Photo by Bradley Kappel for The Verge
Lyft announced a plan on Wednesday to transition to “100 percent” electric or zero-emission vehicles by 2030. By working with automakers and rental car companies, as well as the millions of independent contractors who drive for Lyft every day, the ride-hailing company believes it can prevent “tens of millions of metric tons” of pollutants from entering the atmosphere.
“Now more than ever, we need to work together to create cleaner, healthier, and more equitable communities,” John Zimmer, co-founder and president of Lyft, said in a statement. “Success breeds success, and if we do this right, it creates a path for others.”
The news comes as talk of EV mandates for ride-hailing companies is gaining traction among many big US cities. It’s also at a time when the view that ride-sharing services are more environmentally friendly than other modes of transportation has been contradicted by a growing body of evidence. Research suggests that the average ride-hailing trip creates about 50 percent more pollution than the average traditional car trip. Even worse, studies show that over half of all ride-hailing trips in major cities are made by people who would have otherwise used cleaner means of transit to get to their destination.
The path to an all-electric fleet won’t be easy. The company will first focus on low-hanging fruit, like its Express Drive rental car program that allows those who don’t own a car to become Lyft drivers. Lyft says it will strive to make EVs available at the “same or lower weekly rental price as comparable gasoline vehicles by 2023 in at least 10 of our largest markets,” according to a white paper the company released on Wednesday.
According to regulatory filings, Lyft has “tens of thousands” of cars available to drivers in 30 cities across the US for short-term rental. The company says those in its Express Drive program have earned more than $1 billion since its launch in 2016. But lower payouts and onerous requirements about the number of trips has made Express Drive a tough sell for many drivers, according to a 2019 story in the Los Angeles Times.
Getting the millions of people who drive for Lyft to switch to electric vehicles will arguably be the hardest part of Lyft’s plan. Lyft drivers are classified as independent contractors, and many use their personal cars to drive for not just one but several gig economy companies. In 2018, Uber explored providing cash incentives to some North America-based drivers who switch to electric vehicles, but it never expanded the program beyond the original pilot phase.
Lyft says it will “organize demand-side interest in EVs and negotiate with auto manufacturers for group discounts for drivers using the Lyft platform.” The company also claims it can influence automakers to “increase the selection and supply of affordable long-range EVs, and support the development of EVs tailored for ridesharing.” Indeed, many automakers are planning to release entire electrified lineups in a bid to address climate change and comply with regulations in Europe and China requiring decarbonization.
Lyft says it will advocate for the adoption of similar regulations in the US, despite the federal government’s recent moves to allow automakers to manufacture more polluting vehicles. The company says it will lobby for “aggressive zero-emission vehicle policies” like mandates, tax rebates, and charging infrastructure expansion.
Through these efforts, Lyft hopes to reduce the cost of EVs, improve charging, and develop special promotions — thus making electric vehicles more attractive and affordable for drivers. “By aggregating the collective demand of the driver community, we can help drivers transition to EVs over time in a way that saves drivers money,” the company said in a blog post for drivers.
For years, Lyft has been cultivating an image for itself as a company committed to environmental sustainability. But despite these efforts, the overwhelming majority of trips that take place on both Uber and Lyft’s platforms are in gas-burning vehicles. The companies have tried promoting pooled rides, but customers have shown a reluctance to share their trips — and are likely to struggle even more in an era of COVID-19. Their efforts to better connect to mass transit have been slow and piecemeal at best. And their bike- and scooter-sharing services are subject to local regulations and market conditions and, as such, can be unreliable.
Lyft wants this latest effort to be seen as its most comprehensive yet. The company is partnering with the Environmental Defense Fund and The Climate Group, and it collected supportive quotations from a dozen environmental luminaries and policymakers, including Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
A valuable way to gauge how committed Lyft is to the effort is by assessing how much capital the company is willing to expend — especially since the company has gone public and is under pressure from investors to become profitable. But the company declined to disclose how much money it would be spending to electrify its entire fleet. “The transition to EVs is baked into our operating costs,” a spokesperson said.