Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Go ahead, rent that EV. Just make a charging plan before setting out

Renting an EV can be a great way to test out the tech before committing to ownership, but there’s a learning curve for drivers, especially around charging.
By Alison F. Takemura

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White Teslas available for rent in a Hertz parking structure.

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Welcome to Canary Media’s newest column, Electrified Life. With real-world tales, tips and insights, we’ll demystify what individuals can do to shift their homes and cars to electric power. Canary thanks Lunar Energy for its support of the column.

Ah, vacation: a perfect time to relax, unwind — and maybe even test-drive electric vehicle ownership.

Despite EVs being cleaner and cheaper to refuel than gas cars, few Americans have experience with them; a July 2022 survey from Consumer Reports found just 7 percent of U.S. adults had driven an EV over the previous year.

But EV sales are picking up in the U.S., and the biggest car rental agencies are no exception. Hertz wants EVs to make up a quarter of its 500,000-vehicle fleet by 2024, for example, up from 10 percent this May, according to CNBC.

With more EVs available to rent than ever before, curious customers can opt to try out an electrified ride before committing to a lease or purchase — and reduce their holiday emissions to boot.

But if you go this route on your next vacation, there are a few really important factors to plan around, like public charger availability, compatible connectors and charging times. These new concepts can be almost overwhelming” for a first-time EV driver, said Loren McDonald, an EV consultant.

Unfortunately, car rental companies aren’t doing a great job helping customers navigate these challenges, he said. Essentially, they give you the car and say, Good luck,’” he noted. That works with a gas car, but not with an EV.”

Canary Media’s managing editor Wendy Becktold experienced this firsthand while on a June trip to Washington for Canary Live Seattle and a college visit with her daughter.

She was waiting in line at an Avis Budget Rental office at the airport when she overheard a sales clerk ask another customer if they’d be interested in renting an electric car. Becktold — who hadn’t realized she’d have the option — was struck by the possibility. It catapulted me into some unknowns,” she said. How would she charge it? Where? She’d have to figure all of that out, on top of navigating a new place and juggling work and parenting, she told me.

Still, she felt confident she could do it. So she booked an EV, which cost $40 more than she would have paid to rent a gas car, to electrify her three-day trip.

Budget didn’t give Becktold so much as a pamphlet to help orient her (although the rental agency, like Enterprise and Hertz, does offer customers some EV resources online). As for charging, the agent told her she could find chargers at any drugstore. She made it sound so easy,” Becktold said.

With that sparse reassurance, Becktold slid into the driver’s seat and hit the road.

On the one hand, driving her rented EV, a Chevy Bolt, was wonderful,” she said. It glided down the highway, far quieter than any combustion engine car. On the other hand, the logistics of charging proved more challenging than the agent had let on — an experience that holds some lessons for the rest of us. 

Charging hits and misses

After staying the night in Seattle, Becktold and her daughter drove south about 70 miles to Evergreen State College in Olympia.

Becktold pulled up to a charging station she had found on the university website and hoped she wouldn’t encounter compatibility issues. She didn’t: The Blink charging equipment fit into the Chevy Bolt’s J1772 connector, or J-plug, which is actually the most common type of plug served by non-Tesla charging infrastructure in the U.S.

Becktold tapped her credit card on the charger’s payment screen to get the current going. With the juice flowing, she and her daughter made their way to the campus tour on time. I felt very pleased,” she said.

A Blink charger connector is plugged into a Chevy Bolt in a parking lot lined with an evergreen grove.
Charging success at Evergreen State College (Wendy Becktold/Canary Media)

When they returned after about three hours, Becktold was happy (and relieved) to find the Bolt’s battery fully charged — a little over 200 miles of range.

But the next day back in Seattle, things got more complicated.

Becktold needed to charge the EV battery enough in order to return it at least 70 percent full. Otherwise, Budget would impose a surcharge of $35. The plan was to charge that evening: She would leave the car at a public charging station, walk to a friend’s home, eat dinner and get the car afterward.

But she couldn’t reach the first charger Google Maps directed her to. It was in the parking garage of a multifamily building, which wasn’t accessible to the public.

