My FIAT 500e (yes ... it's an EV)

Like many of you, I’ve heard these stories about people buying an expensive car, renting it out on Turo, and using that money to pay for the car. The idea being, the car is free. In fact, the car might even make money for you. That’s the idea, anyway.

Since I work from home I have thought about this for a while. I’m always available to deal with a car being picked up or returned. So, I thought I’d give it a try. Of course, I wanted to do it with an electric vehicle, because that’s the only type of vehicle I’d want, free or otherwise. Not only would this be fun for me, but in many ways, I considered it as a service to the community.

The FIAT 500e is an EV

First of all, I’ve been driving EVs since 2011 and whenever my car was in the shop for any reason during that time, I was forced to drive a gasoline car. Why? Because in Dallas/Ft.Worth there aren’t any EVs for rent from traditional car rental companies.

So, that’s one way I’d be helping out. If some poor EV driver had their car in the shop and wanted an EV rental, one would be available. The second way I would be helping out is for those people that would like to try an EV beyond a dealership test drive and without the hassle of dealing with a salesman.

I wasn’t willing to rent out my 2017 Volt or my wife’s 2014 i3 Rex. At least not at first. I also wasn’t willing to spend a lot of money on a Tesla or something as an experiment for this. So, I started shopping around for a really cheap EV that I could afford to pay cash for, and then put it on Turo. I figured worst case, if it didn’t work out, I could just resell the car and my losses would be minimal.

I knew from the beginning whatever car I picked would probably not be a super-desirable car to rent compared to something like a Tesla or a BMW i8. So, I would be sure to take that into account when looking at the number of days it gets rented. I figured this was a learning experiment, after all. The idea being, if it worked out, I would move up the ladder with something like a Tesla or a Bolt EV.

After shopping around, I found several EVs in the area under $10,000. I had considered a used LEAF and a used Volt. One thing that scared me about the used LEAFs in Texas, having previously owned one, is that the battery would be degraded on any LEAF I could buy under $10,000. Not only that, I didn’t feel like it was a very desirable car that somebody might want to rent.

Notice the charging cable, which one uses to charge the EV (nicely packed the way it should be)

Fortunately, I found this used FIAT 500e. They aren’t even sold new in Texas, but there are a few used ones that have found their way over here. I found this one for $7,500. The price was too good to be true considering it had only 28,000 miles on it and was in really nice condition. I verified that two dealers in the area were, surprisingly, certified to work on it. Most likely this is due to them getting certified for the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid. So, I bought it.

After putting it on Turo for a couple of months, I can definitely say I’ve had a learning experience. I’ve obviously experienced many of the same frustrations that many Turo hosts have experienced, such as the car being returned with cigarette smoke smell in the interior, and a scratch on the door. Every time the car is returned, I must do a full detail job on it.

This isn’t a problem for me since I consider an hour washing the car a good exercise substitute for using the elliptical or jogging in the park, which I do every day. I mean, if I’m going to be wasting time just to burn some calories and get my heart rate up, I might as well be making money doing that.

Those were the sort of problems I really expected, especially after researching experiences other people have had on Turo. Now, let me tell you about some of the problems I didn’t anticipate. Most of these are related to the fact that the car is an EV.

The first and most common problem I had was people trying to rent the car thinking it was a gasoline-powered Fiat 500. I went out of my way to distinguish it as an EV from day one by showing the main photo with the charging cable connected. Additionally, I wrote several points in the main description telling people it does not run on gasoline and will need to be charged. I went into great detail about the range, charging, etc.

A look inside my FIAT 500e

Despite that, people are ignorant. I had people booking the car who had no idea it was an electric car. Some people assumed it was a hybrid. Some people understood it was electric but didn’t understand how far 85 miles is and assumed they could drive it for days without recharging it, much like they do with a gasoline car.

This presented a big problem because when people would book the car and show up, I would start talking to them. I would start asking them “where are you going to charge it? Do you have an outlet in your garage?” Many of these people lived in an apartment and had nowhere to charge the car.

As a result, I would wind up canceling their booking. This is unfortunate because if I cancel a trip in the last 24 hours of a booking, I get charged a $50 fee. But the reality is, I was doing these people a favor.

This was so common, that I had to take my car off of the automatic booking mode, and thus require me to approve any renters moving forward. This limits my audience because people want to be able to automatically book a car. But, it was the only way I could screen out the idiots. So at this point, when somebody requests to book the car, I ask them these questions about charging first. Once I’m convinced they can actually use the car, I will approve it.

