Charging an Electric Rental Car in a Rural Community: Reflections and Lessons Learned

Anybody who works in the transportation technology space has certainly participated in some intense conversations about the environmental consequences of internal combustion engines (ICEs) in our car-centric society. I have personally spent a lot of time over the past couple of years considering if electrification is truly better for the environment at all after we factor in the ESG concerns related to mining raw materials to build lithium ion batteries and the sheer amount of electricity needed to charge an electric vehicle (EV) on our dirty electric grid in the US. My participation in the discourse has been purely informed by research as I used to live in Ann Arbor, MI and drive an ICE vehicle and now live in NYC and only use public transit. However, a recent experience reminded me about the practical obstacles in the way of widespread EV adoption. America’s extreme regional and cultural diversity cannot be overstated as we consider the best and most realistic ways to reduce the carbon footprint of transportation.

About a week ago, I rented an EV to visit a friend who lives about two hours outside the city in a rural town called Barryville, NY. While this was not my first time driving an electric vehicle, it is important to note that my previous experiences had been controlled. My previous trips had either been in communities moving and shaking the transportation technology industry, consequently meaning appropriate infrastructure such as charging stations were readily available, or on test tracks where running out of battery power posed no real threat or inconvenience. This time, I picked up a 2023 Chevy Bolt in Queens with the battery charged to about 50% with the intention of driving approximately 100 miles each way to Barryville. Upon pick up, I asked the customer service representative which app the rental company recommends for locating EV charging stations and she mentioned Electrify America and Flow.

The apps are fairly intuitive. After giving the app permission to use your cell phone’s current location, the app shows you how many miles away you are from various charging stations, noting which stations are reported by users to be exclusive for Telsas, tracking your charging history, providing a contactless payment method, and your charging progress. After logging into the apps in the rental company’s parking lot, I felt confident about the trip. After all, I work in the industry. If anybody could handle this trip it was obviously me, right? 

The car’s battery sustains about 260 miles of driving with a full charge, so with half a charge and just under 100 miles to drive I made it to my destination with about 30 miles of buffer to get to a charging station. After a few hours of socializing, I brought two friends with me to charge the car– though charging is much faster than it was five years ago, a full charge still takes several hours and it is recommended that users charge the car overnight. Researchers suggest not letting the car get below 30 miles of remaining range so I was already pushing it. Upon checking the app, the nearest station was 27 miles away and the next nearest were all well over 40 miles away. The range anxiety I had written about in my articles several times began to creep up on me. 

The two friends who were originally coming with me just to chitchat were now following me in their ICE vehicle in case my rental died on the way to the charger. We made it to the charger without a problem and plugged in the car after making a guest account with the Blink charger. After about two and a half hours of chatting in the parking lot, I checked the battery of my rental and was crushed to see the battery was at 30% (meaning 78 miles) as the clock read 12:36 am. I was still two hours away from home and the battery’s charge was not even enough to dream of making my drive home let alone the next-morning return to the rental company. At this point, my friends decided they could not wait for the car to charge to a reasonable capacity as they needed to get some sleep for the following workday. They headed off to bed as my rental car and I stayed plugged into a Dunkin Donuts’ parking lot in the middle of the night approximately two hours from home. 

To be clear, my friends are not the villains of this story and my particular situation, though uncomfortable and annoying, was not overly unsafe. Though it was late, I was in a community with which I am familiar sitting in a well-lit parking lot just a phone call and a few miles away from another friend working at a local restaurant. However, my situation was unfortunate enough to understand the very real reasons people are reluctant to buy an EV or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles: not knowing where to fuel up your car when you really need to get somewhere is at best an inconvenience and at worse can be unsafe. The indirect consequences of insecure or inaccessible fueling options could include being written up or fired from a job for having unreliable transportation, or children getting kicked out of daycare for parental tardiness. Of course, the intersection of reliable transportation, accessible childcare, and stable employment are interrelated challenges that disproportionately impact low-come communities, exacerbating an existing transportation gap. Considered with existing infrastructure equity gaps, pressuring low-income communities to make the switch away from ICE vehicles for the sake of the environment seems ludicrous. 

If you were wondering how my story ended, I eventually charged the car battery to approximately 120 miles and arrived home at 3:30 am. I used a vacation day the following day to catch up on sleep and do the chores I had expected to do the night before after visiting friends. I returned the rental car with roughly enough battery life to drive 4 miles because, despite the fact that I left my house with enough time to charge the car to roughly 25%, I could not get my local public EV charger to unlock the cable and the provided customer service number on the unit did not work even after two calls. Returning the vehicle uncharged resulted in a $75 fine from the rental company which I gladly paid for the luxury of not having to think about the car again. I considered the outcome to be no-harm-no-foul, however there is an immense amount of privilege in my experience. I am fortunate enough to work at a job with paid time off so I was able to get a full night’s sleep, I have enough money to live comfortably after paying the fine for the uncharged rental car, and (if I was willing to work a little harder at figuring it out) I live in a city with better-than-average transportation infrastructure including public charging stations on the sidewalks.

The purpose of this reflection is to urge the research community as well as regulators and legislators to prioritize the experiences of the communities. Community engagement and grassroots organizations are invaluable in this space because nobody understands the transportation needs of a town like the people who navigate those streets daily. Even as somebody who thinks and writes about transportation equity everyday, I could not anticipate the obstacles of bringing new transportation technology into a community with which I am decently familiar.

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