So she found the coordinates of another charger in a different parking garage. But she couldn’t find the entrance. After some frantic circling around the block, and then asking a store security guard for directions, she finally got to the charger (a SemaConnect, which was acquired by Blink in June 2022). But then it wouldn’t take a credit card payment. When Becktold tried to tap, the machine’s payment screen flashed an angry red and locked her out — for 4 minutes.

Eventually, she realized she could register online to pay or read her credit card number to a customer service bot over the phone, which is what she opted to do.

While Becktold ultimately was able to get that charger to work, frustrating customer-service experiences aren’t uncommon with EV public charging stations. According to J.D. Power, roughly one in five public charging attempts failed in 2022.

Grey Chevy Bolt is plugged into a Semaconnect charger in a parking garage.
Eventual charging success in a Seattle parking garage (Wendy Becktold/Canary Media)

When Becktold returned to the charger a couple of hours later, she decided the car could use another hour of refueling. She went back to her friend’s house to wait. 

Despite the extra hassle, Becktold eventually succeeded in fully charging her vehicle, and the next day she returned the car to the airport without incident.

How to plan for charging your EV rental

Some challenges with an EV rental may be unavoidable right now. The country is in the early days of transitioning to electric cars, and the infrastructure reflects that. But EV consultant McDonald has a few suggestions to make an electrified road trip smoother.

For starters, he encourages drivers who are new to EVs to think about charging fundamentally differently than a 5-minute stop for gas. Refueling an EV is what you do while you’re doing something else,” he said.

For example, you can combine charging with other road-trip activities, like sitting down to lunch, exploring a national monument, visiting a museum — or, as in Becktold’s case, touring a college campus.

Batteries also have a charging curve,” he said, meaning they charge faster or slower depending on how full they are. Typically, batteries replenish most quickly between about 20% to 80% charged, so you don’t want to wait until you’re running on fumes.” Seasoned EV drivers will often stop to charge for less time, but a little more frequently, like one more 30-minute stop per day, McDonald said.

Software can help you plan these charging breaks: Google Maps, for instance, can show you real-time charger availability, but there are also apps dedicated to EV charging such as ChargePoint, Chargeway and PlugShare, which tend to have more in-depth features. Some can tell you current prices for charging stations or take into account variables like speed and elevation gain that can eat up your range.

Some apps also have road-trip planners that allow you to chart out stops where you can relax and charge at the same time. Level 2 chargers (running on 240-volt outlets) are most common and tend to be cheaper than Level 3 direct current (DC) fast chargers, though these will give you the quickest boost. It’s like filling up from a fire hose instead of a garden hose, McDonald said.

A table showing that while Level 2 charging can get 10 to 30 miles of range per hour, Level 3 charging can get 10x that.
A primer on types of EV charging. Public chargers are typically Level 2 or the more powerful Level 3 (also known as DC fast chargers). (City of Phoenix)

Your EV not only has specific charger/​plug compatibility (see the graphic below), but it will also have a maximum level of power it can draw, so not all public chargers may work for you, McDonald said. (And if you rent a Tesla, you can use the Tesla Supercharger network. But for now, it’s largely not available to other drivers.)

At their best, dedicated apps can weed out irrelevant chargepoints, indicate which chargers will work fastest and estimate how long it will take to charge to a desired level. 

Diagram of EV charging connectors and plugs. Level 3 DC fast charging has three types: CCS, CHAdeMO and Tesla.
EV charging connectors and plugs in the U.S. The “Combined Charging System” or CCS plug is an enhanced J1772 plug with two additional power contacts that can be used when fast-charging. Becktold’s rented Chevy Bolt had a CCS plug. (UrbanFootprint)

With these tips, maybe you’re starting to picture yourself in an EV, quietly and more sustainably cruising to whatever destination awaits you.

After all, even with the hiccups she experienced, Becktold is not only glad she rented an EV but says she’d do it again. Only in the future, she’d take a bit more time to plan her charging strategy.

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Alison F. Takemura is staff writer at Canary Media. She reports on home electrification, building decarbonization strategies and the clean energy workforce.