Electric Road Trip

How BlueIndy, an EV-sharing pioneer, left me frowning

INDIANAPOLIS — On past trips to Indianapolis, I've wanted to try BlueIndy, the homegrown electric vehicle-sharing service. So when I arrived at the Indianapolis airport yesterday to meet my colleague Joel Kirkland to begin the Midwest leg of the Electric Road Trip, it was the perfect chance.

BlueIndy is one of the nation's earliest and largest EV-sharing programs, formed by a partnership between the city, Indianapolis Power & Light Co. and the Bolloré Group of France. The idea was pushed by former Mayor Greg Ballard, who had also sought to electrify Indianapolis' entire passenger vehicle fleet by 2025.

Ballard, who left office in 2016, is a former Marine, and his interest in EVs is rooted in helping wean the U.S. off imported oil (Energywire, June 17).

The subscription-based BlueIndy service claims to have nearly 200 stations across Indianapolis shared by its battery-powered EVs capable of up to 150 miles per charge. For me, a visitor wanting a ride across town, it was likely lower-emissions than taking a taxi or ride-hailing service like Uber or Lyft.

But would the ride compare? How about the value? And with BlueIndy being the first electric ride for many in Indiana, is it leaving a good impression?

Spoiler: The experience left me disappointed. In terms of pricing, it was about on par with Uber.

To speed up the process, I had downloaded the BlueIndy app a day earlier and signed up for a free one-day membership. Three cars were available on the top deck of the airport parking garage when I arrived. But my preparation didn't suffice — I also needed a membership card to access them.

I trekked back to the third floor of the garage and found a kiosk.

I punched a button, and on the video screen appeared a BlueIndy employee, who may have been beamed over from France; he had a French accent and an impressive mustache. He was helpful and walked me through the process of how to access the car and what I needed to do when I parked at my destination.

The car I was assigned was an electric Bolloré, French and shaped like a wedge of cheese. I knew it would be tiny and no frills. For a half-hour drive, I could endure. It could easily fit my small suitcase, backpack and computer bag, it had air conditioning, and I could listen to NPR. There was also a USB port to keep my phone charged.

A screen on the center console welcomed me by name when I started the car, and it played an instructional video to get me familiar with the basic operation. On the downside, it was generally dirty inside. The left front fender was crumpled from a wreck.

To be sure, I knew these commuter cars weren't going to be exotic, just supposedly a simple, inexpensive and emissions-free way to get across town. But so far it fell below the expectations of your standard Lyft.

Between the road noise and shaky handling, 55 mph on the interstate was the limit. I sweated as the air conditioner struggled to keep up with an 80-degree afternoon. And the on-screen GPS navigation to guide me to my reserved parking spot didn't work, so I pulled off twice at gas stations (irony) to consult Google Maps. That damaged left fender also caused a metal scraping sound when I made sharp turns.

For all of its shortcomings, I did make it to my destination in 49 minutes. I plugged it in and got confirmation by text that my ride was complete. The cost: $22.93 — about what it would have cost me to ride Uber the same distance.

It was just one ride, and maybe I was just assigned the wrong car, but the experience paled compared with the comfort and simplicity of Uber or even a taxi. I wondered how many Hoosiers have been inside a BlueIndy car and concluded that's what electric transportation is all about.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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