RMI and Uber Team Up to Expand Shared and Electric Mobility

In September 2015, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) partnered with the City of Austin, Texas, to transform transportation by commercializing and stimulating the adoption of new mobility solutions. We are working together to pilot innovative commuting solutions, drive the deployment of shared electric vehicle fleets, and stay on the leading edge of autonomous vehicles and city design. This new system will reduce dependence on oil, enhance affordability and accessibility, be safer and healthier, and emit significantly less local emissions and CO2. One important step to help Austin move toward this new mobility paradigm is working with transportation network companies (TNCs) and taxis to electrify vehicles that are driven as part of their services.

Why Transportation Network Companies?

Over the past year, RMI supported the City of Austin to craft a Smart Mobility Roadmap for shifting the city’s transportation system to one that enables shared, electric, and autonomous mobility services that offer a strong value proposition compared with individually owned and operated gasoline-powered vehicles. When we imagine a city that doesn’t require citizens to own a car, we probably think of a dense urban core with priority given to walkability and bikeability and with dedicated public transit lanes. However, this may not be enough to get many people to seek alternatives to driving their own vehicles. To comfortably move around a city without owning a car, people need a suite of personal mobility options. This means more effective public transit coupled with better biking, walking, carshare, rideshare, ridehailing, vanpooling, microtransit (small-scale, on-demand, and pooled transit services), first- and last-mile solutions, and other mobility options.

However, people simply exchanging their vehicles for a carshare or ridehail vehicle does not automatically improve conditions in cities. It is when the alternatives have higher load factors that we create an opportunity to reduce traffic. It is when these alternatives are electric that we can significantly improve air quality and lower carbon emissions. It is when these alternatives are autonomous that prices for Mobility-as-a-Service could drop to those of owning a car, and in some cases become cheaper.

Transportation network companies play a major role in this new mobility narrative. A portion of TNC drivers are high-mileage drivers who put significantly more miles on their vehicles than the average US driver. Switching these drivers to EVs can accelerate reductions in carbon and local emissions and take advantage of the favorable economics of electric vehicles.

Recently, Uber and other TNCs ratified the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities, of which RMI was a founding member. The principles are designed to create sustainable, inclusive, prosperous, and resilient cities founded on transportation that facilitates the safe, efficient, and pollution-free flow of people and goods, while also providing affordable, healthy, and integrated mobility for all people. By signing on to the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities, TNCs like Uber indicated their willingness and desire to engage with local stakeholders, promote equity, support the shared and efficient use of vehicles, and lead the transition toward a zero-emission future.

Because TNCs are critical to the success of mobility transformation, RMI has engaged with TNCs in Austin over the past two years in collaboration opportunities, and Uber has initiated an EV Pilot for Austin. According to Trevor Theunissen, Uber’s public affairs lead in Texas, “Uber works best when we are woven into the fabric of a city with our mission to serve its people, therefore it’s a priority for us to partner with the City to accomplish the goals expressed in Austin’s Smart Mobility Roadmap.”

In RMI’s quest to learn how to enable more shared and electric mobility, Uber has been a pioneering scaling partner. As we help the City of Austin become the nexus of “new mobility” commercialization and consumer adoption, it is our goal to take lessons learned from our local work with Uber and scale them nationally and globally.

Phase 1: Listening to Drivers

RMI and Uber collaborated on focus groups with Uber driver-partners to understand their challenges and successes, the motivations of their car selection, their awareness of electric vehicles, costs associated with driving with Uber, and how to incentivize EV adoption. The focus groups generated valuable information and insights.

Focus group participants who drove an EV predominantly reported owning their car. This could be because drivers did not have other feasible and attractive options to access EVs locally. That has since changed with one EV rental company now in Austin and one coming in the fall of 2018. With these new forms of EV access in Austin, we will be able to test the effectiveness of flexible rental programs in increasing EV adoption among TNC drivers.

Several key themes emerged from the focus groups.

  1. Charging Issues

Austin Energy’s Plug-in EVerywhere network allows unlimited charging at public stations for just $4.17 per month, including fast charging, which is much cheaper than fueling a gasoline-powered vehicle. However, even with cheap public charging, today most Uber driver-partners charge at home for several reasons:

  • Insufficient number of DC fast chargers (DCFCs)
  • Inaccessibility of fast chargers because EVs occupy them longer than needed, indicating a need to enforce charging etiquette
  • Inconvenience of level two (240V) public charging stations, as slow charging times disrupt driving patterns
  • Unreliable charging stations and charging station locator apps

Drivers identified important locations for fast charging stations, mostly on the edges of the city. Drivers also asserted that fast charging stations need to be located where drivers can get out of their cars and feel safe, go to the restroom, and get coffee or a snack, noting that they may charge at home if charging stations lack these personal services.

