How can businesses better support drivers through the EV transition? We ask Uber

As part of the edie at 25 series, Uber’s global sustainability strategy lead Christopher Hook explains why London is “very much Uber’s lead city” for the electric vehicle (EV) transition and gives a behind-the-scenes look at key learnings so far from the business’s electrification journey.

How can businesses better support drivers through the EV transition? We ask Uber

The UK Government’s own climate advisors warned once again last year that it is significantly off-track to delivering net-zero by 2050. The overall conclusion of their latest progress report was that only one-third of the emissions reductions needed by mid-century were supported with credible policy.

But one of the few success stories detailed was the UK’s ever-accelerating uptake of EVs. Climate Change Committee researchers deemed policies in this field credible and effective, with the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel car sales regularly being built upon with policy interventions to support the transition.

Since the report was published, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) has repeatedly published new data proving new records for EVs, even as the new car and van market as a whole continues to face the fallout of Covid-19.

Business fleets have made a major contribution to the UK’s EV revolution and Uber, the nation’s largest ride-hailing app, is no exception despite the fact that it does not own and operate its own vehicles.

Supporting its global 2040 net-zero target, Uber has pledged to ensure that all drivers in London are using EVs by 2025. The firm’s global sustainability strategy lead Christopher Hook tells edie that around 8,000 London-based Uber drivers now use a pure-electric vehicle, up from around 100 when he joined the business in 2019. These drivers account for around 15% of the miles clocked up by Uber drivers in greater London.

Hook admits that the work to be done in the coming two years “still keeps him up at night” despite this strong progress – especially with EV supply chains still disrupted by the resurgence of Covid-19 in China and with the ongoing semiconductor shortage. “It’s not been a smooth path, and it still isn’t,” says Hook.

Driver support

Beyond the practicalities of procuring vehicles, a major focus area for Uber is supporting drivers to make the switch.

Unlike many large businesses in the mobility space, Uber does not own its own vehicles. Drivers either own, rent or lease their vehicles. As such, the delivery of Uber’s EV targets hinge on the choices made by drivers.

Reflecting on his journey to improve driver support for electrification, Hook says: “I probably underestimated the importance of communication at the beginning. I thought the challenges would be the economics, or some of the more technical aspects. But repeating the message and answering other concerns is really important.”

He calls “consistent engagement and education” the “most basic but perhaps most important” part of supporting London-based drivers.

Uber hosts sessions at its driver contact centre in Aldgate regularly, where drivers can have their FAQs about EVs answered by both Uber representatives and peers who have already ditched their petrol cars. Some of these questions, Hook explains, are very basic, concerning how EVs work and why so many London-based businesses are setting targets to accelerate their uptake.

From there, drivers usually want to know about the financial benefits of EV adoption and how they weigh up against the upfront cost. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates that a new hybrid or electric car is, on average, some £7,600 pricier than a petrol or diesel car.

“You can do all of the education and the myth-busting you like,” Hook says. “If people don’t feel a choice makes sense for their bottom line, it’s going to be difficult to get them to make that switch.”

With that in mind, Uber added a 15p-per-mile charge to all London trips not taken in EVs in 2019. Money raised through this charge – some £140m so far – has been added to a “Clean Air Plan” pot, set aside to help drivers purchase, lease or rent an EV. Drivers are entitled to a share of the pot based on the number of miles they have already completed, and the average driver in the capital is eligible for more than £3,000. They may be entitled to use the City of London’s scrappage scheme in addition to this.

Citywide collaborations

There is also the cost of vehicle operation to account for, Hook explains, with some drivers perceiving EVs as more costly to run amid rising electricity prices.

Recent research from the RAC concluded that motorists using rapid charging points in public are now paying up to £10 more for a full charge than for a full tank of fuel. This is partly because VAT on public charging is set at 20%.

Installing chargers at home is one way around this challenge; electricity used in the home has a VAT rate of just 5%. But 30% of UK households have no access to off-street parking to install a charger, and Hook says that percentage is higher among Uber drivers in London. As such, partnerships with charging providers to guarantee both discounts and good service in the right places are a key tenet of Uber’s approach.

Within the last fortnight, Uber has confirmed a global partnership with bp pulse, building on a successful partnership in London that launched in 2021. As was the case in London, where the first rapid chargers delivered under the partnership were installed on Park Lane in Westminster, the focus will be on installing infrastructure in areas where a lot of Uber trips start or end – but where charger provision is lacking.

The benefit for both parties is clear. From bp pulse’s point of view, Uber’s involvement means charging points are more likely to be well-utilized. Uber drivers in London use bp pulse’s network, on average, some 2,500 times each week.

In addition to work with firms like bp pulse, Hook notes the importance of “more direct” work with London boroughs that have poor infrastructure but where driver populations are high. Uber has committed £5m to councils harging infrastructure across three such boroughs – Newham, Brent and Redbridge.

Hook elaborates: “Generally speaking, there’s a correlation between how wealthy a borough is and how much EV charging infrastructure it has. A lot of early investment has gone into the more affluent parts of the city, which doesn’t tend to be where lots of people who work for Uber live.”

In Newham, Brent and Redbridge, Uber will not own or operate the charging points – but will only finance their installation if they are in locations convenient for drivers. It also bears noting that the charging points will be open to all. In this way, their installation could well prompt motorists more broadly to consider an EV.

In selling the cost-benefit of EV adoption to drivers, Uber looks at the “sticks” implemented by the City of London, as well as the “carrots” offered by both itself and by local councils, Hook notes.

“Carrots” offered by the public sector include the scrappage scheme, as mentioned above. As for “sticks”, there is currently fierce debate around the expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to cover all of greater London from this August. Since October 2021, ULEZ has covered the area within the North and South Circular roads. Motorists not using vehicles that meet Euro-6 emission standards face a £12.50 daily charge.

Proponents of expanding the ULEZ including Mayor Sadiq Khan have cited a halving of air pollution under the current ULEZ and the need to cut emissions from transports in line with the recommendations of climate scientists. Critics have said the charges will unfairly penalize small businesses and low-income individuals who need their own vehicles but cannot afford an upgrade. A judicial review is being brought against the plans by five councils.

In Hook’s opinion, the Congestion Charge has been just as impactful to the private sector’s EV adoption in London as the ULEZ – if not, more so. It imposes a £15 fine per day on any vehicle that is not pure electric. For many motorists, Hook explains, it has been a deciding factor that “tips the balance” in favour of pure electric for motorists choosing between hybrid and pure.

Another “stick” is the outright ban on new registrations of other private-hire vehicles that do not have a zero-emission mode. This came into force at the start of 2023.

Hook believes that London has broadly “hit the right balance with restrictions and incentives”.

“London has led the charge here, internationally, and we’ve been a real beneficiary. It has enabled us to really step up and set more ambitious targets.”

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