Electrifying Ride-hailing: Part 1 – Six Reasons Why Uber and Lyft Must Go Electric

January 17, 2020 | 9:49 am
Female passenger gets into UberUber Newsroom
Don Anair
Deputy Director & Research Director, Clean Transportation

Use of ride-hailing, like Uber and Lyft, has exploded since it was first introduced a decade ago, and continues to grow. These services are becoming a significant percentage of miles driven in some urban cores, raising concerns about congestion impacts, rising climate emissions, and impacts on transit systems. Addressing these challenges will be critical to ensuring that ride-hailing contributes to a more sustainable, equitable, and low-carbon transportation system that is so critically needed. In this blog series, I will tackle just one these challenges – pollution from ride-hailing – and focus on one critical strategy for getting ride-hailing on a lower carbon path – electrified rides.

This blog makes the case for electrification and why it is critical for Uber and Lyft to lead, rather than lag on transportation electrification. In a follow on post, I will look more closely at how Uber and Lyft can rapidly electrify rides now and over the next decade. Understanding the necessity, opportunities, and challenges of ride-hailing electrification is particularly important right now as California embarks on developing the first in the nation pollution standards for ride-hailing companies, and other states and cities look for solutions to tackle pollution from transportation.

Here are 6 Reasons Ride-Hailing Needs to Go Electric:

1. Ride-hailing trips are more polluting than regular car trips

Recently released data by California regulators indicates the average ride-hailing trip, per passenger mile, is 50 percent more polluting than the average car trip. Yes – you read that right. 50 percent worse.

The California data, based on reported rides for 2018, shows ride-hailing vehicles are on average about 20 percent more efficient than the average passenger vehicle. And I know Prius’s are a popular ride-hailing vehicle in California. Just the other day I spotted a Prius with the license plate “NO LYFT”. I laughed out loud. I wonder how many times someone tried to get into that person’s car looking for a ride before the new license plate?

Offsetting the fact that ride-hailing vehicles are more efficient is that the fact that ride-hailing vehicles travel A LOT of miles between rides. The California data reveals that nearly 40 percent of the total miles driven by ride-hailing vehicles is deadheading – miles driven with no passengers. This is not unique to California. Data released by Fehr & Peers last year examining ride-hailing in 6 cities across the country shows similar amounts of deadheading across all cities.

Included in California’s assessment are pooled rides – rides that are shared between different passengers traveling in similar directions. About 22 percent of ride-hailing trip miles in California are for requested pooled rides – kudos to all you car-poolers out there. Though not all of these ride-requests are matched with another traveler, when they are matched, they help reduce the emissions per trip.

Despite pooled rides and more efficient vehicles, the added miles from deadheading means that ride-hailing trips are higher polluting per passenger than average passenger car travel. While this analysis is based on California data, the same general trend is likely to hold true in other locations.

California regulators recently assessed emissions from ride-hailing, finding that carbon intensity of ride-hailing trips per passenger is 50 percent higher than average California passenger vehicle trips. Source: SB1014 Clean Miles Standard 2018 Base-year Emissions Inventory Report

2. It’s worse than that: ride-hailing trips displace lower-polluting alternatives than private cars

Yes, a 50 percent increase in pollution is pretty bad. But the truth is, it’s even worse. The 50 percent increase assumes the ride-hailing trip is replacing another car trip. But in reality, ride-hailing trips replace all kinds of different trips.

Several researchers have led surveys across several different cities to find out what type of transportation modes people would have taken if they didn’t ride in an Uber or Lyft. Results from the study below showthat many ride-hailing trips are displacing lower emission or zero emission trip options that passengers would have taken, like walking or biking. In some cases, respondents said they would have skipped the trip altogether if it wasn’t for the availability of a ride-hailing option.

Bottom line is that ride-hailing trips are AT LEAST 50 percent more polluting than the trips they are displacing.

This figure shows survey results from California riders taking either a non-pooled ride (“Ridehailing”) or a pooled ride (“Shared ridehailing” and what they would have taken otherwise. Source: Panel Study of Emerging Transportation Technologies and Trends in California: Phase 2 Data Collection

3. Electrifying ride-hailing vehicles will slash climate pollution

Why is electrifying ride-hailing a good climate solution? Climate emissions from EVs are much lower than emissions from the average gasoline vehicle everywhere across the country. Our most recent analysis indicates in California, for example, an EV produces the emissions of a 109 mpg gasoline vehicle. That’s a 75 percent reduction compared to an average new gasoline vehicle and even 50% lower than a 50 mpg hybrid.

