As electric vehicles gain a foothold share of the fleet and ground transportation markets, it only follows that drivers can now reserve EVs from rental fleets as well.
One immediate advantage for EV renters is you don’t have to return them “topped off” to rental car companies as you do with internal combustion engine vehicles, although customers are required to drop off the EV at a certain battery charge level.
That’s due in part to providers like Zeem Solutions, an EV charging and maintenance depot operator at the forefront of meeting rental car charging demand. Zeem, which runs an EV charging depot a mile from Los Angeles International Airport, contracts with Hertz to charge its EVs as they are prepped for new customers.
Hertz, the third-largest car rental company in the U.S., now offers 50,000 EVs in its network overall, about 10% of its total fleet, and plans to reach 25% share EVs by the end of 2024, according to media reports.
To charge electric rental car returns near the sixth busiest airport in the world, Zeem has set up a detailed and closely coordinated 24/7 operation designed to keep a high-volume flow. It performs maintenance work and EV charging at one facility and rental car charging at another one a few blocks away.
To sustain its operations, Zeem draws on a 10-megawatt power feed from Southern California Edison, or enough to power a town of over 20,000 people.
At the center of the Zeem facilities and Hertz service is the company’s founder and CEO, Paul Gioupis, who spent a few years arranging leases, outfitting the properties, arranging power access through local utilities, establishing EV maintenance services, and getting the chargers installed. Zeem began leasing the EV charging sites in July 2021 and charging vehicles on them in April 2022.
“Everything is about packing in as much charging as you possibly can to maximize parking,” Gioupis said. “I want to make sure we can facilitate this transition that we're all seeing. The ideal site layout is a rectangle with perimeter DC charging all the way around.”
The Zeem charging depots are ringed by fences with 24-hour surveillance and onsite staffing. Both facilities happen to lie a few blocks north of the LAX Consolidated Rent-A-Car (CONRAC) facility and airport train station, both under construction, that will house the major rental car operations and traveler transportation links to the airport inner loop.
The depots offer Level 2 and 3 chargers, depending on the demand and type of fleet vehicles. The 180-kilowatt dual-port DC fast chargers leave a small footprint on the 1–2-acre urban sites.
Since EVs should not be constantly charged at Level 3, Zeem will schedule intermittent Level 2 charging to balance out the batteries. Uber and Lyft vehicles, for example, are charged with Level 2 when drivers leave them there overnight.
Hertz Takes Charge at Zeem Real Estate
The nearby LAX Hertz location at 9000 Airport Blvd. in Los Angeles is its highest producing EV rental spot so far. Although the Hertz-Zeem arrangement was formally announced Aug. 1, the two companies have contracted for service since February. Hertz representatives use shared office space at Zeem to help coordinate the charging as vehicles arrived from the nearby rental location. In addition to charging, Zeem provides Hertz with fleet management and standard maintenance and inspections.
During a recent onsite tour and interview, Gioupis explained the rental car operation in detail: “They come in with the cars, they’re greeted by a depot coordinator who will do a quick tour of the vehicle to check for damage since the previous time and check the battery state of charge. Then they check the mileage, ask the driver if they've had any troubleshooting issues, and then pull it up to a DC fast charger. Once the car is charged, the staff notifies the driver and off they go back to the Hertz rental terminal.”
Hertz, for example, uses mostly Level 3 chargers given the need for a quick four-hour total turnaround. The EVs Zeem charges include popular models from OEMs such as Tesla, Kia, Subaru, BMW, Polestar, Ford, and more.
Hertz drivers drop off EV rentals in waves of 10-20 throughout the day and then drive a previous wave of fully charged EVs back to the Hertz location three-quarters of a mile away to rent out to customers, Gioupis said. The average charge time for a Hertz rental car is about 40 minutes. On a typical day, Zeem will charge about 70-100 EVs from Hertz. Many of the vehicles Zeem charges eventually are returned at other locations.
The EV charging facility has a drivers’ lounge with full amenities, such as kitchen and airport-style restrooms, and a conference room where Zeem and Hertz managers and coordinators can confer on daily operations.
Being able to provide a staff with “white glove service” was an important factor for Hertz for charging EVs, Gioupis said.
Charging EVs Beyond Car Rental
Zeem also handles all types of electric vans and trucks, as its parking lot and maintenance garages resemble a showcase of all leading EV brands.
