Electric rental cars in the Alps
Alpmobil is keeping it green in the Swiss mountains, renting electric cars to tourists. Nicholas Holmes reports
Sunday 18 September 2011
The oncoming driver slowed his expensive looking convertible, eyed both my car and the narrow Alpine road ahead, andgrinned: "I'm sorry, you'll have to wait here for a bit, there are another 40 of these behind me."
It was an unfortunate start, just 15 minutes into my first experience of electric motoring. I was awkwardly positioned at the edge of a high cliff road in Switzerland, waiting for a huge convoy of classic cars to roar past, and almost all of them smiled at my toy-like wheels. As the final engine of the brigade finally spluttered away around the tight rock corner behind me, I put my foot down and pulled off with nothing more than a gentle whine. What my car lacked in style, it more than made up for with inconspicuousness.
I was on the side of the mountain courtesy of a Swiss initiative called Alpmobil, which allows tourists to rent electric vehicles to explore the mountain range that bisects the country. There are battery-powered cars, like my Think City, charged and waiting at hire points in cantons from Bern to Ticino during summer and early autumn, available to rent from Sfr70 (£50) a day and capable of travelling around 80 emission-free miles on one charge.
Conventional wisdom suggests that electric cars are for urban areas, where the majority of journeys are short trips and charging infrastructure is plentiful. Alpmobil is challenging this perception, as project director Dionys Hallenbarter later tells me, by clocking up more than 150,000 miles in Alpine journeys undertaken in just two summers of the scheme.
"In my view, electromobility is better suited to mountain areas than cities," he says. "In cities, particularly in Switzerland, there is an efficient public transport system. Here in the Alps, that's not the case. So, Alpmobil makes more sense for the environmentally conscious tourists who want to be independent at their destination."
It doesn't take long to get used to tackling steep mountain roads in an electric car – if anything, the lack of gears actually makes it easier. Within minutes of leaving the charging station in the medieval city of Thun (18 miles from Bern), I was in open countryside, comfortably guiding my little Alpmobil along winding hillside roads, past dark-wood Alpine houses and unsuspecting cows, continuing my hushed ascent of the northern hills that flank Lake Thun without a drop of fuel.
Following a near-deserted route suggested by the programme's website, I pootled higher and higher, stopping intermittently at well-worn panorama spots to view the cloud-flecked green hillsides that rose from the other side of the valley. With its countless villages, guesthouses and trails, the Alps is ideal for exploring in this way outside the main ski season – part of the reason Thun and the surrounding region is so popular with hikers and cyclists. At almost every bend there is a fork in the road, marked with a cluster of comprehensive yellow signs that seem designed for the hardiest of hikers; 1 hour 50 mins here, 2 hours 40 minutes there.
My destination was Beatenberg, a sparse mountainside collection of summer-houses and hotels perched high above Lake Thun, which serves as a base camp for those intending to continue the ascent of Niederhorn, the most accessible peak on this side of the lake. At 1,110 metres, Beatenberg already offers an impressive vantage point for the lake at the foot of the valley, the tiny houses on the hills behind, and the heavy outline of the Bernese Alps in the distance, Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, snow-capped even at the height of summer.
I parked and resolved to stretch my legs by getting to Vorsass, the next cable-car stop on the way up. Following the signs, I picked my way along rock tracks, stopping regularly to catch my breath, glug from water fountains, and turn and stare down at the shrinking Lake Thun. In winter, many of these trails are virtually impassable; in summer and early autumn, they're transformed into a playground for nature-lovers, overrun with bold mountain goats and blooming with edelweiss. Up here, the rationale behind quiet, clean vehicles is as clear as the air itself.
Fifty minutes later, high above the red canopies of the summer-houses, a patch of thick woodland gave way to lush Alpine meadows, speckled with ramshackle wooden huts. Above, I could see the suspended cables leading up to where the gondolas dropped down to Vorsass, rising again seconds later to continue their journey to the 1,950m peak of Niederhorn. I squelched across the meadow and on to the one road that serves this hamlet, only to jump off it again as a group whizzed past on hired bicycle/scooter hybrids that I later learned are called Trotti Bikes – apparently I wasn't the only one experimenting with alternative transportation.
After a plate of potatoes and sausages from Bärgrestaurant Vorsass, I had refuelled enough to clamber back to Beatenberg, where the suggested Alpmobil route continues down to Interlaken and the coastal road that leads back to Thun. During the slow descent, a green needle on the dash sprang to life, showing that the car was using energy generated from braking and freewheeling down the mountain to charge its own batteries. There could hardly be a better illustration of how perfectly this scheme works with its environment.
It may be some time before electric vehicles make the petrol cars we drive today look like classics. But in the Alps, where a natural, gentle stillness pervades, they've already found themselves a home.
How to get there
Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com) offers return flights from London to Basel from £90. Alpmobil (00 41 27 971 27 74; alpmobil.ch) has 60 cars throughout the Alps, with rental from Sfr70 (around £50) a day between July and September.
Thurnersee Tourism (0041 842 842 111; thunersee.ch).
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