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Greening the fleet: Uber eyes EV-only service in London

Charging infrastructure is the major barrier to rolling out all-electric taxis in London, according to findings from six-month Uber study.

Getting up in the middle of the night to charge your car. Being forced to terminate a ride halfway to your passenger's destination. Missing out on lucrative long-distance rides because you're worried about losing charge.

These are just some issues Uber drivers reported during a six-month study into the feasibility of driving an all-electric taxi in London.

More than 60 percent of Uber rides in London already take place in hybrid cars, but with politicians cracking down on air pollution and the impending rollout of the new ultra low-emission black cab, Uber is feeling the pressure to cut the carbon impact of its fleet even further.

In August it commissioned The Energy Savings Trust to investigate how easy it would be for a driver to go all-electric on the streets of London. Some 50 Uber drivers used a fully electric EV between August and January. While a small proportion of drivers used their own Tesla Model S cars, most leased a Nissan LEAF or BYD e6 at a reduced rate for the duration of the study.

Over the course of the study — the results of which recently were published — more than 35,000 riders took trips in the electric Ubers and drivers covered more than 220,000 miles in their EVs.

Drivers reported some significant benefits to driving electric cars. Passengers were intrigued by the EV and were impressed with smoothness and quietness of the ride. In fact, in focus groups some drivers "felt they had, in effect, sold electric vehicles from the journeys they had given," the report noted.

The drivers also were motivated by the environmental benefits of the EVs — many said they had chosen to participate in the trial for precisely this reason.

60 percent of Uber rides in London already take place in hybrid cars.

And they benefited from significantly lower refuelling costs, with EVs costing around 10 cents a mile to run using public charge points compared to 11 cents for a hybrid and 16 cents for a diesel car. The report also noted that costs for EVs fall below 5 cents per mile if drivers can charge at home, but relatively few Londoners have access to the off-street parking that makes home charging viable.

However, for all the upsides of EV use, the availability of charge points and the nagging problem of range anxiety proved a major issue for drivers in the study.

All drivers (except those behind the wheel of the 230-mile range Tesla) reported turning down journeys to airports or said they only put on comforts such as heating or air conditioning when passengers were in the car, in order to conserve battery power.

Half declined a journey at least once a week, and many said they were turning down business at least once a day due to battery concerns. Tracking devices attached to a selection of the trial cars confirmed the Ubers stuck to trips in a much narrower geographic area than a standard Uber usually would do.  

The time needed to charge an EV during a shift also had a significant impact on the amount of hours drivers were able to work — and therefore a toll on their earnings potential. Only three publicly available rapid charge points are in central London, which take around 40 minutes to deliver an 80 percent charge, while the next speed down — fast charging — takes up to four hours for a full recharge.

The majority of drivers said they would have worked an extra 10 hours a week had they not had to spend time finding and using a charge point, and many reported arranging their daily lives around the need to charge their cars — including 30-minute walks to the nearest charge points to pick their car up after an overnight session or getting up in the middle of the night to plug in.

Drivers participating in the study received favorable leasing rates for their EVs — putting the costs in line with hybrid models — and in some cases cheaper recharging rates from selected charge points. The study noted that without these, the lost earnings from forced charging time and the opportunity cost of foregoing trips for fear of dwindling charge means driving an all-electric EV would not currently be economically feasible for Uber drivers.

Charging cars can be costly for drivers, and there's a serious lack of rapid charging points.

"If electric private hire vehicles are to be adopted by private hire drivers at scale, the cost (both time and financial) and convenience of charging and running an electric vehicle must reach near parity with non-electric options," the study concluded. "This trial has shown that although there is cause for optimism with regard to both riders' and drivers' readiness to embrace electric vehicles, even with financial support through incentives such as below market vehicle rental costs, this parity remains a distance away."

The good news is that TfL plans to install 150 rapid chargepoints across London by 2018, and 300 by 2020. Even if a number of these will be placed in dedicated black cab rest stops to help smooth the way for the new plug-in, range-extended TX5 black cab, drivers soon will have access to many more chargepoints.

Meanwhile, the range of EVs is improving all the time, prompting BMW CEO Harald Krüger to declare recently that soon "range will no longer be a differentiating factor" for EVs. Uber drivers who operate EVs will not have to turn down long-distance fares for much longer.

Moreover, Uber is taking matters into its own hands in a bid to accelerate the shift to lower emission vehicles. Earlier this week the company announced plans to develop a network of Uber-branded rapid chargers in central London only available for use by drivers using the Uber app. An update to the Uber app also will enable drivers to set a preferred destination for a trip so they will be taken in the direction of a rapid charging point when necessary.

Uber also said it plans to offer 100 more Nissan Leafs to drivers at reduced leasing prices over the next year, in a bid to further investigate the barriers to EV adoption in the private hire transport sector. "We believe that new technology can help tackle the challenge of air pollution in the capital. Londoners already associate Uber with hybrid cars, but we want to go even further with more drivers switching to fully electric ones," Jo Bertram, regional general manager of Uber in the U.K., said in a statement.

"Our vision is for mass adoption of fully electric cars as private hire vehicles but there are some really big challenges we need to overcome. Charging cars can be costly for drivers and there's a serious lack of rapid charging points in central London. We hope the mayor's forthcoming transport strategy will lead to more chargers which private hire drivers can use. In the meantime, we're determined to make progress with a further 100 Nissan Leafs and plans for a network of chargers for drivers who use Uber."

London's black cabs may be going green, but without a more comprehensive charging network and longer ranges for mass market vehicles, it seems the rest of the city's taxi fleet won't be moving to the fast lane of EV adoption quite as quickly.

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