A new electric car rental service has come to the capital, allowing Londoners to hire environmentally-friendly vehicles at the touch of a button.
Whether you want to get out of the city or drive through it in style, the UFOdrive app allows you to book a Tesla Model 3 or Model S with the tap of an app, 24 hours a day, avoiding long queues and salespeople trying to upgrade you with extras.
Simply book a car and pick it up from either Oxford Street or Park Lane with two more locations being added in Canary Wharf and Westfield White City.
Although I love driving — from off-road jeeping to cruising through the countryside — the nearest I had come to a Tesla was playing Roblox with my son during lockdown.
Earning some serious mummy points, along with some curious looks on the streets of east London, I took one for a spin to see if electric car hire was all it was buzzed up to be.
Once you have downloaded the UFO app on your phone, you can see which cars are available and tap the one you want to hire.
You will then be asked to take a picture of your driving license and provide your national insurance number and credit or debit card details.
Once this is all completed you will be directed to a car and you unlock it with your mobile. It is important to have a fully charged phone and possibly a power bank for good measure as you will not be given a key — everything is conducted through your smartphone.
Due to Covid-19, the team kindly brought a Tesla to my house (which is not part of the normal service) but I still had to go through the app’s processes to get certified and open up the car.
Perhaps because it was an unusual handover the app did take a little bit longer to respond and validate from my location, but IT were on hand, over the phone to quickly sort it out. It also helps that Tesla vehicles are incredibly tech-savvy.
“Essentially the Tesla is a giant computer on wheels” explains UFO’s country manager, Jonathan Shine.
“You control everything from your phone and once you get in, you control everything from the tablet at the front.”
The car is effortlessly sleek on the outside, with an aerodynamic body and a wide bonnet which in lieu of a traditional engine can be used for additional storage.
But once you get in you are engulfed in luxury with plush seats and all the glossy trimmings you would expect to find in a high-end car worth £50,000.
What was noticeably missing, however, is a dashboard with the speedometer and other displays.
Instead, you are given a large tablet in the middle of the car which controls pretty much everything including lights, music, and the sound your indicators make when turning (including a farting noise if the mood so takes you).
Driving with a seven-year-old, we did try this one out but if you were hiring the car for a romantic date you could easily set the screen to display a log burning fire, or mix it up with in-car karaoke if you were on a long road trip with friends.
At 5ft9, it was definitely a plus to find there was plenty of legroom in the car and the width of the windscreen made me feel like I had an unparalleled view of the road.
My passengers enjoyed the glass roof (maybe a little too much judging by the multiple WhatsApp videos they later sent me of the sky above) but with less barriers to looking out of the car, it became a more immersive experience for everyone involved.
My son thought I was the best driver in the world until I took the wheel of this car. Always proudly team manual, the switch to an automatic was disconcerting at first. I found it really hard to not do anything with my left foot, which was just aimlessly tapping the side panel as I shifted from what should have been gear two to three.
“All electric cars are automatic…. If anything it should be easier, ” says Shine.
But as I emergency braked the car going at 15mph during a test ride, Shine asked me to get out and gave me a demo.
Once he showed me where to rest my left foot out the way, while my right busied itself with the speed pedal everything clicked into place and a few minutes in I was whipping around like I was back in my own model and felt ready to tackle the main roads.
Those used to automatic won’t have this adjustment period and will probably be far more preoccupied with soaking up the car’s smooth glide across the tarmac, its whisper-quiet engine and its almighty acceleration rate which gracefully propels you down the road with barely a press of the pedal. It was such a joy to drive, and I can see why people would hire this car for an experience just as much as an environmentally-friendly way to travel from A to B.
Shine says people hire the car for lots of different reasons. “Some are local residents who don’t own a car but need one for leisure or work, or people who want to experience real-life with an electric car before acquiring one.
“There are also business personnel who need to travel and want a zero-emission, affordable option — our prices are frequently much lower than taking the train, especially with multiple passengers.”
Around 20 minutes in, I thought all new cars should have a tablet rather than a dash.
It seemed to make a lot more sense to have everything you need in on one interactive screen. The only thing that did feel a bit more cumbersome was having to fiddle with the tablet to turn the lights on, rather than flick a switch. Although you can set them to come on automatically when the light fades.
Overall it was a pleasant ride, so much so that I clocked up 124 miles driving through Essex and London without much effort. However this car is not for those wanting a low profile, and lots of other drivers and pedestrians did a double-take at the car which could come as a positive or a negative depending on the nature of your business.
Depending on which model you chose, a Tesla car can travel up to around 230 miles on a full charge. This varies depending on other factors such as how you use air-con and other features in the car.
At supercharger locations, you can charge about 170 miles in 30 minutes of plug time.
When you are running low, the car will direct you to the nearest working change point to make sure you are not caught short.
The Tesla boasts rear, side and forward-facing cameras providing 360-degree coverage as well as 160-metre forward-facing radar, giving a long-range view of distant objects. On top of this, it is has 12 ultrasonic sensors which detect nearby cars, prevents potential collision and also helps with parking.
The sensors were so precise that as I was travelling down the A12 it picked out weaving motorbikes before they came into my wing mirrors, differentiated between vans and cars and even detected wheelie bins and cones on the side of the road. When we pulled to a pedestrian crossing it even showed the different heights of the people and made out that one of them was carrying a bike which was pretty impressive.
In terms of speed it can accelerate from 0-60 mph in as little as 3.2 seconds and in terms of safety, despite the glass roof, it can resist four times its own weight in a crash.
As hire cars go, using UFO’s service it is a little more expensive than booking a non-electric car, but you do have to consider in that you will not be paying for fuel and can charge the car for free at one of the thousands of charging points across the UK.
There are different prices depending on what model Tesla you pick, ranging from £89 per day to £180. There are also lower prices if you join UFODrive members’ club.
Shine adds: “We do have deals for longer rentals but they are negotiated on a case by case bases depending on how long and busy we are.”
Your insurance is covered in the price, however, if you do have an accident you will be liable for the first £1,000 excess.
Making electric cars more accessible
UFODrive allows customers to hire cars in 15 other locations around the world, though Shine says the company hopes to grow the number of its London fleet, as well as hubs around the city. However, this has been slightly delayed by coronavirus.
“We are extremely busy, our customer base is growing fast with lots of repeat customers so we need to grow our fleet,” he says.
“Both Westfield and Canary Wharf gives us a good spread across the city to the east and west and both locations have significant business and residential presence whom we will serve.”
In particular, customers are fans of the ability to book cars 24/7 and the value for money, he says. “We include free fuel and free parking at base as well as both the green value and the pleasure of driving electric and driving a Tesla”.
As well as Tesla cars, expect to see other electric vehicles to hire on the list.
We can see why this service would appeal to lots of people. While some will enjoy hiring a luxurious car for a special event, others will appreciate its environmental credentials and zero emissions.
In a world hit by Covid-19, the contactless set up may appeal to many and at the end of every booking, the cars are thoroughly cleaned (including all surfaces, knobs and door handles) with a unique waterless and eco-friendly system.
The two operational depots are in the west of London at the moment, which might not be convenient for people in other locations, but as it expands, this will be less of a problem.
The car is beautiful and you are paying for the experience, but depending on the miles you plan on doing, you can take off the cost of fuel from the price which may lessen the blow.
One of the downsides of hiring a car through UFO is that I don’t know how I am going to go back to driving a fiesta, even if it is a manual.