Rent Green: Will Electric and Hybrid Car Rentals Take Off?

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While most of the country is mired in snow and sleet, our minds can’t help but jump ahead to spring and summer, when Americans will hit the road to do some family travel. It can cost a family a small fortune to drive, however, especially as gas prices climb the closer we get to Memorial Day. And 2013 looks like it might even get worse.

In an analysis on state-by-state gas prices, USA Today wrote: “Gasoline prices typically climb from February to Memorial Day on expectations of rising consumption and costlier summer-blend gas. But so far this year, prices are surging sooner and faster than ever before—up 47 cents since mid-January.” Couple that fact with the Social Security tax hike that hit at the start of the year, and consumers are starting to feel the pain in their wallets.

But spring still arrives the same time every year, and with it comes family car travel. Now, instead of an average $50-$70 family tank-full of gas, the total average might be closer to $60-$80. For a 500-mile round trip, that adds several hundred dollars to a family’s travel budget. When that happens, people start to consider transportation alternatives. One of the increasingly popular means of alternative transportation is renting electric or hybrid cars.

Environmentally Conscious Choice

Increasing fleets of environmentally friendly cars are making it easier for renters to choose one of these cars, whether for a road trip or to use once they arrive at their vacation destination. Depending on where you’re renting and how you intend to use the car, hybrids or electric vehicles (EVs) are viable options for the environmentally conscious and cost-sensitive customer.

Aside from economics, there are also environmental considerations and incentives that weigh on the decision to choose one of these cars over their gasoline counterparts. Certainly, people choose to rent hybrids and EVs because they want to do their part to reduce their carbon footprint. But, it’s clear the availability and pricing of these types of rentals is playing a big role, too.

Pricing Considerations

EVs have limited ranges and long recharge cycles, making them currently uncommon outside select urban markets. Hybrids and plug-in hybrids have gas-powered motors to charge and supplement the electric power supply, easing what the industry refers to as “range anxiety,” or the fear of running out of power before you get to your destination. An ample supply of charging stations and GPS navigation to help find them would give EV drivers extended ranges, but as promising as this sounds, GreenCarReports doesn’t think this scenario will be likely until around mid-2014.

Where EVs are available to rent, the cost to do so ranges from slightly above what it costs to rent a gas-powered car to much more expensive than their gasoline-only counterparts. Again, the location and dealership where you are renting will matter. Using this pricing chart from a Dallas dealer’s Toyota rental cars program, you can get a sense of the pricing involved. Car enthusiasts might know that a Prius C is almost identical to a Yaris as far as comfort and driving experience goes, so it is somewhat unlikely that the increased efficiency will offset the price directly, no matter how much gas one saves. Checking rental prices at a national agency in Las Vegas, a Prius costs as much to rent as a BMW 5 series.

Limited Availability

Hybrids, while increasing in numbers, are still relatively rare in the overall rental market. Most major cities have them, and you can find car rental agencies that rent EVs and alt-fuel vehicles at  Travel sites like Expedia and Orbitz still havn’t caught on to the green travel trend, as neither list hybrids or EVs as categories of rental cars.

The best bet for booking a rental is to go directly to the individual rental agency websites, at least for now. Enterprise, for example, lists the cities where their EVs and hybrids are available, which helps customers set expectations and narrow down their shopping lists.

Why Do It?

With the rather uncomfortable rental prices in the current market, why would anyone want to rent a hybrid or EV? One surprising incentive: free parking and fuel. Nancy Trejos of USA Today points to luxury hotels who offer charging stations for their guests’ cars, as well as free or discounted parking to add value for their environmentally conscious guests. The hospitality industry is making efforts to give their customers options they want. And if customers are seeking alt-fueled vehicles as the Next Big Thing (apologies to Samsung), then so be it.

These challenges and incentives aside, what impact does renting one of these cars have on the environment and the experience? For one thing, they’re quiet, and many hybrids can run at low speeds on electricity alone. If the car is being used for sightseeing, that’s an advantage. Some renters are motivated to try a car out for a longer period of time than a test drive can afford, as reports. Renting a new car for a week is an inexpensive way to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of the next generation of automobiles.

As the hybrid and EV car market matures and more charging stations are made available across the U.S., travelers will start to feel more comfortable with the concept of driving an electric rental car on vacation.

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