Electric Vehicles

Public power works with ride-sharing companies on EV efforts

California public power utility SMUD and Uber on June 22 unveiled a partnership to bring more shared, electric mobility to Sacramento through Uber’s “EV Champions Initiative.”

Meanwhile, while they haven’t entered into agreements that align exactly with the SMUD/Uber partnership, public power utilities in other cities are working with Uber and other rideshare services related to electrification of their services.

SMUD and Uber said in a news release that the pilot program “empowers EV drivers to educate riders about the benefits of EVs, provide incentives to expand EV trips, and explore ways to leverage ridesharing to facilitate a greener future for our cities.”

SMUD and Uber said they will work together to address the unique challenges faced by shared-use EV drivers and to scale the benefits that EVs can bring to Sacramento.

Under the program, SMUD will provide a per-trip incentive to Uber driver-partners completing trips in a zero-emission vehicle, or ZEV, within their service area. SMUD will also provide Uber ZEV driver-partners who join the program with access to free charging through their network of fast charging stations.

Plug-in hybrid EV and battery EV drivers taking trips outside of the SMUD coverage area will still receive a per trip incentive from Uber.

The program will also provide in-app features built specifically for EV drivers, starting with a 30-minute trip notification to relieve the range anxiety EV drivers face. Plug-in America will also distribute information on resources, incentives and programs to drivers and riders.

Uber riders that are matched with an EV may also have access to in-car materials, as well in-app and post-trip messaging about the benefits of EVs and importance of electrification.

Uber launched the EV Champions Initiative on June 19 in seven cities (several of them with public power utilities) -- Austin, Texas, Los Angeles, Montreal, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle -- in partnership with leading EV adoption experts and utilities.

The program builds off the success of existing pilots in Pittsburgh and Portland, with the goal of providing at least 5 million EV rides over the next year on the Uber app, SMUD and Uber said.

Austin Energy efforts

Jennifer Herber, a spokesperson for public power utility Austin Energy, noted that although there is no formal contract between Austin Energy and Uber related to this initiative that in Austin, Uber is updating its app to promote electric rides.

Specifically, the new EV friendly Uber app will “notify folks when they are paired with an EV,” as well as promote information with drivers and riders about Austin Energy’s Plug-In Austin $4.17/month program.

In 2015, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) partnered with the City of Austin “to transform transportation by commercializing and stimulating the adoption of new mobility solutions,” RMI notes on its website.

“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,” RMI noted in a June 19 post on its website, which also detailed efforts by Austin Energy in the area of transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber.

In response to questions from the American Public Power Association, Karl Popham, manager for electric vehicles and emerging technology at Austin Energy, noted that “We have worked with RMI since 2015 as part of a grant the City of Austin won with RMI to help address mobility issues.”

Popham said that he meets monthly with RMI and other stakeholders to include members of council and city departments on specific transportation electrification initiatives. “I meet fairly regularly with TNCs to include Uber, Lyft, and RideATX on ways to promote electrification of their services,” he said.

Popham said that one of “our more public stakeholder engagement initiatives” is Austin’s Smart Mobility Roadmap, which is open for public comment and calls for shared, electric, autonomous transit options in Austin. “We see TNCs as being a major part of not only shared/electric today but also for autonomous rides that will be here in the near future,” the Austin Energy official said.

Popham also addressed current barriers to expanding the use of EVs in Austin by ridesharing companies like Uber and what Austin Energy is doing to reduce those barriers.

He said that major barriers fall into the following categories: 1) education and understanding; 2) affordability; 3) charging at home; and 4) public charging.

With respect to education and understanding, Popham noted that unlike a taxi fleet, TNC drivers are typically individuals who decide to leverage their personal car. Therefore, general consumer adoption messaging is critical. “We do a lot of outreach to support consumer adoption of EVs and work with TNCs on how specifically to educate their drivers and their needs,” he said.

As for affordability, Austin Energy offers the unlimited public charging of $4.17 a month and a time-of-use rate that includes home and away charging for as low as $30/month.

