European EV rental startup UFODrive launches in San Francisco

UFODrive, an Europe-based electric vehicle rental company, landed in San Francisco on Thursday, marking the startup’s expansion into the U.S.

The startup, which gives users an easy and contact-free way of renting and subscribing to EVs, comes to California at a time when gas prices are still incredibly high at $5.56. While that number has dropped in recent weeks, it’s still cresting the national average. Combine that with an ongoing rental car shortage and a cultural zeitgeist that’s embracing all things electric, and UFODrive has got itself a potentially winning product-market fit.  

UFODrive’s U.S. launch follows the company’s rapid growth in 16 cities across Europe, including London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and Dublin since its founding in 2018. The startup is also planning separate launches for New York and Austin in October.

Other companies have cropped up around the world to provide a similar service. For example, Onto and imove provide  monthly EV subscriptions in the UK and Norway, respectively. Where UFODrive differs is it offers a combination of classic daily or weekly rentals and monthly subscriptions. That said, the San Francisco launch will initially offer pure rentals. 

Bookings can be made on UFODrive’s app, where each customer is guided through the entire process – registration, identity verification, locating the vehicle, damage check, contract signature and driving away, according to Adain McLean, UFODrive’s CEO.  

Customers in the Bay Area can visit one of two vehicle bays in downtown San Francisco on either side of Market Street where they can then use the app to be granted keyless access to their vehicle.

UFODrive worked with Inspiration, the EV asset financing firm that supplied New York-based Revel with its own set of Teslas for ride-hailing purposes, to get around 20 Tesla Model 3s and Model Ys on site for the launch. As the startup has done in Europe, UFODrive plans to lead with the dazzle of Tesla for the first locations and expand its range based on customer input and availability, according to McLean, who noted UFODrive is also looking forward to including Ford in that lineup. 

In Europe, the fleet is predominantly made up of Tesla Model 3, Model S and Model Y with Volkswagen ID3, ID4, Hyundai Kona EV, Cupra Born, Polestar, and others, said McLean. 

A software platform designed to minimize EV angst

a man holds up his phone to unlock a rented tesla via an app

Customers can unlock rented electric vehicles via the UFODrive app. Image Credit: UFODrive

“One of our biggest concerns when we started UFODrive was making people comfortable using an EV and minimizing or removing anxiety throughout the rental – not just at pick-up,” McLean told TechCrunch. “From Day 1, our platform was built to identify issues before they happen. The team is notified if a customer hasn’t completed any of the pick-up stages, fails to start the vehicle, is driving with a battery level below 30%, struggling to charge at a station, etc. In those cases, our team can proactively reach out to make sure the customer is ok if they haven’t already reached out to us. As a result we have never had a range or charging issue in over 20M kms driven.”

UFODrive’s platform is also built to guide drivers to the exit of the bay, route them to the nearest charger and walk them through how to charge their vehicle. If a customer is having an issue, they can use the app to reach out 24/7 to one of the startup’s customer service agents, who can remotely unlock or switch on a car, use cameras to check for unreported damage, do system updates, conduct identity checks and add drivers, McLean said. 

It’s this software platform that UFODrive is also hoping to sell as a SaaS product on the side, particularly to legacy rental companies to help them transition their renting models to EVs. In fact, car rental giant Hertz and travel-focused investment firm Certares led UFODrive’s Series A in March, signaling the potential for larger partnerships in this space. Hertz seems particularly keen on making the switch to EVs — in October 2021, the company said it was investing in a fleet of Teslas and committed to offering the largest EV rental fleet in North America.

How does the price compare?

UFODrive hasn’t posted its rates for San Francisco yet, but in Amsterdam, for example, renting a Tesla from the startup for the weekend could average out around $200, depending on the model. A quick search on Kayak, an aggregator for flights, hotels and car rentals, shows a similar price point for internal combustion engine vehicles, and that doesn’t include the cost of gas or extra drivers. 

UFODrive’s rental prices include things like additional drivers, most tolls and free charging, according to McLean. 

“No energy cost whatsoever for the rental whatever your mileage or distance,” he said. “It was a good deal before, but with current gas prices and price gouging by legacy rental businesses, it’s really good.”

McLean also pointed to UFODrive’s loyalty reward program, which can help bring the costs of rentals down.

“In order to achieve our goal of transitioning people to sustainable rental, we have to be competitive, but the EV model is inherently more efficient so we can be competitive and profitable,” said McLean.

While UFODrive is starting with a consumer push, the company does envision itself in the long-term being a solution for delivery drivers and last-mile transportation, as well, according to a company spokesperson.

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