This Is Not How To Rent An EV

By Bill Moore

Posted: 10 Jun 2011

You can rent an electric car at Washington, D.C.'s cavernous Union Station, but first you have to find them, and that is preciously what I set out to do yesterday afternoon in the Capital's stifling, record-breaking heatwave.

Having seen Hertz Rental Cars' press releases about their new electric car rental program at Union Station, I hooped the D.C. Metro Red Line after my meeting with Jigar Shah at the Carbon War Room. Minutes later, I climbed the stairs from the subway into bustling Union Station, now a beehive of activity of shops and food vendors, as well as waiting train passengers. Not knowing exactly where I could find Hertz's EVs, I figured the best place to start was at their counter on the Mezzanine level of the station. After serving a couple of rental car customers, the two ladies behind the counter informed me that they don't rent the cars here. Huh?

"You have to rent them on-line, " they told me.

"I am a journalist," I replied, adding that I just wanted to see them.

"Okay, they're up in our parking area," they replied, giving me directions. "You go up the stairs behind you there. Walk all the way to the back and then take the elevator to the second floor. You'll find them in our rental car area."

Thanking them with a smile, I turned on my heels and headed back the way I'd come, this time going outside into the withering heat and humidity with the temperature hovering just below 100F (37C). (It was 99 when I landed at National Airport the previous evening). At the top of the stairs, I was greeted by bays of motor coaches and frazzled riders lined up, somewhat forlornly, waiting for their bus, dealing with the heat as best they can: shorts, tee-shirts and billowy summer dresses. On I walk, overnight bag and camera tripod slung over the left shoulder of my Navy Blue blazer. I had removed my gold and blue tie by this time. A hundred yards or so on, I found the elevator, taking it up one level to where all the car rental agencies park their vehicles. Off past the Alamo line-up, I see a Hertz sign and walk towards it.

There at the end of a row if ICE-age vehicles, all freshly washed, stand three white and green smart cars, a silver badge on their rear hatch declaring "Electric Drive." All three bear New York State licenses. A single AeroVironment EvGo charger stands unused; presumably -- one hopes -- all of the car are charged up and ready to go, though from the thin layer of dust on them, it doesn't appear they've been driven all that recently. The charge port door is open on the middle car, someone forgot to close it, maybe?

I busy myself snapping photos, intent on capturing as many images as feasible and then retreat back to the air conditioned comfort of the station.

It isn't until I get back home to Omaha -- and that's a harrowing tale for another day -- that I start thinking about those three little cars and what Hertz needs to do to get them into people's minds first and then hands, stating with the moment you enter Union Station. First of all, why isn't one of those cars parked at some strategic location in the station for people to see as they come and go, tens of thousands a day? If nothing else, they'll alert people to the presence of Hertz and provide directions as to where their rental office is located.

Next, why can't you rent them at that office? Why must you do it online? What's the logical of that? And why isn't there even a modicum of point-of-purchase information -- a banner, a flyer, something -- at the counter to alert customers to the availability of the cars? How about even a map of the DC area that shows the suggested operating range of the smart EV and the location of charging stations in the vicinity, accompanied by a phone number for emergency services in case the customer does drive too far: little things that will build customer confidence.

Having cars at Union Station is a good idea, but how about having them at Washington National airport as well? Customers arriving by air or rail can pick up an EV, transact business in the DC area and drop off the car at either location, especially on days like yesterday when the Yellow and Blue Lines to National experienced some sort of service interruption and thousands of passengers were left waiting for nearly an hour underground trying to catch overcrowded trains (many with empty cars) over into Virginia. I was one of them.

I appreciate the fact that Hertz is trying to do the right thing and get ahead of the curve on this EV-business, but from what I saw yesterday, they appear to be doing the bare minimum: three cars and a charge station off in the corner just isn't going to get the job done, folks. With a bit more effort -- and yes cost -- the fact that Hertz is taking the initiative in this emerging new arena will be a lot more effective in terms of social responsibility and economics. Those cars need to be out on the streets of DC, not cloistered in a dimly lit parking garage where only the most alert will even notice them.

Come on, Hertz! Show us why you should be Number 1 in EV rentals.

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