Hertz has now been renting electric and plug-in cars for almost a year, and the company has learned some lessons along the way.

Among them: "We need more electric cars!"

Specifically, "We've got about 50 electric cars in our fleets now, and we could use another 2,000 to 3,000 if we could just get the vehicles."

Those are the words of Rich Broome, the rental-car company's head of public affairs and communications. He spoke at length with GreenCarReports about the Hertz electric-car rental programs in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, London, and--soon--Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen, China.

Hertz currently offers Nissan Leafs and Chevrolet Volts, though it is testing the Mitsubishi i-MiEV (a precursor to the 2012 Mitsubishi 'i' for the North American market, which will go on sale in December). It also has a small number of Smart Electric Drive two-seaters, and plans to offer BYD e6 electric crossovers in China.

Perhaps the most unexpected lesson, Broome said, was that while consumer demand is steady, the demand from corporations is far higher than predicted.

Companies want to rent electric cars for three basic reasons, he said.

First, those businesses with strong sustainability targets find putting their employees in electric cars for short-distance travel is an easy and hassle-free way to meet them.

Second, many companies involved in different aspects of the electric-car ecosystem are eager to experiment with them in real-world usage, so they're using their own employees as test cases. These include electric utilities; Broome cited Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, and the Texas firm NRG, among others.

Hertz electric-car rental press event, New York City, September 2010

Hertz electric-car rental press event, New York City, September 2010

Third, businesses find that renting electric cars for short runs among airports, hotels, and company properties is a suitable use even for battery electric vehicles with ranges up to 100 miles. With charging stations in all three locations, Broome called this duty cycle a "closed loop" that makes perfect sense to corporate travel planners.

As for retail electric-car renters, Broome said, they're pretty much the early adopters that were predicted. They're interested in testing out the cars, perhaps even before planning to buy one.

But, Broome warned, it's his personal belief that it will take ranges of "close to 200 miles" before electric cars are suitable for the mass consumer market--which uses their rentals in much more diverse ways than the predictable patterns of traveling business executives.

Finally, "the customer feedback on the driving experience has been really good," Broome said, "better than we expected." The cars are quick off the line, quiet and smooth, and have all the usual accessories drivers expect to find in any rental car, like air conditioning, navigation, and a stereo system.

And that, he said, makes him suspect that electric cars may be adopted by the mainstream more quickly than hybrids have been. "Everyone gets that the operating cost [per mile] is lower" with an electric car, he said. "And they really like the driving experience--unlike early hybrids, which weren't much fun to drive."

In the end, Broome was upbeat, excited, and eager to expand the program. If, that is, he can just get the manufacturers to allocate more cars to Hertz.


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