Uber expands London EV plans, despite ‘woeful’ charging infrastructure

EXCLUSIVE: Uber is taking steps to overcome the "economic disincentive" of using electric vehicles (EVs) in its fleet, by unveiling a new partnership with Nissan and beginning the construction of a network of chargers to combat London's "woefully inadequate" infrastructure.

The private car hire company’s public policy associate Alan Clarke, who has been tasked developing strategies related to air quality and low emission vehicles, told edie that the company is combining new EVs with ride sharing platforms as a means to “demystify” concerns over public EV use.

Uber has today (29 March) announced that an additional 100 Nissan Leafs will join the 50 EVs already used by the sharing economy app on London roads. Despite the increase in vehicle numbers, Uber’s use of EVs has highlighted issues related to London’s charging network infrastructure.

“We have more than two million Uber users alone in London and because we interact with so many people with have an opportunity to ignite the right behaviour change,” Clarke said. “The key thing we’ve found [when rolling out EVs] revolves around the charging infrastructure.

“At the moment, there are three publicly-accessible rapid chargers for private-hire drivers in central London, and that is just woefully inadequate in terms of being able to support the number of EV hires you’d need in order to generate a big switch away from conventional cars.”

Uber introduced the first 50 EVs, comprised of China’s BYD models and Nissan Leafs, into its rental fleet in September, as part of a trial supported by the Energy Savings Trust (EST) to explore the practicality of a large-scale EV private-hire transport system in the UK.

The results of that extensive trial were also released today, based on more than 35,000 rides that were conducted through the EVs. When comparing the EVs to hybrid vehicles – which account for 60% of Uber’s journeys in London – the Nissan Leafs saved more than half a metric tonne of nitrogen oxide and 22 metric tonnes of CO2 during the trial.

The analysis also concluded that there is a significant lack of charging infrastructure in the UK, and Clarke said that, although conversions with Transport for London (TfL) on this issue have been largely positive, ambitions regarding upscaling charging infrastructure were “slow and low”.

“When you factor in the opportunity cost for the amount of time spent looking for a charger, it’s a significant drain on the driver’s ability to make a living,” Clarke added. “At the moment, this is providing an economic disincentive to a private hire driver.

“Our relationship with TfL in regards to EVs is absolutely fine, they’re interested to hear form the industry about charging, but we feel that the plans for the number of rapid chargers for the use of private hire vehicles are a little on the low side and TfL needs to be much bolder.”

Source London is a city-wide electric vehicle charging network providing more than 1,400 charging points across London from TfL, with plans to introduce 6,000 charge points by 2018. But for the private-hire sector, charge points need to be easily accessible and provide rapid charging options.

Uber’s analysis found that on-street charging was predominantly the most common location for recharging, and that a lack of rapid charging was holding the uptake of EVs back. To overcome this barrier, the sharing economy stalwart has announced it is rolling-out a network of 50kW rapid chargers in central London. These chargers will only be available for Uber users at first, and the Uber app has been edited to allow EV drivers to circulate trips surrounding nearby chargers.

Range relief

The analysis has also reignited concerns that a lack of range is damaging public opinions on EVs. The latest Leaf models are expected to have a range of around 100 miles. Uber’s study found that “around 50% of partners declined journeys at least once a week, often with passengers in the vehicle, with many turning down journeys on a daily basis due to concerns over lack of range.”

For Clarke and Uber, the integration of EVs into its private-hire fleet forms part of a key plan to “get more people into fewer cars”. Going forward, Clarke believes that ride sharing can not only improve local air quality but also increase the public acceptance of EVs.

“Our report provides insight into demystifying the EV experience, and if people have ridden in one and it was comfortable, quiet and was an overall enjoyable experience, then private hire companies like Uber can play a significant role as a multiplier for EVs,” Clarke said. “It’s an opportunity we’re really keen to make a reality.”

“We’re doing some really interesting stuff with things around car sharing – already, two million miles have been completed through UberPool in London, which has been live for just over a year. It’s a shared journey, so it takes all the miles that another car would’ve done and all the emissions off the road.”

While Clarke revealed that Uber will spend the next five to 10 years looking to increase the share of low-emission vehicles in its fleet, he concluded that a “significant advancement” would be needed on UK infrastructure to create an environment where private hire firms could switch to 100% low-emission vehicles.

Alan Clarke at edie Live 2017

Alan Clarke is among the expert speakers appearing on stage at edie Live 2017 at the NEC Birmingham on 23-24 May. 

Clarke is appearing in the afternoon session of the Energy Management Theatre, which takes a closer look at the benefits and opportunities of using electricity to power our transport.

Find out more about edie Live 2017 and register for your free two-day pass here.

Matt Mace

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