“We're making sure that all the hardware we buy is the same. That way, if something breaks, we have spare parts, we know how to fix it, and we know how to service it.” The charging technicians are trained in-house and end up charging thousands of EVs of all types in all situations on Level 2 and 3 chargers.
If the electronic “handshake” between a particular EV model and the charger software doesn’t engage, the technicians know how to diagnose the anomaly and get the EV to connect.
“Getting the vehicle up and running is actually a skill set that most people are underestimating right now, and that's very much needed,” Gioupis said. “We’re doing so because of the experience charging every rental car that comes through the door. Here we've tested everything and have really come up with what we believe is the optimal charger mix to service everybody from car rental scaled up to the big trucks.”
Larger commercial vehicles prove more challenging than passenger models, Gioupis said. “The data suggests you have one out of five interactions with a car and the public charger that doesn't work very well. With the commercial side, it's more like four out of every five don't work well.”
Troubleshooting Teaches Technicians About EV Charging
Due to the volume of the charging and EV interactions, the Zeem staff gets a continuous hands-on education as EV product experts.
“They've had to figure out how to make sure that this unit charges and it's very challenging,” Gioupis said. “Those interactions are something I would argue nobody's teaching the skill sets for yet. Every charger has a functionality to try to plug into a vehicle. And every single interaction differs.”
By identifying the varied charging situations, the technicians encounter, the team can create standard operating procedures derived from solving problems together, Gioupis said.
“Whenever you plug in the charger it waits for the vehicle to respond. If the vehicle response is too long, the charger will shut down, because it's a safety protocol. What happens is the interaction needs to be negotiated. We'll take every vehicle in and if it doesn't work, we'll literally sit with the OEM and the charger company and make sure we get what we call the handshake to be successful. Once that happens, we know every time this vehicle comes into our fleet, and plugs in, it should work.”
The various fleet clients of Zeem determine how much to charge their vehicles, with most opting to top out at 85%.
Gioupis sees the Zeem operation as technology agnostic during the early stages of EV adoption, which is why they test all types of OEM’s chargers and ports, electric vehicles, operational software, and everything in between.
Zeem Adds Complementary EV Services
While Hertz stands out as a flagship client for Zeem, the solutions company enhances and expands its charging services on multiple fronts:
- Zeem also charges select EVs from rideshare company clients, such as Uber and Lyft, who submit lists of vehicles and drivers who may charge onsite. These are limited by the number of chargers and the scheduled availability of them. Some of the rideshare drivers lease their vehicles from Hertz, enabling them to benefit from the level of service and charging access that Zeem provides.
- Another division of Zeem focuses on EV fleets as a service, where customers can rent one or more of the 71 vehicles in the Zeem fleet that includes light and medium-duty trucks, shuttles, and vans.
- The depot can also fast-charge Tesla models via an add-on port. Zeem has been communicating with Tesla about adding their branded superchargers to the lot.
- Zeem is developing EV charging depots near airports in Newark, Houston, Seattle, and Long Beach, California. “We're going nationwide because we feel like we've cracked the nut here in California,” he said.
- As part of the facility’s power management, Zeem plans to install bi-directional chargers that enable EVs to contribute power to the grid during peak usage times, such as 4 pm to 9 pm. It also will set up battery storage onsite so it can continue charging EVs without always drawing from the grid.
- Zeem aims to achieve seamless charging 24/7 with a balance of bi-directional “micro-grid” power sharing and accumulated battery power storage, Gioupis said. “We want to make sure that we're flexible for the grid and taking enough cheap power at the right times and be able to offset that with the use of batteries during peak times.”
- The company is also looking at aggregators that can provide software for power arbitrage that monitors, regulates, and directs power usage and distribution in real time in the most efficient ways.
All those efforts are positioning Zeem to prepare for faster growth in EV usage in California, where 25% of new vehicles now sold are all-electric.
To help car rental customers, many of whom may be gradually trying out EVs via rental instead of leasing or buying one, the Hertz EVs come equipped with systems that readily identify all available EV charging locations, said Gioupis, who rents electric cars when traveling.
“They take all the range anxiety away here in California. Everywhere you go, there are chargers,” he said, holding up a dotted charger map on his smartphone. “So, what happens is the vehicle interacts with you and will notify you if power is getting low and list the top 10 nearby chargers. They make it so easy for you.”