Why Electric Car Sharing Died in San Diego

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Is there anything greener and more forward-thinking than an electric car sharing program in a big city? Officials in San Diego were certainly sold on the idea when Car2Go brought North America’s first network of shared EVs to town in 2011. However, the program will officially die in April, brought down by a lack of charging infrastructure and the limited range of the Smart Electric Drive cars it features.

The dearth of charging stations proved to be a thorn in the side of Car2Go and the local government officials who saw EV sharing as a key component in San Diego’s ambitious climate action program. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, only 400 of a proposed 1,000 stations made it online since the program’s start, leaving many of the 40,000 customers without enough juice to complete their trips.

About 20% of the 400-car fleet was unavailable at any given moment. (The service runs on-demand through a smartphone app 24 hours a day.) To fix the problem, Car2Go is replacing the Smart electric models with gas-powered versions of the same vehicle, representing a setback for the city’s clean energy initiative and a blow to the company’s business model. Beginning May 1, prices will drop from 41 cents a minute to 19 cents a minute.

Motivation for the switch is also tied to the entry of car-sharing rivals ZipCar and DriveNow, both of which are entering the San Diego market in the coming months, San Diego Union Tribune reports. Nonetheless, we cannot help but see the flaws in Daimler’s vehicle of choice, especially in its range quotient.

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At 68 miles of range (combined city and highway) on a full charge, the Smart ED is incapable of running multiple trips consecutively in a city like San Diego. We would like to see what a Nissan Leaf, capable of 84 miles in the S trim and 107 miles in SV trim, would perform in such a program.

Yet perhaps the most glaring limitation of a Smart ED is the lack of fast-charging capability. Going from zero battery to a full charge takes six hours, according to the manufacturer. In the best-case scenario, drivers can get from 20% battery to 80% in 3.5 hours. No wonder 80 cars in the Car2Go fleet were marooned at any given moment.

San Diego is not giving up the fight, even if Car2Go is for the time being. SDG&E, the city’s utility provider, is launching a pilot program that aims to get 3,500 charging stations up ad running in town by 2019. As ambitious as that sounds, it gets better: SDG&E is targeting 350 locations with multi-family dwellings and business parking lots as the priority in the installation.

We’ve often said electric vehicle adoption cannot spread without charging infrastructure in apartment buildings, and this giant step in that direction could be game-changing for a city that wants to go zero emissions in the coming decades. A few hundred Smart cars running on electricity pale in comparison. The program is little more than a minor casualty in a war that is only just beginning.

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