Uber and Lyft look toward electric vehicles

By Brian Lutenegger

Uber is testing new actions to help its drivers who use electric vehicles. The company says it wants to increase the number of electric vehicle trips it provides each year, as well as the charging infrastructure required to do this. Lyft is also looking to increase electric vehicle trips and already spends millions to purchase carbon offsets for every trip. What is the real incentive for Uber and Lyft behind these policies?

On June 19th, Uber announced a yearlong pilot, dubbed the EV Champions Initiative for its drivers who use electric vehicles (EVs) in eight U.S. and Canadian cities. In these cities, their app will now notify these drivers if a trip is expected to take at least 30 minutes (instead of the usual 45 minutes for other drivers). In four of those cities, EV drivers will also receive a small per-trip financial incentive. In Sacramento, $1.25 of the $1.50 incentive comes from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

Uber says the new features are intended, in part, to help drivers who worry about running out of charge since EV drivers often need to spend time looking for limited electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Uber is keenly aware of the limitations of existing electric vehicle charging infrastructure; fast-charging stations are more limited close to downtowns and near airports, both of which are frequent Uber trip destinations. This is likely to be a focus area for the company in the near future.

Their goal is to increase EV trips in the eight cities from 2 million this year to 5 million next year—even without recruiting more EV drivers.  It will also include education on tax incentives and additional resources for EV drivers. Passengers who are matched with an EV will also be notified via the app that the trip is being made in an EV. However, passengers will not yet be able to specifically request such a trip, a program that is currently available in Europe.

The question remains, “What is in it for Uber?” Curbed writer Alissa Walker thinks it is another step in Uber’s overall vision of a society in which most vehicles are electric, shared, and autonomous. Fulfillment of this vision would essentially eliminate private car ownership, making a service such as Uber even more central to urban life than it has already become. Since Uber is already testing self-driving vehicles, an effort to increase the number of trips taken in electric vehicles is another logical step.

It is also possible that part of this effort is a public relations effort to gain public support after a year of challenges at the company, including a self-driving vehicle that killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona earlier this year while the human “driver” was distracted.

Lyft, on the other hand, is aiming to provide 1 billion rides per year in self-driving electric vehicles by 2025. It is also spending millions on carbon offsets for each ride. Lyft also shares Uber’s vision of an electric, autonomous future of shared rides, as they explained in a June 2017 blog post. But the companies don’t agree on all strategies. Lyft opposes a California bill that would require all ride-hailing vehicles to be zero emission by 2028, while Uber is neutral.

Uber and Lyft are using different strategies toward an important goal of a future with shared rides in autonomous electric vehicles. Each has the potential to make a significant impact in the market and change the way we move around.

Brian Lutenegger is a Program Associate at Smart Growth America.