An Uber sign points to drop off and pick up location on a city street in Portland, where the company is launching its first electric vehicle program in the U.S. Mike Blake/Reuters

Starting in Portland.

As electric cars steadily shed their novelty status in the U.S., a new Uber initiative could give the technology a special boost in Portland, Oregon.

On Wednesday, Uber launched its first U.S. initiative aimed at adding hundreds of electric vehicles to its fleet. It’s based loosely on a program the company started last year in London, where it made 150 fully rechargeable Nissan Leafs available for lease by its drivers. In Portland, Uber will work through its Xchange Leasing program to sell or rent EV’s, primarily Nissan Leafs, to interested drivers for roughly $100 to $115 a week (which will come out of their Uber earnings), says Bryce Bennett, Uber’s general manager for Oregon.

Uber is also partnering with the local Cynergy E-Bikes company to make up to 20 e-bikes available for rent for UberEats drivers. Later this summer, the company plans to further expand its EV fleet by partnering with Arcimoto, a company based in the nearby city of Eugene that’s designed a compact, futuristic-looking two-seat, three-wheel electric car.

It’s no surprise that Uber chose Portland. Indeed, if electric vehicles are going to become mainstream anywhere, the city with its own “electric car czar” would be the place. Uber says that about 100 of its 6,000 drivers there already use electric vehicles, and a new “EV ambassador” initiative will train drivers on how to educate their passengers on the benefits of electric vehicles.

“When we reached out to the drivers on the platform who had electric vehicles currently—we did a couple of focus groups—one thing they kept talking about was the fact that it was a conversation starter,” Bennett says. “Every time someone gets in the vehicle, [they’ll ask], ‘How do like driving an electric vehicle, and what’s great about it?’ so we’re just formalizing that a bit by providing them resources.”

Under a partnership proposal with PGE, drivers who sign up as EV ambassadors can earn $25 to $50 a month, which will go toward their fueling costs.

Last year, Portland was named the most EV-friendly out of 36 U.S. cities by the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, based in large part on its vast network of charging stations. A map by the Portland General Electrics (PGE), which supplies much of the hundreds of public charging stations around the city, shows a dense network at the city center and several more stations throughout the periphery.

The city has also outlined an action plan for boosting EV use as part of its Climate Action Plan, in which it aims to curb carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. Part of the roadmap includes the electrification of car-share programs like Uber and Lyft (though Bennett says there was no formal partnership with Portland officials for this particular). Another goal—one that Uber shares with the city—is making EVs accessible for low-income communities. Research shows these areas are disproportionately exposed to air pollution but have the least access to cleaner automotive technology due to the lack of affordability.

The action plan lays out the need for Portland to extend its charging infrastructure to those communities through policies that, for example, require new housing for low-income families to be built with the capacity to install charging stations. That could work in tandem with Uber’s strategy to use the program as a way to give underserved communities who previously couldn’t participate in Uber the opportunity to do so.

“Maybe they didn't have a car that qualifies,” Bennett says. “In Portland, we actually have a city ordinance that requires vehicles [used in transportation services] be no older than 10 years old.” With fueling costs reduced, driving an EV for Uber means earning larger profits than driving a gas-fueled car.

Still, not everyone is convinced that the initiative will work the way Uber says it will. For one thing, adding more cars—even if they are EV’s—runs counter to the company’s stated goal of reducing the number of vehicles on the road. Some also wonder if it will really benefit low-income drivers.

“There’s a little voice in the back of my head that wonders if this is greenwashing that the company is doing,” says Bruce Mirken, media relations director for the Greenlining Institute, whose mission is to extend EV access to low-income communities. “It's not clear in terms of the purchase and lease provisions how affordable those are going to be to drivers of modest incomes. Are the lease terms going to be good for people who don't have a lot of means and need to have something that's economically viable for them or, frankly, are they going to get gouged?”

As my colleague Laura Bliss has written, Uber’s Xchange program isn’t without its concerns:

Somewhat like the subprime mortgages that imploded the U.S. economy in 2008, Xchange appears to target consumers who don’t have the credit to qualify for a conventional car lease. According to Bloomberg, Xchange is leasing cars using a line of credit worth $1 billion, which exposes the risky leases to “many of the world’s biggest financial institutions,” including Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, and Sun Trust. Meanwhile, the seemingly “low” weekly or monthly payments that these leases offer credit-poor consumers can quickly skyrocket far above the real value of the car, locking drivers into a deal many can’t ultimately afford.

EV’s cost some $10,000 more than traditional cars, which are already beyond what many in low-income communities can afford. It also doesn’t help that rider spending on Uber in Portland has dropped 18 percent since January, when the #DeleteUber campaign surfaced. Bennett counters that their leasing program differs from others in its flexibility—unlimited mileage, for example, and the option to return the vehicles.

Yet Mirken says he would have liked to see, instead, a break for low-income riders on the cost of an EV ride. He does praise the EV Ambassador program, however. “Knowledge is often an issue, so if they are beginning to address some of these things, it could be a step forward.”

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