Ok, so it sounds like that would solve all of my problems, right? Well, not really.

Even after doing all of this, I still ran into problems. People weren’t renting this car just to drive to work and back. They seemed to enjoy driving it. The Fiat 500e, for all its flaws, is a fun little car to drive. However, they enjoy driving it too much and drive it all around town, right up until the battery runs out. Then what?

A closer look inside the FIAT 500e

Well, that’s when the text messages start coming in. I’ve actually gotten texts while I’m asleep asking things like “The car only has 3% left on the battery, will it still keep driving when it runs out?” I mean, what kind of question is that? If it would still keep driving, why bother to ever charge it up in the first place?

So, invariably I have to help them find a place to charge it. I tell them to install Plugshare on their phone. That only helps so much, though. That’s where the second problem comes in.

This is Texas. This is not California. Charging stations are often 10 miles apart or even more depending on what part of the metroplex you are in. What’s worse, when they do find a charging location, how do they activate it? We have EvGo, Chargepoint, and Blink stations around here, but they all require RFID cards to activate the chargers.

These rental customers can’t treat these stations like they do gas stations where they can use their credit card to fill up. Even if they wanted to have one of these RFID cards, they should have ordered them two weeks before renting the car. Fortunately, some of these can now be activated by installing an app on your smartphone. However, I have to spend a lot of time hand-holding people through the process. To make matters worse, the Fiat 500e doesn’t support DC fast charging.

Charging at home isn’t as straightforward as you might think either. People will call me saying they plugged the EV in at home, but it isn’t charging. At first, you might think it is a ground-fault problem or tripped breaker, but more often than not the problem is between their ears. The car is charging, it is just taking a long time. That’s because level-1 charging is meant for overnight charging.

These people become frustrated because, despite my explanations, they tried to take the car home thinking 20 minutes would be enough to recharge the car. One guy actually DID have his breaker trip in the middle of the night, so the car didn’t charge at all. So, he tried to return the car to me the next morning. He arrived in my driveway with the battery gauge reading 0% and in reduced power mode. He said it would only let him drive 15 miles per hour the last mile. I’m just waiting for the day I have to pick up the car with a tow truck. That seems inevitable at this point.

Though small, the FIAT 500e has decent cargo capacity if you're not filling it with passengers

The EV is returned filthy inside and out nearly every time ... people eat, drink, smoke, and sneeze in the car. I’ve been amazed that I can give the car a fresh detail job and even on a 24-hour rental the car will look like they took it mudding in a swamp and had a party inside of the car.

Besides all of that, there is the annoyance of the charge cable. I always roll it up with velcro and place it back inside of its little cubby in the rear of the vehicle where it belongs. Don’t expect that customers will do this. Nope, they just leave it a tangled mess in the hatchback or rear seat.

So, what have I learned from this experience so far?

Well, first of all, I think this goes for Turo in general. I may end up with a free car. But by the time the car has paid for itself, there may not be much car left. Death by 1,000 cuts is the thought that comes to mind. Second of all, I can begin to understand why car dealerships don’t like dealing with electric cars. The general public is just uneducated. While I should have known this after spending a lot of my life working in tech support and IT helpdesk jobs, I guess it didn’t occur to me that an EV was so difficult for people to understand.

I also learned that a short-range EV a very bad way to introduce people an EV. It has been especially difficult the last week or two because the weather has been below freezing. With people driving this little car on the highway with the heater blasting, I think that 85-mile range has been more like 50 miles. A Chevy Bolt EV or Tesla would certainly be better in this regard.

I think a plug-in hybrid might also be a better choice. I am considering the possibility of renting out our Volt and i3 REX, in which case, the Fiat would still work for me as a backup car. As long as I have some sort of car available, I guess that’s fine. If I do this, I may write a follow-up article in a few months discussing the experience and whether or not it was different or better from the Fiat 500e.

I do want to mention, however, one person that rented my car was actually a long-time EV driver and even had a level-2 station in his garage. This was the one time that the rental experience was absolutely perfect for both of us. I didn’t spend any time hand-holding, and his expectations were correct from the beginning. Charging was not a problem for him since he had his own charger in his garage as well as the required RFID cards for the chargers around the metroplex. It’s a pity that all of my renters could have been more like him.

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