Zipcar CEO: Why We're Not Going Electric Anytime Soon

zipcargeneric1Car-sharing startup Zipcar has long touted the environmental credentials of its service — primarily the fact that people who use the subscription-based network for renting cars by the hour tend to drive less and own fewer cars. Founded a decade ago, the company began to hit its stride when it started marketing to green-minded urbanites and college students. So why do most of Zipcar’s 6,500+ vehicles still run on gasoline?

Last week, Zipcar announced the launch of what it calls its first EV Pod, starting with a fleet of 20 hybrids and two plug-ins (an all-electric Citroen c1 and a plug-in hybrid Prius) in London, with plans to grow the EV Pod to some 400 vehicles by 2012, with 30 percent of them being hybrid. We’ve written on GigaOM Pro (subscription only) about the potential for a network like Zipcar to help introduce electric vehicles into the mass market, since, as Zipcar CEO and Chairman Scott Griffith told us recently, “Electric cars by nature have to be connected cars.” Likewise, Zipcar’s car-sharing service is connected to a communications network so the company can keep track of vehicle location, scheduling and performance.

So the rollout of a few plug-ins (five years after the company first deployed an all-electric Toyota Rav-4) seemed somewhat less than ambitious. And while it’s just the beginning of Zipcar’s plans for alt-fuel vehicles, don’t expect an all-electric fleet anytime soon: Griffith says we need more vehicle software and data (among other things) in order to get there.

According to Griffith, “We’ve been out talking to everyone who’s making EVs or says they’re going to make an electric car in the near future.” He sees Zipcar as “a terrific early platform” for electric vehicles, largely because of its users’ demographic and driving habits. Griffith noted that the average trip in a Zipcar is less than 25 miles and lasts about four hours, making as much as 95 percent of all Zipcar trips short enough for first-generation electric vehicles with limited range. There’s also the scheduling element: Zipcar users are accustomed to scheduling their driving time, and unless we have an ultra fast-charging battery (or ubiquitous battery swap stations, as Better Place envisions), charging time for electric cars will have to be scheduled into daily use.

At the same time, however, Griffith said, “We don’t want to put new barriers up at a time when car sharing is really moving into the mainstream,” and all-electric vehicles are still pretty foreign to most drivers. “That’s why we started with a converted Prius,” which can run on gasoline in addition to the electric battery.

Zipcar has more questions about electric vehicles beyond how subscribers will react to them. Griffith said that while the sticker price of upcoming plug-in models is generally known, Zipcar still needs to gather data about the costs of maintenance, infrastructure needs and, “the opportunity cost of having the car sit for charging” before it incorporates more of the technology into its fleet. After the company collects this data it can use it to competitively introduce electric vehicles intro its fleet. Ultimately, Griffith says, it’s also going to take a lot longer than people think for electric vehicles to enter the mainstream, and won’t happen for many more years. But you can bet that when electric vehicles go mainstream, Zipcar will be among the first to go electric.