The ride-hailing company Lyft announced Tuesday that it will transition 100 percent of its fleet to electric vehicles by 2030. The switch includes cars used by Lyft drivers, vehicles offered through its Express Drive and consumer car rental programs, as well as autonomous vehicles.
"This is something we intend to push hard on, and to hold ourselves accountable to," said John Zimmer, co-founder and president of Lyft. "We had two paths. We could either be part of the problem with the type of scale we have or be part of the solution, and we 100 percent intend to be part of the solution.
Zimmer said decarbonizing transportation is key to addressing climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation make up 28 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Lyft's commitment to 100 percent EVs is bold and exciting under any circumstances, but especially now as it meets the demand for building a better future and the urgent need for climate action, said Elizabeth Sturcken, managing director with the nonprofit advocacy group, Environmental Defense Fund, which is working with Lyft to execute the plan.
Reaching Lyft's 100 percent EV goal will not be easy. It will require supporting politics that secure policy change, developing a national charging infrastructure, and accelerating the introduction of EVs into the US fleet, Sturcken said.
Modern-day electrics such as the Nissan Leaf have been on the market for 10 years. There are now about 25 EV models available, but they have been slow to take off. In the first quarter of 2020, they accounted for 1.9 percent of total passenger vehicle sales, according to Kelley Blue Book.
What’s slowing their adoption is their higher purchase price, limited range, and refueling time compared with gas-powered cars.
“When an internal combustion [gas-powered] car and an EV cost about the same, with the same range and can refuel as easily and as quickly, then EVs will sell just as well,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book. “Until then, they're at a disadvantage.”
But that day is coming, and by 2030, “We’ll be pretty close for sure,” Brauer said.
“On a national scale, Lyft’s plan is ambitious,” said Juan Matute, deputy director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies. “It would mean a commitment to figuring things out in markets that are perhaps less supportive of electric vehicles and don’t have clear-cut plans to become more supportive of electric vehicles.”
In California, which accounts for half of all EV sales in the country, Lyft's plan isn't as much of a stretch goal. But going entirely electric in rural and suburban areas -- even some small cities -- could pose a problem, Matute said, because they require longer travel distances which, in turn, require robust charging infrastructure. And that’s sporadic.
California, Texas, and Florida are the states with the most EV chargers, “but in most places, lots more needs to be done,” said Joel Levin, executive director of the nonprofit EV advocacy group, Plug In America.
“What we’ve heard from ride-share drivers is they want to charge their EVs near where the rides are, so near airports, near retail, near hotels,” Levin said.
“Any place that you’re going to support ride hail drivers, you want the fastest charging possible,” Levin said. Finding fast chargers, however, “is a mixed bag.”
Lyft’s EV commitment is “a horizon goal,” said UCLA’s Matute. “There's no guarantee that Lyft will still be in business in 10 years.”
There are issues with the ride-hailing business model, he said. Pooled rides, with more than one passenger, yield the most benefits. They're more profitable for the companies that operate ride hails and offer the greatest benefits for easing congestion and emissions for the cities in which they operate.
But those pooling services have been suspended due to Covid-19, which itself has decimated the ride-hail business. Uber and Lyft both saw sales decline 86 percent in May compared with a year earlier, according to the technology research firm, Second Measure, though sales in recent weeks have started to rebound.
Still, “significant headwinds” persist for shared mobility platforms such as Lyft, according to the April 2020 Goldman Sachs study, "Mobility Tech in a Time of Crisis." Even before Covid, investors were pulling back from shared mobility investments in 2019, with deals declining by about 56 percent and valuations revised downward, the report found. The long-term impact from Covid: “Physical distancing could lead to trend reversals in personal vehicle ownership and urbanization.”
Cities, of course, are the bread and butter of ride hailing.
Based in San Francisco, Lyft began eight years ago and is now “available to 95 percent of the U.S. population as well as select cities in Canada,” according to a Lyft spokesperson. Formerly known as ZimRide, it started as a long-distance carpooling business Zimmer co-founded with Logan Green in 2007 to share rides between the University of California-Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.
Lyft would not comment on the exact number of cities in which it operates or the number of drivers it employs, but New York City estimates there are about 80,000 ride-hail drivers working for all the companies that operate there, including Uber. Los Angeles estimates run as high as 100,000.
Whether or not Lyft will succeed in transitioning its cars to all electric in a decade remains to be seen, but transportation leaders hailed the move.
"LADOT has been committed to building a zero-emission, 100 percent electric fleet since 2017 and we are always excited to see the private sector join our efforts and support citywide policy goals," said Colin Sweeney, spokesperson for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.
Lyft currently accounts for 29 percent of the U.S. rideshare market, according to Second Measure. Uber is the market leader with 71 percent. While Lyft is best known as a ride-hailing service, it also operates a consumer car rental program that lets drivers borrow cars through the app and drive themselves, as well as an Express Drive rental program for its ride-hail drivers who would rather put all the miles they log on a rental rather than their personal vehicle.
Under the new initiative, the vehicles for all of these programs would be zero emissions by 2030.
Since January 2019, Lyft has been experimenting with the idea, using two, 50-car fleets of electric vehicles offered as part of its Express Drive programs in Atlanta and Seattle. All of them are Chevy Bolts.
“They’ve done quite well,” said Alex Fraser, associate vice president of Pivet -- the company that operates Lyft’s Express Drive program in Atlanta with both electric and gas-powered cars.
“When one comes back, it quickly goes right back out. There’s not a lot of people saying, ‘Don’t give me that.’ It’s part of their rotation and drivers continue to utilize them and see great benefit from it.”
Lyft is, however, preparing for a future when human drivers may no longer be necessary. In 2016, Lyft partnered with General Motors to develop autonomous cars and has since partnered with additional players in the AV space, including Ford Motor Company. With Lyft's new directive, all of those cars would, like the rest of its fleet, be electric by 2030.