One of the leading on-demand ridesharing companies has committed to charging its forthcoming autonomous electric vehicle fleet with electricity from renewable sources.
One of the promises of services such as Lyft and Uber (which are called ridesharing platforms but are more like dispatchers for freelance taxis) is that they will reduce the need for car ownership, and that they will bring down the total number of cars driving in cities, thereby also decreasing vehicular emissions.
The logical next step in that clean transport play is to move to greener cars, such as hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and full electric vehicles, and the one beyond that is using autonomous cars, while the third move looks to be a combination of electric mobility and self-driving cars. But although those steps, in conjunction with things like walkable neighborhoods and clean last-mile vehicles, can help move us forward in terms of a more sustainable transportation model, one of the many environmental elephants in the room is the origin of the energy powering this EV evolution, which in many places is still predominantly fossil fuels.
A gas car is responsible for generating air pollution from its tailpipe each day, even if it's used in a ridesharing capacity to transport many different people to their destinations each day, and those emissions are then divided by the riders. An electric vehicle, on the other hand, produces no harmful emissions directly from its 'tailpipe', but unless it's being charged with solar, wind, or other clean electricity, an EV is responsible for some air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions being produced at the point of electricity generation. Depending on the electricity source of the local grid, even the most efficient electric car could be charged by coal or natural gas, or by hydropower (no combustion emissions, but linked to increased methane emissions), or nuclear energy (which might qualify as clean or low-carbon energy, but which also has its own environmental bugaboos and massive costs to consider)
All of that is a long way of saying that it's not enough to reduce the number of cars and drivers in our cities, and it's not enough to transition over to electric vehicles or autonomous EVs. What's required for a more sustainable transportation sector is connecting the dots between clean energy and clean transport, so that emissions-free renewables are powering emissions-free vehicles. Lyft, one of the companies looking to deploy fleets of autonomous electric vehicles, just pledged to do so, in the name of climate change
"Climate change is one of the defining issues and greatest global threats of our time. Lyft was founded on the belief that technology will enable us to dramatically reduce carbon emissions from the transportation system while improving quality of life and access to opportunity for all Americans. We’re more determined now than ever before to make that vision a reality." - Lyft
According to a blog post from Lyft co-founders, the company is committed to using 100% renewable electricity to charge its forthcoming fleet of autonomous electric vehicles, right from the get-go, beginning with the nuTonomy self-driving vehicle pilot program launching in Boston this year.
The details of just exactly how Lyft will source the renewable electricity to charge its fleets, but a wild guess is that it would happen indirectly, through power purchase agreements (PPAs) or renewable energy certificates (RECs), and not dedicated solar farms with charging stalls. And that can be a sticky point with some renewable energy skeptics, as instruments such as PPAs and RECs aren't very well understood outside the industry, but both of them are standard fare for many large corporate energy purchasers, who don't want to build their own solar or wind farm yet still want clean electricity for their operations. It may begin to be a bit more arcane, as platforms are developing to employ an even more misunderstood technology, blockchain, in the energy ecosystem, and there's even a cryptocurrency specifically for solar energy production, so Lyft will probably have a range of options to choose from once its fleets start rolling out.
No matter which specific approach Lyft takes, by combining clean cars and clean energy with self-driving technology, the company expects to cut CO2 emissions for the US transportation sector by "at least 5 million tons per year by 2025," at which point it estimates that it will be providing at least 1 billion rides each year with its autonomous EVs.
"We believe that ridesharing, combined with autonomous vehicles, will be the driving force that brings electric vehicles from a tiny portion (~0.1%) of all cars on the road today to a significant majority within 20 years. This belief is supported by leading think-tanks and research laboratories. The heart of our transportation problem is that personally-owned vehicles are underutilized. The average car is used only 4% of the time and for electric vehicles, it takes 10 years or more to recover the cost premium through fuel savings. In comparison, Lyft vehicles can be used much more efficiently - an electric, autonomous Lyft vehicle will be utilized over 50% of the time and payback its costs in just a few years through operational savings. These savings will dramatically accelerate the rollout of electric vehicles, displacing millions of gasoline-powered cars and helping the U.S. and world reach their climate goals." - Lyft