‘I’m getting a what?’ Rental company EV swaps can be daunting for drivers

Electric vehicles are great … just not when they’re sprung on you minutes before a nine-hour road trip.

Last month, I went to pick up a compact car, reserved weeks in advance. I was offered one but it wasn’t gas-powered.

Objections to the EV — “I’ve had limited experience,” “I don’t know the range” and “I’m unsure where charging stations are” — cut no ice.

Cars were limited, the counter agent explained, and in the eyes of Budget, the electric was an equal substitute for the conventional model I’d booked.

Much angst and about $70 later, we hit the road in an old-school SUV.

Turns out this experience was no outlier.

Car rental switcheroos are “an epidemic across the country,” veteran trial lawyer Shawn Collins of Naperville said. “Rental car companies are baiting and switching their customers; they’re pretending they’re in business for our convenience but these agreements are the proof they’re in it for their own convenience.”

Budget representatives did not return requests for comment as of Thursday.

My rental contract promised a Kia Rio compact “or similar” car.

“It’s a slam dunk legally to say an electric vehicle is not similar to a gas-powered vehicle,” Collins said.

“They have different features, they’re different kinds of vehicles to drive, often. But also, and maybe the most critical feature, is how each kind of car gets refueled.

“With gas-fueled cars we’re familiar with gas stations and finding them and it’s very rare that you have a problem getting a car refueled. On the other hand, it’s typical to have a problem refueling an electric vehicle. We don’t have, in this country, a dependable network of charging stations.”

Most customers in this dilemma have time constraints and can’t order up a lawyer, Collins noted. They either leave with a car they don’t want or pay more for an alternate.

But “I would go to court anywhere and I’m confident I would win a fight over whether an EV is similar to a gas-powered car,” he said.

Collins also advises consumers to call their rental company in advance to state their preferences and confirm what’s available.

Illinois Alliance for Clean Transportation Executive Board Chair John Walton has spent years promoting green energy.

But, “EVs are not quite ready for prime time,” he thinks.

There’s a steep learning curve for new EV drivers from knowing the range and voltage of their car, to locating charging stations appropriate for their vehicle, to determining where fast-chargers are, and their cost.

“If you don’t want the EV and (rental companies) can’t tell you how to get fuel for it, how happy are you going to be?” Walton asked. “They need to do some education on it and not just give it to you. That to me is at least the minimum.”

The nonprofit IACT offers a map of electric fueling stations, information about EVs, and links to other resources on its website at il-act.org. There also are multiple locator apps, such as chargepoint.com, Walton noted.

Transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman knows a thing or two about travel. But he wasn’t expecting his rental company to surprise him with an EV, which he declined recently.

“It was just too risky for me to hop into an EV late at night” without any practice, Schwieterman said. “Too many unknowns.”

“Car rental companies are guilty of not being more transparent about whether you booked an EV or a regular car,” the DePaul University professor said.

And that’s unfortunate, he added.

“Travelers don’t like being surprised at the car rental counter. Many plan their trip with much attention to detail, making sudden changes the source of much anxiety.”

One more thing

IDOT is seeking comments on how to fix the crash-prone intersection of Route 173 and Keystone Road near Richmond in McHenry County. To learn more, go to the project’s website at il173keystone.com.

You should know

Students and faculty heading to Chicago State University are getting a much-desired rebuild of their Metra station at 95th Street. Metra directors last week approved a $33.4 million contract for the project on the Electric Line. Construction should last 40 months.

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