I recently joined the BMW car-sharing service DriveNow. It’s currently available in six cities: five in Germany and San Francisco. (The membership usually has a one-time application fee of $39, but it is just $19 through the end of October with promo code ELECTRIC10.)
I joined because I think electric cars are really exciting, and they’re different to drive than gas cars which is fun and novel. As a long-time Zipcar user, I’m familiar with and a fan of short-term car rental. Their ~$9/hour rates make Zipcar best suited to ~1-2 hour shopping trips around town. Since there is an officially-limited-time but apparently indefinite promo going on for DriveNow, it is $30 for 24 hours, which is a great deal. Plus, the cars of much nicer: fancy headlights, satelite radio, and heated seats are all standard. DriveNow trips can be one-way, and start at $12 for the first half hour. They have around six stations downtown and in SoMa, and another station in Palo Alto, at the San Francisco airport, and at the Oakland airport, so I could see taking one to the airport instead of smelly/slow BART or expensive cabs.
I had two friends having a birthday party a couple weeks ago: one during the day in Napa, and one at night in Palo Alto. I decided to rent a BMW in the morning, drive to Napa, leave it charging all day before driving to Palo Alto, let it charge for a couple hours, and then drive home. The range is around 100 miles, depending on driving style, which was conventing for translating percentage of battery left into miles.
Unfortunately, my experience was not quite as smooth.
The first thing I need to tell you is that the UX of both the site and the mobile app are abysmal. It was incredibly difficult to figure out how to just sign up, and what the details of the program were. It is a far cry from Zipcar in this respect. The app was clearly (aka poorly) mostly translated from German, and every step is slow, and confusing.
I quickly learned that you can’t reserve cars in advance. Basically, whenever you want to leave, you see which cars are available, book one, and go pick it up. (You can reserve the cars 15 minutes in advance.) BMW touts this as an advantage. There are some parts of this last-minute planning which I appreciate, but it seems like a bad idea to be in a position where you are depending on getting a car.
I booked a car and went to pick it up at a BMW station. There is an attendant there who can help you get to your car, since they’re often double and triple parked. There were about 6 BMW Active-E’s available in this funny garage down an alleyway in SoMa. We unlocked the car like one unlocks a Zipcar, by holding the membership card to a sensor on the windshield. The car unlocks, and there’s a small Android phone that has the details of your booking and is used as a command center in the car.
We drove over the new Bay Bridge. It took a bit for me to get used to how rapidly the car decelerated when I took my foot off the “gas”, but it was fun to figure out. We looked up a charging station on an excellent iPhone app I’d downloaded prior to our trip. There was one in a parking garage in Napa, which provided charging for a few hours for free!
Unfortunately, the cars take about 5 hours to fully charge, which is way too long. We left Napa, and planned on charging at a hotel I’d found with my app. Sadly, we couldn’t get the charger at the hotel to work. So we headed back to Napa, since we were running low on battery and had a reliable charger there. While our car hung out in the garage, we spent a couple more hours wandering downtown Napa and getting dinner. When the car was almost finished charging, we headed south (again) for Palo Alto. We made it as far as El Cerrito before the battery was around 10% and I got nervous. We stopped at the town hall to juice up for 45 minutes or so while we got a snack at a random sushi restaurant nearby.
With it getting late and our battery sad and quite low, we came up with a creative but slightly more expensive plan. We decided to swap cars at the nearby Oakland airport DriveNow station. We returned our car, ending our $30 reservation, and booked a (fully charged!) car there. Switching into our new, identical car, we continued onto Palo Alto, where we parked the car in a spot in a downtown Palo Alto public parking garage.
We drove up to San Francisco after the party, and parked in SF General Hospital’s garage, where they had five charging stations for electric cars! It fully charged staying there over night, and since I still had it the next day, I drove around and explored.
I feel like the different, specific pricing on BMW’s DriveNow program makes it really appropriate for some situations… but I can’t put my finger on what they would be. I think taking it on weekend trips far away isn’t appropriate because of the short range on the cars, but they’re so expensive that it doesn’t seem to make sense for short trips. Is there a situation in which you need a car for a long time but don’t need to drive a long way? Let me know if you have any ideas!