  1. Battery Range Limitation

Some TNC drivers felt challenged due to the limitation of electric vehicle options with enough battery capacity for a longer driving range. The concept of range anxiety is amplified for TNC drivers due to the inherent uncertainty in the length of their next ride and the desire to provide a positive rider experience. EV drivers have occasionally had to cancel a ride if it exceeded the battery range. In some rare cases, drivers have switched to a gasoline-powered vehicle or have even taken the rider with them to charge, with the rider’s permission. Greater vehicle range and increased availability and visibility of public fast chargers are effective ways to overcome drivers’ range anxiety.

3. Improving the Experience for Customers

EV drivers had many recommendations on how to improve the EV experience, such as notifying the rider that he or she will ride in an EV, sending a thank you message after ride is complete (e.g., “You saved X pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the air today by taking an EV with Uber”), or including a merit badge system within the Uber app to gamify the use of EVs.

  1. Driver Expenses

The focus groups confirmed the vast difference in expenses between an EV and a gasoline-powered vehicle. In Austin, a high-mileage gasoline vehicle driver estimated spending $800–$1,000 per month on gasoline and $120–$200 per month on maintenance, whereas high-mileage EV drivers typically spend $30–$50 per month on charging and had no clear sense of what they spend on maintenance costs. We explore fuel and maintenance costs for both gas and electric vehicles in greater detail in “Rideshare Drivers Are Ideal Candidates for Electric Vehicles.”

The high-mileage gasoline-powered vehicle drivers said this information was so compelling that they would consider an EV for their next vehicle. Before our focus groups, they were not aware of the difference between gasoline and charging expenses and did not know they could receive rebates and incentives to purchase an EV in Austin. Thus, through EV awareness, outreach, and education, there is a real opportunity to transition the high-mileage gasoline-powered vehicle drivers to EVs, improving their earnings and significantly reducing carbon emissions.

  1. Driving EV Adoption Among Uber Driver-Partners

EV and gasoline-powered vehicle drivers offered the following suggestions on how Uber could encourage more driver-partners to go electric by providing:

  • Customized incentive packages for EV drivers
  • Dedicated or preferred access to charging infrastructure
  • Preferred access to ride matching
  • In-app accommodations recognizing the different operating characteristics of EVs compared with gas vehicles
Phase 2: Increasing Awareness of EVs 

After synthesizing the information from the focus groups, Uber and RMI moved into Phase 2 of the EV Pilot in Austin: increasing awareness of EVs with Uber drivers and riders. We ran education sessions with Uber drivers on how to access an EV, charging costs, incentive and rebate programs, and more. The Uber drivers also had the opportunity to test drive an EV. We not only had a great turnout, but also received feedback that some of the drivers ended up renting an EV through the new rental program.

What Next?

The focus groups gave Uber an opportunity to listen to its drivers, understand the challenges its EV drivers face, and hear from gasoline-powered vehicle drivers on what it could do to encourage EV adoption. Uber listened to the challenges and opportunities and collaborated with RMI to identify the best and most impactful solutions to address the local challenges in Austin, and has used that information to guide Uber’s electric vehicle strategy to enable more shared and electric mobility in cities in the US and Canada.

To combat the fear of range anxiety, Uber will be making in-app improvements specifically designed for EV drivers, based on feedback from EV drivers. Uber has reduced the threshold at which EV drivers will be notified that they are accepting a long trip.

Uber will also use its technology and role to educate the public on electric vehicles. When a rider is matched with an EV, a notification will pop up in the app letting the rider know that he or she will be riding in an EV toward a cleaner future. While riding in the EV, the rider will have access to informational material with questions prompting the rider to ask about the driver’s EV experience. After the trip has been completed, the rider will receive an email containing additional EV-related information.

Austin Energy is also ready to combat range anxiety with a new wave of funding for DCFC stations. The first wave, which was already announced, will roll out in 2018–2019. In addition to that, Austin Energy won $1.6 million from the State of Texas Alternative Fueling Facilities Program and is eager to learn from the focus groups where it should strategically deploy its stations to support current and future EV rideshare drivers.

Image courtesy of iStock.