Why are Uber and competitors trying out electrified vehicles?

Uber driver promo site

Uber just made an announcement that it’s bringing in more than 50 electric cars (with the first 20 being Nissan Leafs) to its fleet in London as a test project. It’s being carried out to examine the feasibility of running large numbers of electric private hire vehicles in the UK, according to Energy Savings Trust, which is conducting the study.

The ride-hailing company says that 60% of Uber trips in London are being made in hybrids. Uber says it is bringing in electric cars to tackle air pollution in London, a city that has been working on reducing its traffic congestion and smog.

Hybrids and electric cars have been visible for Uber in other applications for years. If you look at the Uber Partner website, you’ll see a young woman driver leaning up against her Toyota Prius (see above).

There are other examples of Uber and competitors bringing in electrified vehicles into ridesharing and autonomous vehicle testing projects, such as:

  • The partnership announced in August between Uber and Volvo will be carried out in 100 Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrids by the end of the year. Uber will outfit the cars with autonomous driving technology it has developed in house. These will be tested as part of Uber’s autonomous vehicle testing project in Pittsburgh.
  • General Motors and Lyft will begin testing a fleet of self-driving Chevy Bolt electric taxis on public roads by next May. Customers will have the opportunity to opt in or out of the pilot when hailing a Lyft car from the company’s mobile app, according to Lyft.
  • In May, Google agreed to buy 100 Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid minivans from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to expand its self-driving vehicle testing program. As for now these vehicles won’t be offered for sale to the public; Google will work with FCA directly on testing the vehicles.

Why are ridesharing companies using hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and all-electric vehicles for testing? Here are a few motivating factors to consider:

  • Testing the economics: These cars are owned by drivers, who need to see financial gains from driving for Uber and Lyft. Hybrids and plug-ins means spending less on fuel. These cars, especially all electric, tend to need very little in maintenance and repair compared to gasoline engine cars; and less than hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Drivers would be concerned that the all-electric vehicle’s range will need to be longer than 200 miles, as they’ll easily put that many miles on the car driving on a Friday or Saturday night. Hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and fuel-efficient small gasoline-engine cars would make more sense for now.
  • Range is getting better: All-electric cars have been getting better in the past couple of years, which would make the BMW i3, Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus Electric, and other models, more appealing. For some drivers taking short city trips for two-to-four hour increments, it’s not just about waiting for the 200-300 miles per charge cars to roll out in the next couple of years. Plug-in hybrids are doing better, too, with more miles coming through the battery in the revamped Chevy Volt and other models. Hybrids themselves can do pretty well, especially the Prius. Mine can go about 475 miles on a tank of gas and get about 48 mpg.
  • Sustainability concerns: Lots of consumers using Uber and Lyft, and car shoppers, are looking for clean cars that run on zero emissions, or near zero. It might be even more important than saving money on transportation. I’ve had a few riders tell me they love Uber and Lyft because they’ll be taking cars off roads as more rides are shared; and if you ride in a hybrid or plug-in, that’s less that you’re emitting in greenhouse gases and air pollution. It could be a good marketing angle for Uber and Lyft. Environmentally conscious riders would likely pay a little more for a ride in a green car than a gasoline-powered car.
  • Trying out the new technology: Interested in buying/leasing a Tesla Model S, Nissan Leaf, BMW i3, Toyota Prius Prime, or Chevy Volt? You can try renting one at Enterprise or elsewhere, but there aren’t many of these vehicles available. Taking an Uber or Lyft ride allows you to take a trip and ask the driver a lot of questions on what’s it’s like to own the car. The drivers will share their experiences with hybrid and electric cars – straightforward conversation is part of the experience drivers and riders enjoy from Uber and Lyft. If that driver has owned one of these cars for a couple of years, questions will be asked. Several riders have asked me to explain how the Prius dashboard works, what I think of the car, and what kind of mileage it gets. Is it worth owning, they wonder.
  • Ties in well with self-driving cars: Autonomous vehicles are ideal for charging the electric vehicles most efficiently, such as during off-peak hours, said Tim Lipman, Co-Director at the Transportation Sustainability Research Center, UC Berkeley, during a speaker panel last year. Electric vehicles are easier to control and maintain than traditional internal combustion engine vehicles. Electric autonomous vehicles would be ideal for meeting energy efficiency and environmental targets in a fleet, he said. I would say that the future of city transportation will be shaped by electrified, autonomous vehicles tied into mobility services like Uber and Lyft. Ridesharing, carpooling, carsharing…… lots of sharing and less car ownership.
  • Google Vs. Uber: As covered in the top 10 news stories for this week, since May, Google has been testing out a carpool service in San Francisco using the Waze navigation mobile app. Google plans to roll out a carpooling service that will compete directly with Uber and Lyft. While Google has invested $258 million in Uber, there’s been a visible split between the two companies lately; for one thing, they’re both investing in playing a leading role in self-driving vehicles. My book Tales of UberMan is a bit dated on that issue, especially in the chapter called, Will Google and Uber launch a driverless ridesharing company called gUber?” They did seem to have an alliance, but that’s changed in recent months. Both of these companies see the future of mobility tied into electrified and self-driving vehicles. They’re not alone. “The two most profound innovations in automotive since the moving production line are electrification and autonomy,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said earlier this year to Automotive News.

Electrified transportation is explored in my book Tales of UberMan: An auto journalist shares his Prius with savvy riders.