My experience with electric vehicles is the same as most Americans: I know they’re out there, but I’ve never owned or even driven one.
And yet, interest in renting them is increasing — especially as gas prices continue to skyrocket — and rental companies are responding accordingly. In October, Hertz announced it was purchasing 100,000 Teslas. There has been a steady increase of EVs on peer-to-peer rental platform Turo, too; Albert James Mangahas, chief data officer for Turo, says they went from hundreds in 2014 to more than 25,000 in 2021.
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With a road trip on my agenda last weekend, I decided to rent an EV to Westchester, N.Y. — about 600 miles round trip. Going into it, I didn’t know what to expect on the cost or availability of rentals, how I would find places to charge — it’s called “range anxiety” — or if I could figure out Tesla software. This is what I learned.
First lesson: It’s not always easy to find an EV
Back in March, I tried and failed to find an EV rental with the option to pick up in one city and drop off in another. I even enlisted the help of a travel adviser and still struck out. None of the four companies she called had any available, and even if they did, they didn’t allow one-way rentals.
The problem: “It’s still not common yet,” says Aaron Bragman, Detroit bureau chief at Cars.com. Even though EV manufacturers want to sell to rental companies, there is a shortage of cars because of high demand from buyers and supply-chain issues.
That should get better over time. Ed Peper, U.S. vice president for General Motors Fleet, says EV manufacturers have a good reason to get their cars to renters: exposure. “We’re confident that once consumers get to experience an EV for commercial or personal use, they are more likely to consider one,” Peper said in an email.
I fared better over Memorial Day weekend with Hertz. It currently has the Tesla Model 3 sedan and Model Y midsize SUVs and will soon have Polestar 2 hatchbacks. Once Hertz had availability for my dates, I jumped on a reservation without much shopping around; I felt burned from when I tried to reserve one in March. You could also try searching on Turo, or Enterprise, which offers options including the Tesla Model 3, Nissan Leaf and Polestar 2. Avis advertises Teslas and the Kia Niro EV.
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I chose the Model 3, which seats five adults and has a driving range of up to 260 miles, depending on how fast you’re going; higher speeds impact mileage. My three-day rental with insurance came to about $523. It wasn’t a big difference from a fuel-powered sedan — $420 with the same insurance — considering gas for the trip would have cost nearly $100. The only drawback was that I could only get it from Dulles International Airport in Virginia, which is about an hour from my D.C. apartment.
I had gone over some of Hertz’s Tesla FAQs about what you need to know before dri
ving a Tesla, like how to turn the car on and off and how to use the charge port. But I was not well-versed in the technology when I got the keys (I’m more of a baptism-by-fire kind of person; manuals are for emergencies).
“There will be a learning curve when you first get in,” Bragman had told me. “Eventually, people figure it out.”
The learning curve hit fast after I got the keys — or rather, key card — to my blue Model 3. I couldn’t open the door. I hovered the key card over parts of the car like I had seen online, but I had no success. I felt a lot like a chimp trying to get into a computer. As I started Googling “how to unlock a Tesla,” a Hertz employee appeared and showed me to tap the key card on the passenger-door frame, below a camera I hadn’t noticed. And then I was on my own. The touch screen directed me to tap my key card on the console behind or in the cup holders and put the car into drive.
If you want to feel more confident before jumping into your EV rental, Bragman recommends watching tutorials from rental car companies or manufacturers. “And if you have questions, ask the rental-car people,” he says.
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Adjusting to the technology
Where you would find a radio or small screen on most cars, you will find a giant touch-screen tablet in a Tesla. It is the center of the car’s universe, where you can look up charging stations, sync your smartphone, log into mobile apps such as Spotify, control the temperature, see your battery level and check how far you can drive, among other functions.
Some of that was confusing to navigate, but the car has a helpful voice-control function that operates like Siri or Alexa. You hold down a button on the steering wheel and make your request. When rain started pouring, I asked the car to turn on windshield wipers, and it obliged.
It was comforting to have my phone handy to look up other challenges I ran into along the way, like how to lock the car or find the hazard lights.
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There are different methods for charging EVs that range from very slow to very fast. You’ll want to look up the specifics based on your EV.
There are several ways to find a charging station. For example, AAA’s TripTik has a search function for finding charging stations. Hotels.com has an amenity filter that allows users to find properties with on-site EV charging points. Anyone can search online for Tesla’s 4,500-plus Destination Charging sites — such as restaurants, hotels or resorts — where charging is usually free if you’re a customer.
Tesla has a network of more than 30,000 Supercharger stations globally. The easiest way to find them is through the car’s Trip Planner, which calculates your route with Superchargers along the way. The tool shows stall availability at each station; you can’t reserve a charging station in advance.
The Tesla Supercharger can bring your battery up to 200 miles in about 15 minutes. Most stations charge a fee, which can depend on your electricity usage and plug-in time (some have on-peak and off-peak rates). If you charge your rental at a third-party station, you pay on the spot. With a Tesla station, Hertz charges the credit card associated with your rental.
I paid about $30 in charging fees over four charges. If you want to know how much your trip will cost, you can calculate estimates here.
Before I started my drive, I plugged my destination into the car’s GPS, and it automatically pulled up stations along my route. Figuring the car knew best, I accepted its first suggestion to drive to a charging station in Baltimore.
In hindsight, I regretted the early detour. I had just started my drive, and the car wasn’t at risk of running out of battery. There would be plenty of other stations that were more convenient than this one in a city.
Overall, I made two charge breaks each way from D.C. to New York — about 15 to 20 minutes per Supercharge.
Even though I knew I could stop easily along the route, “range anxiety” did nag me.
The Tesla rental experience was largely straightforward. The car was intuitive enough to figure out, with the help of the Internet, and the charging infrastructure made it e
asy to find stations.
My best move was to talk to other Tesla owners ahead of my trip. My brother-in-law warned me about the car’s ability to accelerate intensely, quickly. A friend’s parents just traveled across the country in their Tesla and had no problems with charging. This advice gave me confidence for my first drive.
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Aaron Gessner as the Detroit bureau chief of Cars.com. Aaron Bragman holds that title.