the future of rentals
Reader, my car was stolen. I know that’s not a cool note to start on, but it’s the truth. A few months ago, my white Hyundai Elantra was recovered on Ben White Boulevard with an egregiously ugly, half-finished paint job and a deathly rattle in the engine. This put me in a vulnerable position, not just for getting around (thanks, CapMetro), but for falling in love with cars way outside my price range.
UFODrive (stylized UFODRIVE), a self-service car rental company with an all-electric fleet, must have sensed my predicament, because a publicist probed my inbox with an offer to borrow a sleek Tesla X or Y for a weekend trip. The timing couldn't have been better, and not just for my Austin transport needs, but because the CultureMap Austin team had a Houston meeting to attend — an excellent excuse to hop in a new ride and try out the service.
This rental company has seven locations in the United States, but only one in Texas so far, meaning round trips would be necessary to return the car. (The website does not allow a multi-city return, even if you’re up for a very long drive.) Previously exclusive to Europe, the company's United States leg is catching up. Their website boasts 20 million “clean miles” driven by renters, and more than 2 million kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions saved.
Ideals aside, the most obvious draw to this kind of service — the self-service exchange — held up, although it does present its own challenges. Everything happens through the UFODrive app. Pickup and drop-off were easy with no lines, no salespeople, and most importantly, 24/7 service. The downside, for a chaotic traveler, is everything takes some time to figure out if you don’t read everything very carefully (a simple solution, really, but easier said than done.)
Nothing was confusing for more than a few minutes. The phone app locks, unlocks, and starts the car. It only took a few tries to realize the vehicle turns itself off automatically when in park with no one inside. Everything from the online booking to reporting pre-existing damage was an easy step-by-step form. (The car was immaculate, anyway.)
My biggest problem was learning how to operate a Tesla Y on intuition alone — I wouldn’t have needed rental agency staff to teach me about just about any gas-powered vehicle, but I would have liked to get a quick rundown for my first time operating this sleek spacecraft. Maybe a more tech-inclined driver wouldn’t have taken a full minute to figure out how to put the thing in drive. I wouldn’t know; there wasn't one available.
Thankfully, these machines are intuitive once a driver starts trusting the "push buttons and find out" technique, although we never did find cruise control. The only time we almost faced a consequence for this improvisational approach was when I looked at the battery upon entering Houston and saw we were at 1 percent — an awful, single digit number I did not think we’d creep up on for another hundred miles. The low-battery notification had gone to my email, unnoticed during the drive.
The UFODrive app first took me to a charger that was out of service, and I’m glad I thought to check the vehicle’s dashboard screen for my second try. The car displayed not just charging stations, but their status, including how many bays were left and whether or not they were in service. After an incoming call from a well-meaning UFODrive employee who saw my low battery but could not possibly know where every charger in Houston was, I ended up backing into a charging station at 1 percent battery.
Charging — the act, itself — was very easy. UFODrive handles the whole thing and covers the fee, so it’s as simple as plugging in, waiting, and driving away. Having seen the detail on the dashboard screen about chargers (as well as a notification when we were about to leave range), I would feel confident booking a longer trip through the service.
And for my fellow roadtrippers, I'd just encourage a thorough read of the emailed materials — or at least this laundry list of minor snags. Fill out the forms early, check emails often, and put in just a few minutes of planning to keep charging smooth and convenient. An organized traveler may make it to Houston with a shining track record of no awkward moments at all.