depended on the Brattleboro hub as their last big stop before venturing into the beyond. I feared I would need all the battery power possible.

But we were delivered safely at the camp and arrived with plenty of battery power left. (My 14-year-old daughter, who had no idea she was getting picked up in a Tesla, greeted me by calling me a poseur.)

My next worry — whether my daughter’s oversize trunk would fit in the car — also abated. We put a day bag and a shower caddy in the “frunk,” the small storage area at the front of the car.

We stopped again in Brattleboro to charge, sitting under a tree while the 30 minutes ticked by. That charge got us all the way back to Midtown Manhattan, with about 20 percent to spare.

The bill: $320 for 24 hours, including charging. Before the trip, I had priced out a gas car at Dollar Car Rental: The “pay later” option would have been $332, not including gas.

I returned the E.V. and walked home, relieved not to have crashed or been stranded. And perhaps feeling a tad smug, once again, about that carbon footprint.

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