Michelle Pierce, a retired electrical engineer living in Southern California, is a passionate EV advocate. She started driving an electric vehicle for Lyft because she wanted to expose more people to electric vehicles and demonstrate the benefits of EVs. In 2017, Pierce rented a Chevy Bolt through the former Maven Gig program. Maven Gig was a GM subsidiary that provided short-term rentals of both EVs and conventional gasoline vehicles for ride-hailing drivers.
However, Pierce, who drove in Los Angeles about 50 percent of the time, soon discovered that many ridehailing drivers don’t have charging stations near where they live. This makes it challenging to drive an EV. “When you are driving for Uber or Lyft, you need to start the day with a full charge so that you don’t have to take time away from driving,” says Pierce. “It’s hard to charge up just before you get your day started or after work, especially if you are working late,” she adds.
In order to limit global warming to 1.5°C, we need to both reduce vehicle miles traveled and electrify transportation, and a big part of that is electrifying fleets. In fact, Lyft and Uber have commitments to electrify 100 percent of their fleets by 2030 and 2040 respectively. But electrifying rideshare fleets comes with a crucial need to install more charging stations — especially in low-income neighborhoods.
RMI’s recent report, EV Charging for All, analyzes the charging infrastructure needs for ridehailing electrification in Los Angeles. Although the infrastructure growth needed requires a substantial amount of investment, RMI’s analysis finds that this investment would earn a consistent, healthy return while delivering more accessible EV charging to both ridehailing drivers and the public.
The Inequity of Today’s EV Charging Infrastructure
The lack of charging stations makes some ridehailing drivers wary of going electric. Ben Valdez is a driver for both Uber and Lyft. He currently lives in Highland Park, about 10 minutes from downtown LA. “Although there’s charging infrastructure, it’s very limited in my area. There’s nothing in my neighborhood in particular,” he says. Having to go out of the way to charge is one of the reasons Valdez says he “won’t purchase an EV anytime soon.”
RMI discovered that many neighborhoods where household incomes are under $51,000 lack DC fast-charging (DCFC) stations for EVs. But if ridehailing drivers need to charge at slower Level 2 public chargers, it would take a lot of time out of their driving time. “I drive up to 200 miles a day. If I have to take a break to charge, that would be a big consideration,” says Valdez.
But it’s not only fast chargers that need to be installed in low-income areas. Many people live in multifamily apartment buildings, and don’t have a place to charge their cars overnight. If drivers can start with a full charge, driving an EV is much more practical.
Pierce says the lack of infrastructure in low-income areas is a perfect example of social injustice. “Many of these communities don’t have the three-phase electric distribution infrastructure necessary to install DCFC. It’s like a chicken and egg problem,” she says. “Nobody will be putting in a brand new shopping center there so the community will never get the electric infrastructure they need.”
An analysis of EV charging in California, however, shows that electric ridehailing fleets can generate as much as 60 times the demand for DC fast charging compared with a typical private EV. RMI found that building out this fast-charging network — including in lower-income communities — can be profitable, as the stations would achieve more than 30 percent average daily utilization (or eight hours of use a day), more than enough to financially support its development and operation.
Safety and Air Quality
The placement of EV chargers is also crucial. As a woman, Pierce says she is always aware of where she charges at night. She has certain chargers that she likes to frequent in well-lit places, and in places where there is sure to be activity at all hours of the night. She even signed up for a 24-hour fitness club in order to take advantage of the bathroom and a nearby charger.
And there are certain chargers she makes sure to avoid for safety reasons. Pierce believes we must install level 2 chargers where drivers live, and DCFC at gas stations or other busy places where people feel safe.
People do not only have a right to feel safe, they also have a right to clean air. EV rides from ridehailing services tend to occur near charging stations. And since most charging stations are currently located in wealthier areas, the lower-income neighborhoods miss out on the benefits of cleaner air from EVs.
“These neighborhoods are already polluted,” says Pierce. “They’re close to refineries and manufacturing plants. Then when people are forced to drive polluting cars because they don’t have access to charging there’s even more social injustice.”
An Equitable EV Transition
Transportation electrification depends on the rapid development of a robust public charging network. And that network will need to be more equitably distributed than the existing one, which is currently concentrated in wealthier areas.
Fortunately, electrifying ridesharing fleets, along with the right set of policies and programs, can deliver enough charging demand to make it profitable to install this charging network. This will provide cost-effective charging to all, including those with lower incomes who have, to date, been largely left on the sidelines of transportation electrification.
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