Car-Rental Companies Are Ruining EVs

The best way to cap a weekend road trip, I can assure you, is not by jostling for an EV charger outside a Sheetz gas station in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s Memorial Day, and I’m in a runt of a rental car trying to outmaneuver a Ford F-150 Lightning. Thirty minutes of waiting for a charger to free up is bringing out my most Darwinian instincts: Like an eagle swooping down to nab a goat, my tiny black Chevy Bolt EUV swings into the spot before the pickup even knows what’s happening. The adrenaline rush of sweet victory is immediately tempered by an emotional letdown. My car needs an hour of charging before it’s ready to go again.

I didn’t ask for any of this. Three days earlier, I had booked Hertz’s cheapest option—in this case, the “Manager’s Special”—assuming I’d end up with a forgettable sedan. What I did not consider was an electric car. “Sorry, it’s all we have,” the man at the Hertz counter in downtown Brooklyn said as he handed over the keys. With no forewarning, no experience driving an EV, and virtually no guidance, what was supposed to be a restful trip upstate was anything but. Just a few hours of highway driving would sap the battery, leaving me and my friends scrounging for public chargers in desolate parking lots, the top floors of garages, and hotels with plugs marked for guests only. It was a crash course in EVs for four people who had never heard of CCS versus CHAdemo, the 80/20 rule, and Level 3 chargers.

Maybe the same thing will happen to you, if it hasn’t already. After my disastrous weekend, I talked to three rental-car experts: All of them were familiar with the phenomenon of the surprise EV, a result of how much the industry is leaning into electric cars. Only 4 percent of Americans own an EV, but Hertz plans for a quarter of its fleet to be electric by the end of next year.

These are great, potentially planet-saving machines, but the ordeal made me want to wage a slash-and-burn campaign against all of them. A surprise EV rental, it turns out, is tailor-made to amplify the downsides of electric cars, especially among impressionable newbies. “You know, it’s really not smart,” Loren McDonald, an EV consultant, told me. “If they’re out of gas cars, they’re out of gas cars, but they’ve got to eliminate the surprise thing.” The promised transition away from dirty gas cars only works if people actually want to buy EVs, as all of the government tax breaks and Will Ferrell ads make abundantly clear. Yet the very first time that many people experience an electric car will be not at a dealership, but rather on a rental-car trip.

EVs may work great for the business traveler who is taking their Tesla from the airport to the hotel and to a client meeting across town, but things are way more complicated for  road-trippers. What makes an EV rental such a struggle is that it is a rental: The overwhelming majority of EV owners charge their cars at home, waking up to a full charge every morning. Unless you luck out and have a place to charge overnight at your hotel or Airbnb, you’re stuck with America’s wild west of public EV chargers.

[Read: The one thing holding back electric vehicles in America]

Plugs are not only hard to find, they’re sometimes full or broken—and very often too slow for anything but overnight charging. When my Chevy Bolt was just about running on empty in the Finger Lakes, the closest charger I could find was blocked by a blue Tesla loitering after a fill-up. The next best option was so slow that after four hours of charging, the car had added a measly 70 miles to its range—roughly what a gas pump could do for a similarly sized car in well under 30 seconds. Plenty of Tesla Superchargers popped up on Google Maps, but none of them worked with my hapless Bolt.

If I had known an EV was coming my way, I would have dutifully planned out my charging strategy ahead of time instead of sitting in a Sheetz parking lot and simmering with road rage. Gas drivers tend to find the nearest pump whenever they’re low on fuel, but with an EV, every time you park could end up as a missed opportunity to get a bit of juice. Because of the quirks of lithium-ion batteries, you might save time charging your EV in bursts, as opposed to doing it all in one go; with this in mind, drivers learn to compulsively check EV charging apps—Plugshare, Chargehub, Chargeway—for nearby stations. Compared with filling up on gas, “it’s just a completely different experience,” says Ellen Kennedy, an expert on carbon-free transportation at the think tank RMI.

Some guidance on these matters helps—but all Hertz had provided me with was a sheet of paper listing three nearby EV chargers, which were really not germane to my out-of-town trip. “It would be like a business person going to an office-rental store back in the late ’80s to get an IBM Selectric,” McDonald said, “and the person at the desk says, Oh, we’re out of those. Here’s a Macintosh computer.” Laura Smith, Hertz’s executive vice president of global sales and customer experience, told me that the company emails a link to an online EV guide to every customer who explicitly books an electric car. Because my car was a surprise, I didn’t get one. (Smith said that Hertz has begun to put QR codes pointing to the online guide on the keychains for all its EVs.)

[Read: EVs make parking even more annoying]

At this point, Hertz has one of the biggest EV fleets in the entire world, an army of tens of thousands of Teslas, Polestars, and GMs, with an order of magnitude more on the way. Perhaps Hertz is “over-fleeted” with electric cars, Jonthan Weinberg, the CEO of the rental-car site AutoSlash, told me. That means that if the car you wanted isn’t available, the one you get instead is more likely to be an EV. Perusing Hertz’s website suggests that EVs may indeed be overstocked across the country. The three cheapest rental-car options I could find for this weekend at New York’s JFK airport are all EVs. At LAX, the cheapest EV will run you $40 a day, compared with $88 for the Manager’s Special. And at Midway in Chicago, the only available cars are all EVs.

Other rental-car juggernauts aren’t at Hertz’s numbers yet. Both Avis and Enterprise offer EVs, but in nowhere near the same numbers—and mostly as luxury cars. “We will not introduce large numbers of EVs into our fleet until we have clarity that the customer experience meets our standards,” Lisa Martini, a spokesperson for Enterprise Holdings, which owns Enterprise, National, and Alamo, wrote in an email.

Expect that to change—and quickly. Car-rental companies buy something like one-tenth of all new cars in America, and EVs are tempting options, Sharky Laguana, the president of the American Rental Car Association, told me: They are far easier to maintain than conventional cars, containing a tiny fraction of the moving parts. EVs also seem to hold their value, a major factor considering that rental-car companies tend to sell off their cars after a year or two. “I just can’t see us waiting until the last minute and then pulling the trigger” on the EV transition, Laguana said. “I think that we would want to be way ahead of it.”

The auto industry seems to think that the turn toward EV rentals will help convince people that gas is not the future—and prevent them from buying cars that may be spewing carbon for next decade-plus. After all, what is a car rental if not a very long test drive? Hertz has suggested that its own embrace of EVs represents “a critical step toward adoption.” Similarly, the CEO of GM recently called its partnership with Hertz “a huge step forward for emissions reduction and EV adoption that will help create thousands of new EV customers for GM.” But for that to be true, renting an EV has to be a good experience, not a last-minute surprise that upends your whole trip.

It could have been that way for me: Heading out of the Hertz garage for the first time, I weaved through New York traffic and was spit out of the Holland Tunnel in New Jersey. Slowly, the initial EV shock turned into the bliss of clicking on cruise control on a traffic-free highway. The Chevy Bolt was a zippy little engine that could, a car that screamed boring Prius but had the acceleration and torque more reminiscent of a Porsche. Not even an hour later, though, somewhere on I-80, a ding erupted from the dashboard: Only 20 miles left on the charge. So much for that.

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