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EV rentals aren't at full charge yet. I found out the hard way on the German autobahn

Range anxiety is real, even with services like UFODrive trying to alleviate those worries.

tesla-trees

That shiny, high-tech car stressed me out on a drive through the German countryside. 

Shara Tibken/CNET

I've never been so scared to rent a car before. It's not because I'm a bad driver -- despite what my family and friends will tell you -- or because I'm driving into a blizzard. It's because, for the first time in my life, I'm renting an electric vehicle that I have to charge instead of refueling at a gas station. And not just any EV, it's a Tesla Model S. You know, the fancy car designed by Elon Musk that starts at $80,000. *gulp*

There's a startup, UFODrive, that's trying to take those worries away. The company, founded 18 months ago in Luxembourg, rents only EVs and operates solely through iPhone and Android apps. You can skip waiting in long lines at rental counters, and you won't be saddled with either a different car from the one you booked or surprise fees when you return the vehicle. You shouldn't have to worry about anything besides driving. The app even tracks your car's battery level and directs you to the nearest charging station when needed. 

And that's the point: UFODrive wants to convince people like me that renting an EV isn't scary. 

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"There's a massive misconception about electric vehicles that they don't work well and take too long to charge," UFODrive CEO Aidan McClean said in an interview last month. "That's not true. … We want to change the perception around electric cars so that people who rent them realize it's easier to rent, drive and experience an electric car than an oil-burning car."

UFODrive is one of many transport startups to emerge over the past few years with the goal of changing how we get from place to place. Uber and Lyft have become synonymous with catching a ride, and numerous scooter and biking companies -- from Bird to Uber's Jump -- have all but taken over cities across the globe. Car2Go, DriveNow and similar services let you rent a car by the minute and park it anywhere within covered cities like New York, Berlin and Hamburg, the German city where I happened to live for a month this fall. 

But UFODrive and other companies like Volkswagen shared-ride service Moia want to make your journey as environmentally friendly as possible by using only electric vehicles. These services are cropping up as more consumers -- especially in Germany, the home of carmakers like Volkswagen and BMW -- are factoring sustainability into the services and products they buy. This also comes amid heightened concerns of many people over climate change.

"UFODrive is an ambitious approach to grow sustainable mobility and e-mobility transportation services," said Brian Solis, an independent digital analyst working for his own firm. But "UFODrive and EV manufacturers in general still have a lot of work ahead of them to make electric, sustainable vehicles the norm."

'Out-of-this-world' rentals?

After two weeks in Hamburg, I'm heading back to the airport to pick up a friend and the rental car. When I get there, I fire up the UFODrive app on my phone.

The app makes big promises. "It's the most advanced car rental," it tells me. "No key pick-up, no paperwork, no queues." Prices for the all-electric fleet of cars start at 69 euros (about $76) a day for the Nissan Leaf and go up to 159 euros for the Jaguar I-Pace. The rate includes insurance, 350 km (about 217 miles) of driving and charging costs.

I register for the service before I arrive, which involves scanning images of my face, passport and driver's license. About 15% of UFODrive's bookings are made less than an hour before rental, McClean said, but I book my car a week in advance to ensure I get the vehicle I want: the Tesla Model S, for 149 euros a day. (Disclosure: UFODrive gave CNET a code for two free rental days to try the service.) 

Before my booking begins, UFODrive emails me tips for operating and charging EVs, making everything as clear as possible. If anything happens to the Tesla, I'll have to pay a 1,000 euro fee, so I opt for the 24-euro-per-day extra insurance. Driving farther than 350 kilometers adds to the price. I can either book the extra mileage in advance if I know my route or pay for it later, depending on how far I drive. 

When I go pick up my car, I walk to a parking lot at the airport. It's easy to spot the UFODrive section, with its lineup of shiny black Teslas. The app shows the license plate number of my car, and it walks me through an inspection for damage. Instead of a key, I press a button on the app to open the car. (The car turns off and locks when it senses you and your phone are walking away.) Then I sit behind the wheel trying to decipher the German language dashboard. Luckily, I figure out how to change it to English. 

I'm on my way, navigating to the center of Hamburg. 

Since starting operations about 18 months ago, UFODrive has expanded beyond its first location in Luxembourg to airports in Brussels, Vienna, Hamburg and Cologne-Bonn, Germany. It's also in city centers in Brussels, Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam. 

By the end of this year, UFODrive should be in about 16 locations in eight countries, McClean said. The company plans to raise funds next year to expand to at least 30 locations, which includes three possible US cities. McClean declined to say which ones beyond noting they'll likely be on the West and East coasts, areas that have vehicle charging infrastructure in place. 

"The vision is to spread this as fast as possible," McClean said. "The plan is to make it such a simple experience that people only want to drive UFO."

The biggest worry for me as an EV novice is running out of power in the middle of nowhere, with no charging station in sight. UFODrive tries to remove that concern. There's a built-in chat support function in the app, and UFODrive tracks your car and battery performance in real time. It sends an alert when you have 30% battery left and again at 10% and gives directions for the closest fast-charging station.

