High Voltage Would you like to bring the vehicle back with a full charge, or pay 20 cents per kilowatt hour for us to recharge it? You can also pre-pay for your electricity, and we'll offer you a below grid rate of 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

Sound strange? Well you might be having just such a conversation with a car rental agent in the near future. Electric vehicles (EV's) are just starting to trickle into car rental companies now. Make no mistake, they will not be commonplace at your average rental location for a while, but the majors like Enterprise and Hertz are taking the first steps to integrate EV's into their fleets.

Enterprise just took delivery of its first Nissan LEAF electric vehicle. This is a demo vehicle which will be used to educate both employees and customers about EV's and the infrastructure necessary to support them. This demo vehicle will make an appearance in the cities where they will eventually become available in 2011.

Enterprise plans to offer about 500 LEAF (Leaves?) initially in Phoenix, Nashville, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. These markets have the necessary infrastructure to support the charging of EV's.

Enterprise will be offering test drives through an awareness program where customers will be educated on the environmental and financial benefits of switching on to electric power. Delivery is slated to begin in December.

Hertz has also announced that it plans to offer the Nissan LEAF at a handful of locations in the U.S. and Europe, including New York, Washington and San Francisco this fall, with wider adoption beginning in 2011. Hertz said it also will supply electrics and plug-in hybrids from other manufacturers, including General Motors, Toyota and Mitsubishi.

The LEAF (Leading Environmentally friendly, Affordable Family car) is a compact 5-door hatchback that runs exclusively on electricity. According to Nissan, the LEAF's all-electric range is 100 miles in city driving. It can be fully recharged from a standard 120-volt household outlet (Level 1 charge) in about 20 hours. Other options include a 220-volt Level 2 charge in about 8 hours, or a 440-volt Level 3 charge to 80% capacity in about 30 minutes.

Enterprise and Hertz will likely have Level 2 and possibly Level 3 chargers at each of their locations where EV's are supported. There is also talk about big box stores like Wal-Mart, Costco and the like installing chargers at their locations as well in the near future. Longer term, we see Enterprise with the advantage due to their large number of locations in the US where chargers can be deployed, however with Level 3 chargers costing north of $15,000, it may be a while before there is widespread deployment.

The other EV that's gotten a lot of buzz of late is the Chevy Volt. The Volt is similar to the LEAF in that it is powered by electricity, but it also has a combustion engine that can create electricity on-board using a generator. The electric-only range of the Volt is about 25-50 miles, but with a full tank of 8 gallons of gasoline, that range increases an additional 300 miles.

In practical terms, the Volt would appear to be more suitable for the average renter given the ability to refuel by charging or filling up with gas, but as of right now, none of the rental companies have committed to adding the Volt to their fleet. This is likely due to the fact that the Volt is currently trailing the LEAF in terms of production and availability by at least six months.

Another reason is likely due to pricing of the vehicles. The base price of a LEAF is $32,780, while the Volt checks in at $41,000. Both of these are offset by a $7,500 government tax credit, but that shrinks by automaker after it has sold at least 200,000 vehicles in the U.S. and then it phases out over a year. No wonder the rental companies are jumping on-board early.

Don't expect rental rates for EV's to be any lower than traditional gas-powered vehicles. We expect the EV's to be in high demand by early adopters, journalists and average folks who are just plain curious about the technology. Many of the major companies have the Toyota Prius in their fleets today, and prices are anywhere from 10%-100% higher than an equivalent non-hybrid vehicle, based on a recent evaluation. The small number of initially available EV's will surely keep prices in the upper tier at least initially. Nissan recently announced that it already had 20,000 orders for the LEAF on the books and has stopped taking new orders until next year. Supply may not keep up with demand for a while.

While there are certainly questions on how well EV's will work out for rental companies and their customers in the short term, we believe that EV's are here to stay, and that in the long term any shortcomings will be ironed out. Rentals of EV's are a win-win-win scenario.

Manufacturers like Nissan can get their vehicles in front of a much wider audience via the rental market, while the rental companies stay at the forefront and can tout their "green" credentials, even if the business model is not yet proven.

Customers can head down to their local Enterprise (in select markets) to try out an all electric vehicle to see if it may be right for them in the future. Just don't forget to plan accordingly, since if you plan on driving more than 100 miles in a day, you need to either carry a really long extension cord or keep that roadside assistance number handy.

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