The web of players jockeying into place for the coming rollout of electric vehicles and charging infrastructure seems to expand by the day. The latest entry comes from the rental car sector: Europcar, the EU’s largest passenger and light-duty vehicle rental firm, plans to sign on with Renault next week to deploy not only a fleet of electric cars from the French automaker, but also charge points at its rental stations starting in 2011.
Renault and Europcar are hardly strangers — the rental firm started offering Renault Scenic LPGs more than a decade ago, and it’s now the automaker’s top short-term rental partner in Europe. But the deal announced today adds Europcar to the ranks of infrastructure startup Better Place and other partners that the Renault-Nissan Alliance has lined up as part of its effort to lead the global market for zero tailpipe-emission vehicles. The quest for world domination will start with Nissan’s upcoming LEAF electric sedan, the four plug-in models (pictured above in the teaser image released this morning) that Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn will unveil on Tuesday at the Frankfurt Motor Show — and a lot of fleet testing.
Europcar offers a natural fit for an early-stage EV network. The company already operates with an eye toward minimizing the environmental impact of its fleet and appealing to green-minded customers and companies subject to Europe’s emission regulations — Europcar provides online CO2 emissions data for corporate customers and gives individual drivers an option to purchase carbon offsets (through ClimateCare, part of J.P. Morgan’s Environmental Markets group) when they book a rental.
In the initial rollout of electric vehicles, we’re seeing a lot of companies trying to maintain more control over the new plug-ins than they would by selling them outright — with good reason: They still have a lot to learn about how the technology will perform with everyday, real-world driving and recharging, and how they can make it more practical for consumers. Plus, when it comes to financing these cars, automakers will need “a little bit of time to convince the banks” and agencies like Automotive Lease Guide that their electric models have strong long-term value and good technology, as Nissan’s Larry Dominique recently explained, and thus allow customers to secure more affordable lease contracts for cars that need to shave off every dollar they can if they’re going to compete on the mass market.
Part of Renault’s solution for these challenges — and the fact that charging infrastructure remains far from ubiquitous — is to focus on the fleet market. Earlier this year, the automaker announced that BNP subsidiary Arval had agreed to develop leasing plans specifically for electric cars in an effort to speed their adoption, and fleet giant ALD Automotive signed on to support the introduction of Renault’s electric cars into European corporate fleets from 2011 onward.
While startups lack the scale of the fleet and rental car firms coming into the Renault fold, these kinds of deals by no means exclude younger ventures. Europcar, after all, is a rental firm. It might not be looking for something like Better Place’s massive battery-swap-and-charge scheme, but similar to the way utility San Diego Gas & Electric — another Renault-Nissan Alliance partner — signed on Juice Technologies to develop a mobile charger for testing with its fleet of Nissan EVs, Europcar may soon be on the hunt for charging tech and hardware providers. Check out 10 electric car smart-charging players to watch here.