This map shows the mile per gallon rating a gasoline vehicle would need to be to have similar emissions to an EV charged on the regional electricity grid. Continued movement away from coal powered electricity in the U.S. and growing renewables has led to steadily improving emissions from EVs. Source: https://blog.ucsusa.org/dave-reichmuth/new-data-show-electric-vehicles-continue-to-get-cleaner

4. Ride-hailing cars are used more intensely than regular cars

This is actually good news in terms of getting emissions benefits bang for your buck. Because many ride-hailing vehicles are used more intensely than the average vehicle, it also means electrifying them results in greater emissions benefits. Analysis by Alan Jenn at University California Davis found that electric ride-hailing vehicles (noted as TNC or Transportation Network Company in the figure) can deliver nearly three times the emissions savings compared to electrifying a typical passenger vehicle because they travel many more miles per year.

Ride-hailing (TNC) vehicles travel more miles per year than private vehicles resulting in greater electrification benefits per car over a given time period. Source: Electrifying Ride-Sharing: Transition to a Cleaner Future

5. Electrifying ride-hailing vehicles can help reduce inequitable exposure to air pollution

We can’t meet our climate goals without tackling transportation emissions, including from Lyft and Uber travel. But there’s another important reason to tackle pollution from ride-hailing vehicles – public health. Exposure to air pollution from cars and trucks has significant health impacts, and is not experienced equally. UCS analysis of air pollution found that on average, African American, Latino, and Asian Californians are exposed to more PM2.5 pollution from cars, trucks, and buses than white Californians. Similar results have been found for other areas of the country as well including the northeast region

The greatest exposure to these pollutants from on-road vehicles tend to be in urban areas – where Uber and Lyft vehicles operate most intensely. Electrifying Uber and Lyft trips could help reduce inequitable exposure to local air pollution in addition to lowering climate emissions.

The figure illustrates how exposure to pollution from on-road vehicles is higher in more densely populated areas, areas where ride-hailing tends to make up a larger fraction of vehicle miles. Source: Inequitable Exposure to Air Pollution from Vehicles in California

6. Electric ride-hailing vehicles will be more affordable for drivers

Here’s the good news. Because ride-hailing vehicles are used more intensely – particularly for full time ride-hailing drivers – the fuel savings and maintenance cost benefits of driving an EV accrue more quickly.

Research by the International Council on Clean Transportation concludes that “Even without purchasing incentives, BEVs [Battery Electric Vehicles] will become the most economically attractive technology for ridehailing operations in the 2023–2025 time frame.” There’s definitely a lot to unpack in the ICCT analysis some of which I will dive into in more detail in my next blog post, but the figure below is illustrative.

Today, a 250-mile range battery electric vehicle powered by home charging has a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) than a conventional gasoline vehicle and within 3 years is projected to have lower total costs compared to a hybrid vehicle. These results include some state incentives but importantly exclude the $7500 federal tax credit that continues to be available for many manufacturers. ICCT notes that including the $7500 tax credit makes the 250-mile range EV lower total cost compared to hybrids today.

Battery electric vehicles are projected to become increasingly cost-competitive with conventional gasoline and hybrid vehicles over the next five years. Source: When does electrifying shard mobility make sense?

There is both optimism and reason for caution in these results.

The great news is that EVs are getting cheaper and ICCT’s analysis demonstrates that 250-mile range EVs (which are becoming more common), can not only be cost competitive in ride-hailing but be the economic winner. For full-time drivers who can access home charging and state and federal incentives, including the $7500 tax credit, an EV can pencil out right now. And in the not too distant future, the economics will improve significantly for all charging scenarios.

But it also indicates that both charging access and reducing barriers to EV ownership and leasing will be key to the success for electrifying ride-hailing in a big way.

Ride-hailing companies have a responsibility to step up on EVs

Based on its popularity, ride-hailing is clearly an attractive mode of travel for millions of Americans today and can serve to increase mobility for many who currently lack options. It can also serve as an effective first and last mile option for connecting people to transit and as effective means to pool rides. As I discuss in my previous blog post, Can Uber and Lyft be a Climate Solution? ride-hailing can be part of a lower carbon transportation system.

But after a decade of evolution and growth, it is clear that ride-hailing is increasing pollution despite the promising low-carbon visions laid out by ride-hailing companies. Ride-hailing companies disrupted transportation by bring a new model for mobility to the world and with this leadership comes responsibility. As these companies continue to grow, they need to step up to support a rapid transition toward electrification in order to make their promises of a low carbon future a near-term reality. Importantly, they need to do it in a way that avoids placing greater burdens on their drivers, but instead helps drivers realize the benefits of vehicle electrification.

In my next post, I’ll dive in more on the economics of electrifying ride-hailing, some of the efforts ride-hailing companies are currently pursuing, and how both policy and company actions can help move the needle toward greater electrification.