Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
The company’s pledge to cut emissions couldn’t come at a more opportune moment. But can it deliver?
Hundreds of U.S. mayors, university presidents, and business leaders vowed to uphold the country’s commitments in the Paris climate accord, after President Trump withdrew from the landmark pact on June 1. In the mix of corporate “still ins” are two largest ride-hailing services in the country: Uber and Lyft.
Uber’s opportunity to flash its climate credibility may have been lost in the past week’s torrent of executive-level firings amid a major workplace harassment probe. On Wednesday, CEO Travis Kalanick’s formally announced a leave of absence, following months of dodging PR scandals one after another.
But Lyft, which has vigorously pursued a persona as the woke person’s ride of choice (in spite of a prominent investor’s connection to Trump), has stepped up to proudly fly its climate flag. On Thursday, the company’s co-founders, John Zimmer and Logan Green, published a blog post articulating where Lyft hopes to be in 2025, the year by which President Obama had pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent of 2005 levels. Lyft’s “climate impact goals” align with the company’s quick steps to build a fleet of vehicles that is mostly autonomous and electric. Zimmer and Green list their benchmarks:
- All electric autonomous vehicles operating on the Lyft platform will be powered by 100% renewable energy. This will be true from Day 1, starting with the nuTonomy autonomous vehicles in Boston later this year.
By 2025, Lyft’s shared platform will provide at least 1 billion rides per year using electric autonomous vehicles.
Lyft’s efforts will reduce CO2 emissions for the U.S. transportation sector as a whole by at least 5 million tons per year by 2025.
One billion rides in electric, autonomous vehicles by 2025 is a pretty ambitious goal, considering Lyft delivered 160 million rides total in 2016 (which was triple its 2015 numbers). To hit that target, Lyft has been revving up strategic partnerships. In February, the firm unveiled plans to test automated, all-electric Chevy Bolts in several states, as part of an ongoing relationship with General Motors. In May, Lyft inked a deal with Waymo, Alphabet's self-driving software arm, to work on developing technologies together. Earlier in June, it announced that it will offer automated ride-hailing in Boston with the AV maker nuTonomoy, whose electric cars already roam the streets of Singapore.
In the short term, these partnerships are useful for data-sharing and knowledge-swapping. But the longer-term future of shared autonomous vehicles may hinge on these sorts of relationships, too. Some industry observers predict that car companies, eager to pivot to selling “mobility” rather than vehicles alone, will offer customers subscriptions to automated vehicles in shared-ride mode.
Alternatively, people who buy private autonomous cars could have the option of flipping a switch and allowing their vehicle to run pick-ups for other folks. Lyft's “shared platform” could easily enable these sorts of scenarios, which makes it easier to imagine an exponential growth of autonomous Lyft rides.
Emily Castor, Lyft’s director of policy, says that the numbers within the company’s 2025 goals—1 billion electric, autonomous rides, reducing transportation emissions by 5 million tons—are based off these and other forecasts for industry-wide trends. “We’re taking into account the enormous growth in ride-sharing activity we expect autonomy to bring to platform,” she says. “We also believe electric vehicles, automated or not, will increasingly become the power train of choice, as we see battery prices coming down.”
Is ride-hailing in its present state adding or subtracting to transportation emissions? That’s a matter of conjecture. Some studies show drivers are giving up private vehicles thanks to the ease and affordability of ride-hailing; critics counter that the same attractive qualities entice riders to generate trips (and pollution) they wouldn’t have otherwise made. Susan Shaheen, the co-director of UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, is collaborating with the Natural Resources Defense Council on a sure-to-be-watershed study analyzing hitherto unseen VMT data from both Uber and Lyft. Until that’s released later this year, the jury is out on ride-hailing’s environmental impacts.
Zero-emission electric vehicles—which virtually all autonomous vehicles are designed to be—could tip the balance in ride-hailing’s favor. The electrical grid will need to continue to clean up, a lot more charging infrastructure is going to have be built, and EV sales will have to boom. But the appeal of automated, shared rides like the ones Lyft offers could help make that happen.
It’s hard to imagine a more opportune time for Lyft to promote its society-friendly trajectory, while Uber manages to keep reminding people that its company culture may be even more malignant than its driver practices. Uber will likely have the upper hand on Lyft and all other competitors so long as its VC coffers run deep. But the long-term play could turn out differently. Shared mobility is the name of the game for a climate-friendly future; for these businesses, trustworthiness may be the most valuable commodity of all. Lyft is building partnerships, while Uber is making enemies.