Turning to charging at home, the utility offers home rebates up to 50% for Level 2 charging installs as well as multifamily programs to give access to convenient charging at home. For most TNCs on current generation cars, “this is plenty of charge to go all day,” he noted.

For public charging, Austin Energy has over 650 Level 2 charging ports that can be accessed by customers for a flat fee of $4.17/month. However, it is also important to have quick chargers (DC fast chargers), available for high mileage use cases like TNCs, he said.

Austin Energy launched its first utility-owned and operated DC fast charging station in downtown Austin as part of the utility’s Electric Drive project.

With grant assistance from the Texas Alternative Fueling Facilities Program, Austin Energy has a plan to roll out up to 24 DC fast charging stations through 2020, Popham said.

Seattle City Light

In an interview with the Association, Brendan O’Donnell, manager for strategy, planning and analytics at public power utility Seattle City Light, said that while Seattle City Light is not a direct partner with Uber in the way that SMUD is, Seattle City Light has been working closely with Uber “in terms of how they have access to our [charging] stations and what their goals are.”

O’Donnell detailed what Seattle City Light has been doing in terms of serving the EV market and how those efforts align with ridesharing companies.

He said that while Seattle City Light wants to support the EV market, it also wants to ensure that “we’re not creating more cars on the road and whatever we do to support the market is also supporting electric mobility.”

Car share companies like ReachNow and Car2Go, ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, and fleet and delivery vehicles, “these are the vehicles that are on the road all day and they drive the most miles and therefore making them electric really has the biggest value in terms of cost savings, carbon savings, best use of the electric grid.”

He noted that Seattle City Light is building a network of fast-charging stations around Seattle and looking to even out the private network. “So largely going in areas where there’s not a lot of private availability of fast charging.”

O’Donnell said that one of the unique parts of the utility’s program is that its stations are installed curbside. The stations are in the right of way “like a parking meter or any other piece of civic infrastructure,” the Seattle City Light official said. The stations are very visible and are easy to access.

He said that the way that infrastructure is operated “can align to different service models, so what that means is we’re thinking that it might be possible to charge different prices based on different kinds of customers. So, for example, we want Uber and Lyft drivers to use our stations, so we’re considering ways that we could price them differently and talking directly to Uber about how that might work.”

O’Donnell said that Uber has been “very receptive. We’ve had multiple meetings with them and they’ve actually also invited us to come in on some of their market research.” He noted that two Seattle City Light staff members recently attended an Uber focus group for EV drivers, “which was really insightful and helped us to understand how” Uber is thinking about how they can modify their platform to support EV drivers.

O’Donnell said that “what’s been interesting for us” as a result of conversations with Uber and participation in the focus groups is that people who drive EVs and rideshares “are really savvy” when it comes to how they operate over the course of a day. “They really design their day about access to charging, based on what kind of vehicle they have and how they use the Uber platform.”

The Seattle City Light official said that there are ways that the Uber app could function differently to encourage EVs and rideshares.

 “There are some ways that Uber can change how their app operates for electric vehicle drivers, like inform EV drivers that their trip is going to be longer than, say, twenty miles, or let them go into destination mode more often,” he said. What that means “is twice a day, when you’re driving for Uber, you can put your car in destination mode, so that means you put in ‘destination’ – like your house or your work – and it will only pick up rides that are along that path.”

He said Uber “doesn’t want drivers to do that too much because then they can control their rides and their pickups in a way that doesn’t let the platform optimize. But one of the things that Uber could do is let EV drivers put themselves in destination mode more often or if they’re going to charge, that’s a way that you can make the platform work better for EV drivers.” In other words, allowing for more control “over what rides you pick up and more information about when you’re picking up a ride and where they’re going.”

He said that Seattle City Light has “not had as much of a connection with Lyft” to date.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is aware of the SMUD/Uber initiative, but is not currently engaged in a partnership with Uber in Los Angeles and has no role in the program at this time, said Paola Adler, a spokesperson for LADWP.