The Estonian summer is here in all its glory and variety (ahem). It’s the perfect time to rent a car and see what’s outside the city borders! But have you ever considered you could try out an electric car as well? I know I did, and I did it! Right here in Tartu!
In 2013, Estonia officially became the first country in the world to deploy a nationwide network of electric car charging stations. This triumph was one of the results of the government’s 2011 deal with Mitsubishi to kick-start an electrical mobility programme in Estonia. Besides providing grants for Estonians to purchase an electric car cheaply in 2011–2014, the ELMO Electromobility Programme also devised several renting points for electric cars in Tartu and Tallinn.
The future is now, finally
I want to tell you a little secret: I wish the first car I will purchase for myself is an electric car. Coming from Northern Finland where distances are very long and electric cars are still practically unheard of, it seems like a pipe dream. But here in Estonia, I feel hopeful.
I remember being fascinated by electric cars since I was very little. Perhaps it was because of Back to the Future Part II: while I didn’t realistically expect us to have flying, nuclear fusion powered cars, I did think that by 2015 we would already move beyond non-renewable energy sources in transportation, because really: the technology was already there. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were planning to make American car industry electrical as early as the 1910s (!), but unfortunately, history didn’t allow it. As I grew up, it started to dawn on me that most people are much more pessimistic about the abilities of electric motors, especially in the cold, harsh North.
So imagine my pleasant surprise already in 2013 when visiting Tartu I saw a Mitsubishi i-MiEV silently strolling down the road to Toomehill! As soon as I started my studies in Tartu, I knew I’d have to try out an electric car in this country. In this blog post I want to share with you my experience behind the wheel of an all-electric vehicle, and how you too can get in on that.
Our test drive with AHHAA
At the moment there are two options for people interested in trying out an electric car in Tartu. One is provided by the Estonian Electromobility Programme ELMO and the other is offered by Science Centre AHHAA. Inside its Hall of Technology you can also find a permanent (until the end of 2017) exhibition and a demo center for electric cars where you can study the differences of electric and combustion engines. If you simply want a test drive in an electric car, I heartily recommend contacting AHHAA’s booking service, as they can reserve a car for you to take on a 30-minute test drive (provided, of course, that you present them with a copy of your driver’s license). In fact, that’s exactly what we did!
AHHAA Center’s Kai Kaljumäe generously accompanied myself and fellow Ambassador Nguyen Thai on our test drive through sunny Tartu.
“We’ve had this test drive option available since 2013 when the exhibit first opened in AHHAA. Generally it’s more popular with locals, because you need to make a reservation beforehand”, Kai pointed out during our trip. “In Estonia two of the main groups buying electric cars are private enthusiasts and government workers. Electric taxis are very popular too due to their cheap fares. I think electric car rentals are becoming more flexible all the time, I heard there’s even a new business in Tallinn renting Tesla cars”, Kai mentioned.
I still recall the excited buzz (pun intended) I felt the first time I started the Mitsubishi i-MiEV’s engine and shifted to “Drive”. Did the engine even turn on? It makes no noise whatsoever! The slight hum of the 47kW permanent-magnet motor is only evident in speeds over 50km/h. And the acceleration is smooth as flowing water. I am not a petrol head, as it is clearly already evident from the topic of this text, and I have always felt driving a car more of a chore than a pleasure activity, but – gosh – I really would like to take a Tesla Model S on a racing track by now.
When 30 minutes is not enough
After trying out the electric car I’m sure you want to take it on a longer trip. Even though the electric cars of today are still primarily designed for in-city driving, Estonia’s ELMO charging network and rental points make countryside travel a viable option!
Here are the things you need to drive an ELMO rental car during your studies:
1) a driver’s license valid in the European Union;
2) an Estonian ID-card;
3) an Estonian mobile phone (pre-paid is sufficient); and
4) a bank account.
If you lack any of these but still want to get in one, I suggest you find an Estonian friend with a driver’s license. If you have the first but lack the rest, you might want to check out Minirent, a private company that rents electric and hybrid cars in Tartu and Tallinn. ELMO rentals require you using their mobile services (at rent.elmo.ee) so you must first register with your Estonian ID and then activate the service with your Estonian mobile.
Here’s how it works: Tartu has two rental points (Tallinn has more), one opposite the railroad station and another one behind the Science Center AHHAA near the bus station. Whichever rental point you prefer, you can check out on ELMO’s web page the real time availability of these cars. After registering to the site you can choose a free car and rent it, thus giving you 30 minutes time to get to the car and open the doors by calling the (automatic) service phone number. Don’t forget to detach the car from the charging station before going!
ELMO has two electric car models available: Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Nissan Leaf, two of the most popular electric cars in Estonia. As the i-MiEV is slightly smaller and less powerful, it is slightly cheaper to rent compared to the Leaf. The nice thing is that since you don’t have to pay for electricity (every ELMO rental has an unlimited charging permit), both cars end up being highly competitive with traditional combustion engine car rentals! Although truth should be told in all fairness: the driving range of these 2012 vehicles is still fairly limited. Another limitation that has to be pointed out is that ELMO Rent doesn’t allow you to reserve a car beforehand: you can only rent a car that happens to be free at the moment.
The road goes on
The quick charging station network in Estonia covers 167 chargers, most of them in towns (29 in Tallinn and 10 in Tartu), but there are still enough charging stations by the roadsides to cover all major roads with a distance of 40–60 km in-between. Officially both cars promise to have over 100 km driving range with a full battery, but in reality the driver has to take into account that all electric systems in the car use the battery and these estimates are given in “optimal conditions”.
In reality, driving on the highway in snow, rain or other non-optimal conditions takes considerably more power. Therefore I wouldn’t recommend taking an electric car on a long road trip through Estonia, although – just to prove a point – I did actually drive to Pärnu from Tartu and back with an i-MiEV. Charging an almost empty battery takes 20-40 minutes in my experience, so you have to account for at least an hour more for every 100 kilometers you’re driving on the highway, compared to a normal petrol car.
This leaves us a bit limited list of our destinations for a day trip, but here are some exciting suggestions:
Viljandi, the heart of Estonian folk heritage, is two charging stations away from Tartu. The town itself has 4 charging stations, one right in front of the Tourist center. Did I mention parking at the charging stations is free for ELMO rentals?
Alatskivi, a town just 40km from Tartu by the shore of Lake Peipus boasts a Landscape Conservation Area, a castle and of course a quick charging station.
Otepää, the Winter capital of Estonia, 40 to 50 km from Tartu depending on whether you go through Kambja or Elva, both of which have a charging station.
Laeva. This small town has a charging station by the Tallinn highway, incidentally just next to the ”Hollywood hill”, infamous among alternative tourism sites of Estonia. I did my first i-MiEV test drive to Laeva.
In conclusion, I feel the electric car and the charging network are still not perfect, for example because planning a trip to Tallinn or Pärnu with an electric car can be tricky and time consuming. Still, e-Estonia has made a massive effort in bringing the world to the 21st century with a functioning, nationwide electric vehicle network and I recommend everybody to check it out. I trust that in a few years the performance of electric cars is going to grow tremendously and maybe – just maybe – it’s not only Tartu where I can take my electric car out for a joy ride.