Skip to main content


Social Innovation

The Journey to COP26: Conversations on Clean Transport Episode 1: Electric Cars in a Green Uber in London

Host: Richard Waters, Lead Business Architect, Hitachi Europe
Guest: Christopher Hook, Head of Vehicles & Clean Air Lead, Uber

Read highlights from the conversation:

Chris: So how did you get involved in the world of Electric Vehicles and this project?

Richard: Hitachi's been involved in a program called Optimise Prime now for a couple of years. It's a three-year innovation program working alongside UK Power Networks, SSEN, and then three of the largest vehicle fleets in the UK - Royal Mail, Centrica, and of course, Uber.

We've been understanding the impact of electrification on fleets, analysing the data and thinking about, as we electrify, what are the impacts going to be on the electricity network, and what are the barriers for adoption.

For Uber, there are really strong commitments to electrification, especially in London. What was the driver for starting on that journey?

Chris: I think it was a couple of things. First and foremost, it's the right thing to do. Transport is a big source of emissions, we've got to reduce our emissions as a society. Uber is already an important part of the transport system, and so you can't really have a long-term strategy on that front without a view on how you're going to get to net zero.

: I guess one of the huge benefits of electrification is the quality of the air. It's something that as Uber continues to electrify, we're going to start to see improvements to air quality, which is so important for people who live or work in London.

Chris: I hope so. A lot of that is enabled by the policy environment that has been created. The ultra-low emission zone, all the studies suggest, has been very successful as an intervention to reduce pollution. For me, it's a huge, extra reason to do the work. My kids are growing up in London. I don't want them to breathe polluted air.

COP26 is Approaching

Richard: With COP26 coming up later on this year, Hitachi is really excited to be one of its Principal Partners. We see it as a real catalyst for governments around the world to renew and reinforce the commitments that they've already made at Paris. Business has a really, really important role to support all of those commitments where it can. Hitachi's doing a lot of work now with electrification, both in terms of electric vehicles, but also with rail. It feels that it can make a real difference, which is superb.

Chris: I was going to ask you a bit about COP26, actually. What do you see as Hitachi's role within COP26? You're a principal sponsor.

Richard: For Hitachi, we're really looking to work with cities, governments, and businesses, and help them deliver on their ambitions to be net-zero. We have many different capabilities and business units that are able to bring products and services to our customers, with fleet electrification being one such opportunity we’re responding to.

Optimise Prime and EV Adoption

Chris: Do you think the work that we've been doing on Optimise Prime is going to help inform some of those strategies? It's been a couple of years now.

Richard: It has. Yes. With Uber in particular, what we're trying to understand is, as the electrification of vehicles grows in London, are there constraints or opportunities with the charging infrastructure? For an Uber Driver, charging might be perceived as downtime when they're not earning, so we need to understand where the best places are to put charging infrastructure to minimise the inconvenience.

What's really exciting is how we're modelling the growth of all the electric vehicles working on Uber, and then, based on expected charging demand, where charging infrastructure and potential cost-effective reinforcement of the electricity network may be required.

Range Anxiety and Barriers to Adoption

Richard: One of the other fascinating things is there's a bit of an urban myth that range anxiety is a problem and a barrier for people to adopt electric vehicles. Of course, a lot of Uber drivers are covering a significant distance on any particular shift, and what the data is telling us, is actually, range isn't a huge barrier to adoption. The drivers that use an electric vehicle, they've found a way to manage their time while driving and find opportunities to charge, if it’s even required at all. That's really positive, as you said, not just for the EV adoption by other Uber drivers, but for the wider population as well.

Chris: We're now at a point where we have a big enough population of drivers who have made that switch to be fairly confident that we're not just looking at early adopter enthusiasts. It's about getting to that next stage where it becomes a natural choice for as many people as possible. That's how we're going to get to 100% amongst the Uber drivers. That's how we're going to get, frankly, to where we need to be as a society.

Richard: What we're seeing with the van-based fleets at Royal Mail and Centrica, is once they've made that move, the feedback is that they enjoy driving more, for example it’s smoother, quieter, and accelerates better. The early adopters can become evangelists, and can help encourage colleagues to transition.

Grid Capacity and Smart Charging

Chris: Another common complaint about the focus on electrification is that we won't be able to handle it as a country or we’ll put too much strain on the grid. That we don't have the physical infrastructure under the ground to make it work? Is that true?

Richard: It's a critical question, and there's a lot of complexity in how to answer. In parallel to the fleet electrification, we're also seeing things like electric heat pumps being installed in customer's homes, so we are seeing an increase in the demand for electricity on the grid. There's no debate about that.

If all vehicles are electrified and plugged into the grid at the same time, of course, there may be pinch points and problems, but we aren't envisaging a world where that will happen. And this is where smart charging can be incredibly powerful. This could be for a van driver who's got their vehicle plugged in at home after the end of a shift, it could be someone with a private car at home, or it could be a fleet in their depots overnight.

Uber Green for Everyone

Chris: Back in March this year, we launched a new version of Uber in London, called Uber Green.

That's a version where you can choose to get an electric vehicle so that your trip only gets offered to drivers who are in a fully battery-electric vehicle. We also made it the cheapest version of Uber on the platform. The thinking behind that was that at the moment, when the all-electric Uber population is still smaller than the overall population, you might have to wait a little bit longer. It might not be quite as convenient for you, but that's okay.

What we shouldn't do is try and pretend that being sustainable is something that's only available to people who can afford it or as some sort of premium service. It's not. Our ambition is to make it the default service, and so we've done that very deliberately to try and ensure that people will try it out, will use that product.

It will hopefully create that virtuous cycle. Uber has no ambition to make sustainability some sort of elite choice. It should be absolutely the default for everybody. As we're on that journey to getting to 100% EVs, things that we can do to encourage people to try it out I think are all the better.