Hoteliers and car rental companies are taking steps, jointly and independently, to increase both the number of electric vehicles available for rent and the number of stations to recharge them.
The steps, albeit small ones, mark the travel industry’s first major effort to serve a broader contingent of customers looking to save both gas and the environment by driving plug-in vehicles.
It has been about 15 months since the first mass-produced plug-in vehicles — the Nissan Leaf, an all-electric vehicle, and the Chevrolet Volt, an extended-range plug-in hybrid — debuted in the U.S.
Today, approximately 500 plug-in vehicles are available at certain locations of Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Hertz, the two largest U.S. car rental companies.
Meanwhile, hotels account for about 80 of the approximately 2,600 electric-vehicle (EV) charging stations in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Energy. California’s Disneyland Hotel and Beverly Hilton, Wisconsin’s Grand Geneva Resort and Spa in Lake Geneva and Hawaii’s Aulani Disney Resort & Spa are among the better-known hotels offering guests on-site charging stations.
Additionally, seven of the 10 hotels opened under Starwood’s four-year-old, eco-focused Element Hotels brand offer charging stations.
As for rental car companies, Enterprise appears to offer more plug-in vehicles, while Hertz offers a broader range of them.
Privately held Enterprise last year reached an agreement to add 500 Nissan Leafs to its fleet, and most of those have been delivered, according to company spokeswoman Lisa Martini. She added that Enterprise, which offers its plug-ins at about 30 locations across the U.S., also carries fewer than 100 Chevy Volts in its fleet.
The Volt differs from the Leaf in that it has a gas-powered generator that gives drivers the option of putting fuel in the car once the initial 35-mile range of its batteries runs out. The Leaf, on the other hand, can go about 70 miles on a fully charged battery.
“Some customers get cabbed in, and they want a really fuel-efficient car to get around, especially right now with gas prices going up,” said Martini, who added that Leafs and Volts generally rent for between $65 and $75 a day, depending on location.
Meanwhile, Hertz carries “well over” 100 Nissan Leafs at locations in the New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, said spokeswoman Paula Rivera.
Like Enterprise, Hertz also has Volts in its fleet as well as EV models such as the Mitsubishi i, Daimler’s Smart ForTwo EV and the high-end Tesla Roadster. Rivera says the plug-ins have been “well-received by the public.”
A matter of timing Hertz, Enterprise and the hotels are investing in the plug-in vehicle market at a time when sales are expected to surge as a result of a combination of improved vehicle technologies, greater environmental awareness and already high gas prices that are expected to continue to rise.
Last year, green technology-focused Pike Research estimated that Americans will buy about 300,000 EVs and plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles in 2015, which is about 15 times last year’s sales figures.
Among vehicles scheduled to debut in the U.S. this year are the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid and a battery-electric version of the Ford Focus.
Still, despite the fact that average U.S. fuel prices jumped about 27% last year, to $3.53 a gallon, and have risen another 20 cents a gallon this year, according to AAA, plug-in vehicles missed their sales targets last year.
In 2011, Nissan sold about 9,700 Leafs, while General Motors sold about 7,700 Volts. Both automakers had targeted sales of about 10,000 units each. (Last Friday, GM said it will temporarily suspend production of the Volt for five weeks due to low sales.)
As a result of slower-than-expected adoption, smaller competitors of Enterprise and Hertz have not invested heavily in plug-in vehicles.
Dollar Thrifty doesn’t offer any plug-in vehicles, while Avis Budget’s efforts are limited to a number of Chevrolet Volts it is renting out of its New York LaGuardia Airport site, according to Avis Budget spokesman John Barrows.
Regardless, both Enterprise and Hertz have said they expect to continue to add plug-in vehicles to their fleets. Both have already reached agreements with some hoteliers to make both plug-in vehicles and charging stations available.
Last August, for example, Enterprise and the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco started offering what the companies claim was the first U.S. EV hotel program, where hotel guests could rent and recharge Nissan Leafs on the premises for $90 a day.
Hertz reached similar agreements with the San Francisco Airport Marriott and Element New York Times Square, while Enterprise added electric vehicles at its Alamo store at Hawaii’s Aulani. That hotel, which opened last fall, offers three charging stations.
Additionally, Enterprise and Hertz said the learning curve for prospective plug-in renters who have never driven a Leaf or Volt is fairly flat.
Martini said that Enterprise offers a 10-minute tutorial on plug-in vehicle driving and recharging for novices, and both Martini and Hertz’s Rivera said all plug-in cars have a GPS-powered on-board system that enables drivers to locate nearby recharging stations.