A No-Brainer for Car Sharing Fleets: Plug-In EVs

Last Updated Jul 26, 2010 2:58 PM EDT

[Editor's note: As part of a major BNET redesign, Jim is moving to the new Plugged In blog on the site. As of Thursday, you'll be able to find him here: http://www.bnet.com/blog/electric-cars. You'll be able to find all our business-news blogs at our new home in the Commentary section here: http://www.bnet.com/news. Thanks in advance for your patience.] Car sharing, which is renting a vehicle when needed as an alternative to owning one, was pioneered in Europe but is making a big splash in the U.S. And now, perhaps inevitably, it's going electric.

Several of the major car rental companies (including Hertz, with Hertz Connect) have studied the rapid expansion of Zipcar and are modeling it as a complement to their established businesses. In time, hourly sharing might even replace many aspects of traditional car rental.

Since car sharing networks, especially the municipal ones, have as their central mission reducing auto congestion and pollution, EVs are a no-brainer fleet offering, and nearly all are talking about adding them. Car sharers tend to be green thinkers, and already inclined to electric transportation. EVs could spread rapidly as share cars if the charging issues (always a challenge in the cities that are car sharing's natural habitat) can be worked out.

Thanks to a federal grant, Chicago's I-GO municipal car sharing program will be one of the first to add electric cars to its fleet. The nonprofit service, which was started by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and has a close connection to the city of Chicago, which is way ahead of other big towns in setting up a charging network. For that reason and others, I-GO, the first car sharing service in the Midwest, thinks that EVs are a natural fit.

According to Sharon Feigon, I-GO's CEO, half the company's 220 vehicles are hybrids, and two are plug-in hybrid conversions of the Toyota Prius. "Electrics make a lot of sense for car sharing," Feigon said in an interview. "The average time people borrow our cars is two to four hours. The number one destination is the grocery store, but people also use them for errands, going out with friends, and business trips." Battery EVs have a range of about 100 miles.

The Department of Energy's $700,000 grant is split with the City of Chicago, which is using the money through the Clean Cities Coalition to install an urban charging network. I-GO's EVs will be able to charge up at the city's stations, which will be located in supermarket parking lots, municipal garages and apartment buildings. Chicago is currently talking to charging partners, including Coulomb and ECOtality, and expects to select a charging vendor by the end of the summer.

And I-GO is exploring different EV options. It currently has on loan a Mitsubishi I-MiEV electric car, which testers have proclaimed "fantastic" and "like driving a regular good car." That car is being recharged with a 220-volt socket similar to what many people have for electric dryers, but I-GO will also be adding strategically placed charging of its own. The plug-in hybrids have also been well received.

The company also plans to take a look at the Nissan Leaf battery car, and at the Chevrolet Volt "range extender," with the aim of having 30 cars in the fleet by next spring. "If we can get electric cars before then, we would," Feigon said.

Other municipal fleets are also looking at EVs. Hoboken, New Jersey's Corner Cars, for instance, offers both Priuses and Smart cars, with the latter its most popular (in part because, at $5 an hour, the Smarts are the cheapest option). According to Ian Sacs, who directs the program, battery EVs are definitely in the plans. Zipcar has also added plug-in hybrids, plus a pair of battery EVs (in Europe). And Hertz Connect is planning to add Nissan Leafs to its fleet as soon as they're available.

I-GO hopes that, like Corner Cars' Smarts, it can offer EVs at a low rental price. Its hybrids are among the cheapest in its fleets now, Feigon said, because they're the cheapest to operate--and car sharing fees include gas. "EVs are very cheap to operate, too," she said, "about two cents a mile, and we're also able to draw on the federal grant funds to offset the price."

I-GO has 15,000 members, and Feigon estimates it has taken 9,000 cars off the road since its full launch in 2004. "There was a lot of skepticism that people in Chicago, the heartland of car culture, would be willing to share cars," said Feigon. "But we launched a pilot program and immediately there was a lot of interest." As part of its integration with the City of Chicago, the same card that can be used to pay for city buses and trains also unlocks its car fleets.

In a sign of robust health, car sharing is growing in all directions. If a move to allow members to share their own cars gets off the ground, it could explode across the U.S.


Photo: Center for Neighborhood Technology