If EVs can work in rental car fleets, they can work anywhere

I rented a Tesla during the holiday crush. AMA

When I went to book a rental car for Thanksgiving a few months ago, all that Hertz had left at O’Hare International Airport were Teslas. Usually, I end up with something like a Nissan Altima — not an amazing car, but one that gets the job done. Cheaply. But not this time.

Hertz is in the process of adding 100,000 Teslas to its rental fleet, so it was statistically probable that one day I’d end up renting one. I’m certainly in their target demo — all of our cars over the last seven-plus years have had a plug, and while none of them have been Teslas, I am what you might call Tesla-curious. Aside from a test drive of a Model Y a couple of years ago, I’d never driven one for an extended period of time.

What the heck, I thought. Let’s go for it.

Even though I’m far from an EV novice, I still wasn’t sure about renting an EV. I do the vast majority of my charging at home, and I’m familiar enough with my vehicles to know their real-world range and how the weather will affect it. I don’t have that same familiarity with the Model 3, and I wouldn’t have anything more than a 120v outlet at my parents’ house, which is two hours from the airport.

But I’ve got a weak spot for new technology and new ways of experiencing it, especially when it comes to electrification. Here went nothing.

How it went

When we picked up the car at the airport, I was directed to the kiosk, where a nice Hertz rep behind the counter explained that she had to give me a spiel, the same one she gives to all Tesla renters. She asked if I had any questions, and I told her that while I didn’t own a Tesla, I was familiar enough with EVs that I was confident I’d get by.

One difference she pointed out was that in place of the usual offer to pre-pay for a tank of gas, there was an option to place a $35 deposit in case I wasn’t able to return the car more than 70% charged. If I was able to charge it before returning it, the $35 would go back on my credit card. Seemed like a reasonable offer, so I took her up on it.

In our conversation, she mentioned that Hertz’s O’Hare fleet was largely being replaced with Teslas. Ah, so that’s why only Teslas remained.

We found the car, got the kids situated, adjusted the mirrors and steering wheel (no small feat), and headed out. Anyone who’s driven an EV is addicted to instant torque, and the Model 3 has it in spades. The twitchy accelerator pedal reminded me of our old BMW i3 — in a good way — as did the one-pedal driving, which activates regenerative braking when you lift your foot, allowing you to largely ignore the brake pedal. The suspension was tight, but not horribly so. It was certainly far better sorted than the Model Y, which on rough roads felt like it was pummeling my kidneys.

Though the car had enough range to make it to my parents’ house, I wanted to charge on the way to ensure we’d have enough for the return. (120v outlets are excruciatingly slow.) After entering our destination into the nav, we added another stop and searched for “supercharger.” Helpfully, the top hits were Superchargers along our route, starting with the one closest to our destination.

Driving the car was great, but letting it drive itself … not so much.

I disabled Autosteer within a few minutes because it was ping-ponging within the lane, threatening to make us sick. And within 20 minutes, the car suddenly hit the brakes — one of the phantom braking events I’ve heard about, something I hadn’t experienced since our i3. No surprise since both rely exclusively on cameras for their adaptive cruise functions. To avoid being rear-ended, I drove the car myself when traffic got heavy.

When we arrived at the Supercharger, it was busy, but a few stalls were still open. I backed in, plugged in, locked the car, and we walked into the store to grab some snacks. When we returned, the car was only at 80%, which seemed odd given that the car was nearly 100% when we picked it up. Did I somehow set the charge point lower? Then I noticed a small disclaimer — because this was a busy Supercharger location, the car session was automatically limited to 80%. I reset it to 100% and we waited another 10 minutes.

I understand why Tesla set the limit, but I’ll admit I was annoyed. I guess if I owned the car I’d get in the habit of checking the setting, but as a first-time user, it marred an otherwise flawless Supercharger experience.

Thankfully, the rest of the trip was uneventful: The 120v charging was slow, as expected, but sufficient to get us to 100% for the return trip. We stopped at the Supercharger adjacent to O’Hare, where it took maybe 20 minutes to go from 40% to 80%. While we waited, the kids and I toured the car’s software “toy box,” which includes games, a fireplace scene and the infamous virtual whoopee cushion. The kids thought it was hilarious, of course, and I have to admit that I kind of agreed.

Chargers are everything

A little over a year ago, my neighbor was debating which EV to buy. He owned an Audi Q7, and he was seriously considering an Audi e-tron to replace it. In the end, he went with a Model Y based on the strength of the Supercharger network.

I can see why.

I’ve used countless different chargers on just as many networks, and while Electrify America is starting to narrow the gap, nothing compares with Tesla’s Superchargers. Granted, I only used the network twice, and I know the system isn’t infallible. But my experience on one of the busiest travel times of the year was pretty seamless.

At each Supercharger, there was no touchscreen to squint at, no connection problems that forced me to use another stall. I just plugged in and it started charging. The charging rate appeared on the car’s screen, which isn’t unique, but so did the cost, which in my experience is. It’s a nice touch that shows off Tesla’s tight integration between car and charger. (Hertz, which was the responsible party for the vehicle, added the charging fees to my final bill, which kept things simple. Private Tesla owners are billed to a credit card on their account.)

I’m hopeful that other automakers and charging networks will get to the same point that Tesla is today, but they have a ways to go. Yes, the Plug and Charge standard, which links an EV to a credit card and automates billing, should help eliminate fumbling with fobs and the charger’s touchscreen, but it won’t help the reliability issues that plague many non-Supercharger networks. There are myriad reasons why so many chargers are broken, from who actually owns them to the reliability of their components, but consumers don’t care why — they just want it to work. Until those problems are addressed, Tesla’s Supercharger network will remain superior.

In the end, renting a Tesla was a very smooth experience, and I think the Supercharger network played no small part in that. Renting is like a condensed version of the new car experience. You have to learn everything you need to know about the car in short order, including refueling. With gas cars, the learning curve is lower since nearly every driver has experience with gas stations. Recharging an EV is still far from a universal experience.

Last week reminded me of what it’s like to be “new” to the EV experience. Here was a car that was entirely novel to me, and it made charging — the hardest part about owning an EV — stupidly simple. If EVs are going to overtake fossil fuel vehicles, they’ll all have to charge like Teslas.