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Uber’s plan to get more electric cars on the road

The ride-hailing giant will work with seven cities to increase EV adoption and add more charging stations

Finding places to plug in can create headaches for Uber’s EV drivers.
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While electrifiying the U.S.’s ride-hailing fleet could have a tremendous impact on reducing emissions, operating an electric vehicle on today’s streets is challenging for drivers. A new program at Uber wants to make it easier for its drivers to go electric—and get more EVs on the road.

“What we’ve learned from drivers is that they love not paying for gas and giving their riders a quiet, smooth, efficient, high-tech ride,” Adam Gromis, Uber’s global lead on sustainability and environmental impact, tells Curbed. “But any EV driver is trying to operate this technology in a world that’s not built for them.”

Uber’s EV drivers must contend with a lack of public charging facilities in the U.S., especially in busy downtown areas, which means locating and driving to places they can plug in. And if they don’t have access to a charge station at night, drivers must factor in long charging times when they could be picking up passengers, which could lead them to miss out on fares.

The new program, named the EV Champions Initiative, will provide assistance to Uber drivers who already use electric vehicles, says Gromis. In the process, Uber will also study how to improve EV adoption rates across the company by working with a group of advocacy and nonprofit partners. Switching to an EV can save drivers money, especially with gas prices on the rise.

“Electric vehicles are a win-win-win scenario for the transportation network company community, riders, and society broadly,” says Garrett Fitzgerald, manager at Rocky Mountain Institute’s Mobility Transformation practice, one of Uber’s partners for the initiative. “The opportunity to reduce pollution and spread awareness of electric vehicles while also increasing earning potential for ride-share drivers is very compelling.”

Gromis says “several thousand drivers” in seven cities are participating in the initiative, including Austin, Los Angeles, Montreal, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle. The goal is to provide and analyze five million EV rides over the next year. About four million Uber rides were taken in electric vehicles last year in the U.S. and Canada.

Starting today, riders will get a push notification alerting them when they’re matched with an EV driver. But passengers won’t be able to choose to ride in an electric vehicle—at least not yet. Currently, Uber offers the option for riders to choose an electric vehicle in some European cities (where it’s called Uber Green), but this is only offered in cities which already have the number of EVs and density of charging infrastructure to support the feature.

That could change, thanks to Uber’s program. Collaborating directly with cities on where to install new fast-charging infrastructure is one of the biggest goals for the program, says Gromis, which is why Uber is also working with public utilities like Portland General Electric. In London, Uber set up a dedicated charging network for its drivers.

In addition, Uber will also use its global platform to educate the general public about electric vehicles through the nonprofit Veloz, which is focused on increasing EV adoption worldwide. About 200,000 EVs were sold in the U.S. in 2017, which represents about 1 percent of total sales. Uber has recently helped drivers lease EVs through limited pilot programs.

The initiative will end up helping all EV owners and drivers, including Uber’s competitors, says Gromis.

This news is the latest in a string of announcements by Uber that portend a shift in the company’s ethos—away from rides in gas-powered cars and towards an electric, multimodal future. Uber’s purchase of the electric bike-share company Jump was followed by a relaunch of its app, which now includes not only bike-share information but also transit integration.

Electrifying Uber’s rides worldwide—an estimated four billion last year—would be particularly significant due to the company’s self-driving program. Research by UC Davis’s Institute of Transportation Studies, which is also partnered with Uber in the program, has shown that when most vehicles on the road are electric, shared, and autonomous, car ownership can be virtually eliminated, reducing overall transportation emissions by as much as 80 percent.

In April, Lyft announced a different strategy on its own path to electrification: purchasing carbon credits to offset the emissions of 50 million rides per month. Lyft also recently announced it would spend $100 million on service centers for drivers, which would include charging facilities for electric vehicles. Lyft estimates it has about 100,000 EVs on the road in the U.S.