Can Car-Sharing Culture Help Fuel an Electric Vehicle Revolution?

As Zipcar, Uber and other car- and ride-sharing programs add more EVs, they’re pushing cities to expand charging infrastructure and convincing users to go electric.

Europe’s car-sharing programs have been shifting to electric. Paris has over 1,100 stations and 4,000 self-service electric cars available. Copenhagen has 400 BMW electric vehicles in its DriveNow program. Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
Europe’s car-sharing programs have been shifting to electric vehicles; Paris's programs have over 1,100 stations and 4,000 self-service electric cars. In the U.S., the slow spread of charging infrastructure has been an obstacle. Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

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Twenty Nissan Leafs are scattered at electric charging stations across Chattanooga, Tennessee. At first glance, the compact electric cars may seem like they’re already owned, but they’re actually for public use—and as easy to access as a bike share.

Users just have to download the city’s electric car-sharing service Green Commuter app, get approved, and choose a vehicle. Most are available for $7 an hour, and a few sponsored by the city’s electric power board are as low as $4 an hour.

In one year, the project has sparked demand for both electric vehicles and EV infrastructure, including from housing developers interested in adding charging stations, said Philip Pugliese, transportation system planner for the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA), which manages the project.

“We have this goal of expanding electrification and infrastructure, and this program is giving people the opportunity to experience electric vehicles,” Pugliese said.

For over a decade, car-sharing companies like Zipcar have had some electric vehicles in their fleets, but U.S. demand for EVs started to surge only in the last few years as governments tried to limit greenhouse gas emissions, battery costs dropped and more models hit the market. With China and European countries now setting electrification goals and planning to ban diesel and gas-powered vehicles within the next few decades, major automakers are scrambling to electrify their vehicles, and most U.S. cities aren’t prepared.  

One way to increase U.S. demand and help cities expand EV charging infrastructure is through car-sharing and ride-sharing fleets that can introduce future car buyers to electric vehicles, said Robin Chase, co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar.

Car sharing is growing rapidly in urban areas as more people forego the hassle and expense of owning a car. The number of car-sharing users rose more than 300 percent in North America from 2010 to 2014, according to the latest data from the University of California-Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center. With the support of a city or transit authority, an accessible charging network and an affordable price, electric car sharing can not only make transportation more climate-friendly, it can also help drive electric vehicle adoption, Chase said.

Gateway to EV Adoption

In 2001, when Zipcar first added electric vehicles to its fleet, the EVs were the last ones to be taken out of the lot, Chase said. But in the last few years, that’s changed. “People aren’t as afraid of electric vehicles as they used to be,” she said.

“Exposure to electric vehicles makes a difference for people,” said Alan Jenn, a researcher at the Institute of Transportation Systems at the University of California-Davis, citing a 2011 study of drivers who tested one for a year. Most of them said the experience made them more likely to buy, and Jenn said his recent research has shown a similar effect after using one in a ride-sharing or car-sharing service.

Chattanooga's car-sharing electric vehicles can be found with charging stations around the city. Credit: Tennessee Valley Authority
Chattanooga’s car-sharing electric vehicles can be found with charging stations around the city. Credit: Tennessee Valley Authority

Ride-sharing companies like Lyft and Uber are also investing in electric vehicles.

In the coming months, Lyft is testing nuTonomy autonomous electric vehicles in Boston, and the company has partnered with General Motors to deploy electric autonomous fleets in San Francisco and other cities. It has a goal of providing a billion electric rides per year by 2025. Uber is pushing electric vehicle rentals in London, India and the U.S.

Will Charging Stations Catch Up to Demand?

Chattanooga has always been friendly to electric vehicles. It just celebrated the 25th anniversary of its electric bus fleet and was one of the first mid-sized cities in the U.S. to get an electric car-sharing program.

Its Green Commuter car-sharing project was made possible through a grant from Tennessee Valley Authority, which has three solar farms that generate electricity to offset 22 charging stations at retail centers, the university campus and downtown. Maintained by CARTA, these stations have 62 ports that can be used by electric vehicle owners, too. Students often use the EVs to tool around the city or pick up friends from the airport, and tourists drive them downtown.

“We want to make sure the public has confidence it will work,” Pugliese said. “I think public agencies can have a role in that as we look toward the future with a mix of public and workplace charging.”

However, building and maintaining that infrastructure is still a huge hurdle. Most cities don’t yet have widespread charging networks—even in EV-friendly states like California.

Los Angeles is launching the electric car-sharing service BlueLA in lower-income neighborhoods. Credit: Mark Ralston/Getty Images
Los Angeles is launching the electric car-sharing service BlueLA in lower-income neighborhoods. It aims to have 100 cars on the road and 200 charging points in 2018. Credit: Mark Ralston/Getty Images

There are only about 16,500 public charging stations in the U.S., with 45,000 charging ports, compared to more than 100,000 gas stations, according to the Energy Department. California alone has a quarter of those charging stations, and research shows it needs more than 200,000 ports to meet projected demand by 2020.

Car2go ran into a charger problem in San Diego. The car-sharing company launched the nation’s first all-electric car-sharing fleet there in 2011 with the “promise and expectation that a robust charging infrastructure would be established,” said Tim Krebs, communication manager for car2go. In 2016, the city’s utility gained approval to install 3,500 charging stations, but the project just started this summer. Because of the lack of infrastructure, car2go switched back to gas-powered cars last year, Krebs said.

Some cities have launched smaller-scale partnerships to expand local infrastructure neighborhood by neighborhood. In May, the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality District started a program at three public housing units that offers six electric Kia Souls to residents. In Chattanooga, two charging stations are currently being built at new residential complexes, and many workplaces are interested in adding them as well, Pugliese said. The transit agency is also talking with other Tennessee cities like Nashville and Knoxville about how to replicate its program.

How Cities and States Are Driving EV Growth

Expanding infrastructure and encouraging people to choose electric vehicles will take more rigorous state policies, Jenn said. California has a Zero-Emission Vehicle program, which requires automakers to sell electric vehicles, and eight other states, many of them in the Northeast, have adopted similar mandates.

In November, Atlanta passed an ordinance that requires residential and commercial builders to install electrical infrastructure that will support chargers. San Francisco added a similar rule this year. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has set a goal of having 50,000 electric vehicles by 2020, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced $3.5 million in funding to speed up the adoption of electric vehicles, inviting proposals for ways to reduce charging station costs and to use electric vehicles to improve grid resiliency.

Chase said she’s seeing major shifts in the U.S.—and car sharing can play a role.

“There’s a huge number of American consumers for whom electric vehicles are ideal and could be usefully used for what they do,” she said. “And having these shared fleets are the exact right space for electrification.”