At least that's how it's supposed to work. 

EV troubles

Time for a road trip. I decide to visit Wismar, a Northern German town along the Baltic Coast where some of my ancestors lived in the 1800s. It's about 130 kilometers from Hamburg, or about a 90-minute drive.

Instead of planning the best route to get to Wismar and checking for charging stations, I simply get in the Tesla and go, like I would if I were driving a normal car. I expect the UFODrive app to notify me when my battery is low and direct me to a charging station when I need one. What I don't count on is losing cell service and getting no alerts. To make matters worse, Wismar and the area around the city have no Tesla Supercharger stations.

Though the Tesla tells me I'll make it to Wismar with no problems, I won't make it back to Hamburg without a charge. When I'm about half an hour from Wismar, I start to get nervous. My battery is clearly well below 50%. I thought I'd get an alert by then. (UFODrive initially told me I'd get an alert at 50%, but it recently changed the system to ping drivers at 30%.)

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UFODrive lets you rent electric vehicles like Teslas through its mobile app.

Shara Tibken/CNET

I get stressed when my phone battery is below about 60% at midday. When it hits 30%, I look for a charger. With a car battery, my worries are much worse. There's actually a phrase for this: range anxiety. What if I run out of power in the middle of nowhere? UFODrive said that's never happened in its 5,000 rentals since launching in 2018. The company says it would've dispatched someone to my location if I ran into trouble.

But I don't want to be the first to be stranded. My passenger starts searching for Supercharger stations and regular chargers on the Tesla's GPS, but nothing shows up. The ones shown on Google Maps and Tesla's site on my passenger's phone are located in hotels and appear to be only for guests. The closest Supercharger is an hour away -- in the opposite direction. 

It's not until later that I learn the UFODrive app shows both Superchargers and the slower chargers I can access. Because I was driving, I wasn't looking at the app. Even so, that information isn't completely accurate. At least one of the two chargers it shows in Wismar isn't open to the public. The company said its charger map is linked to a real-time feed of data that includes a check on availability. But that differs in each country, and it's still tweaking the best way to capture data in Germany.

With only about 30 kilometers to go to Wismar and about 25% of the battery left, I have to make a decision: continue to my planned destination or abort and head to a charger. I'm afraid I'll get there and have no way of getting back to Hamburg, so I give up and divert an hour out of my way to the AlpinCenter, a sports facility with indoor skiing and Superchargers on the edge of Wittenburg.

Only when I finally get close to Wittenburg do I get an alert from UFODrive saying I need to charge ASAP. By the time I arrive, my battery has 20% left. The Tesla estimates it will take 40 minutes to charge the car to 80%. I watch kids skiing down an indoor track for an hour before getting back in the Tesla and heading back to Hamburg. There's no way I'm going to Wismar now. 

On to the future

UFODrive will address some of the problems I experienced in future updates, and it's constantly tweaking its app to add more functionality and provide a smoother experience for users. Right now, charging alerts only come through the app, not on the dashboard. UFODrive says it will soon introduce the ability to send the address of a charging station from the phone to the car navigation systems.

It's also working on integrating an automated journey planner in its app that sets the best route based on charger locations. Had that been available, the map would have sent me to Wismar via Wittenburg in the first place, letting me charge before I arrived at my destination.

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CNET's Shara Tibken stopped at an indoor skiing facility outside Hamburg to charge her UFODrive Tesla rental.

Shara Tibken/CNET

"You would give your destination and the app would propose the best journey based on your current position, battery level, type of car, weather, et cetera," said Stephen Morrissey, UFODrive's chief development officer.

Along with the charging, I'm constantly stressed about not having an LTE signal on my phone, which I need to unlock and start the Tesla. That's especially true in big parking garages or in the countryside, where service is spotty at best. 

In one instance, I use a friend's phone as a hotspot to unlock and power on the Tesla. UFODrive says if someone doesn't have service, they can contact the support team to open the car remotely. And the Bluetooth installed in the cars allows them to be unlocked even when you have weak or no cell coverage. You're automatically connected to Bluetooth when you first access your rental.

The company says I was likely never really at risk of being locked out. But trying tell that to my blood pressure when it's late evening and I'm standing in the rain on a remote farm, staring at a phone with no cell connection.

At least in Germany, the charging infrastructure still isn't widespread enough to make an EV a stress-free drive. Would places like San Francisco where I live be different? Maybe. I'm not quite willing to find out right now. The UFODrive experience of renting a car through an app, though? Sign me up. 

This EV world may be the future, but I'm not ready to be part of it yet. Ask me again in a year. 

This article was written as part of the Goethe-Institut's Close-Up journalists' exchange program and Wunderbar Together-The Year of German-American Friendship. More information can be found at www.goethe.de/nahaufnahme and at #GoetheCloseUp and #WunderbarTogether.