The New Ride for Orlando Tourists: Electric Cars

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A new initiative hopes to turn tourists visiting central Florida into the electric car owners of tomorrow.

Orlando is known primarily for theme parks and family vacations. Outside of innovations on rides and resorts, it doesn’t have much of a reputation as a hub for cutting edge technology. Or environmentalism for that matter. The recently launched Drive Electric Orlando hopes to change that. It’s a program involving the city of Orlando, the three major area theme parks, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, and the Electrification Coalition, a not-for-profit with the mission of pushing electric transportation. The initiative allows visitors to rent Nissan Leafs at Enterprise lots for around $30 per day, with the hope that some of the tourists getting an “extended test drive” will be converted and wind up buying their own electric cars. “Even if we convert 10% of them it will go a long way,” Electrification Coalition chairman Seifi Ghasemi told Reuters.

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While electric car sales have taken off in recent months, thanks in part to cheap lease deals and big price cuts on the Chevy Volt and other EVs, the plug-in category represents only a tiny portion of new cars sold. Bloomberg News reported that through the first eight months of 2013, Americans purchased 57,976 plug-ins, surpassing the total for all of 2012 (51,938). Even so, plug-ins are expected to constitute less than 1% of all cars sold for some time to come. Hence the drive to get more consumers behind the wheels of EVs in the hopes of ramping up interest—and sales.

Why focus on Orlando? The area attracts 57 million visitors annually, and the destination is reportedly the world’s largest rental car market. Visitors come from all over the U.S. (and all over the globe), so by launching an electric car initiative here program organizers can reach consumers from nearly every market on earth. Most of these tourists aren’t on the road more than 20 or 30 minutes at a time, typically driving just from the airport to the hotel, and from the hotel to the theme park. Because few travelers head to central Florida with longer road trips in mind, “range anxiety”—the worry that you’ll run out of juice before being able to recharge your electric car, a major holdup for drivers who might otherwise be interested in buying an EV—probably isn’t an issue. The Nissan Leaf can be driven 75 miles on a charge, which should more than suffice for the average theme-park-going tourist in Orlando.

To make an EV rental extra tempting for tourists and business travelers, Leaf rental rates are being kept competitive (again, around $30 a day), and rentals come with free GPS to help drivers locate, among other things, the nearest of the 300 charging stations that have been installed within 70 miles of downtown Orlando. Sea World, Walt Disney World, and Universal Studios are all on board to install charging stations, and many hotels will offer free valet service and charging for guests.

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In a worst case scenario, if a renter is stranded with a Leaf that’s out of juice, AAA will come and charge the vehicle for free. Another bonus is that unlike the usual rental car customer, Leaf renters won’t have to go with the prepaid gas option or fill up the gas tank before returning their vehicles. “We don’t charge a premium, nor do we charge a fee if someone does not bring it back with a full charge,” Enterprise’s Nathan Prior said to the Orlando Sentinel.

The Drive Electric Orlando initiative—which was rolled out in a big way, with ample perks and a general bend-over-backwards pitch for maximum appeal—was obviously designed to have a major impact on consumers and the EV market as a whole. At least at first, though, the impact will be limited to a mere 15 cars. That’s how many Nissan Leafs Enterprise Rent-a-Car is initially offering in Orlando. And that doesn’t seem like a whole lot for a city that attracts 57 million tourists per year.