Navigant Research Blog

The Demise of the Uber Leasing Program

— August 22, 2017

Recently, Uber announced that it will discontinue the vehicle leasing program it has offered to drivers for the past 2 years. Average losses of $9,000 per leased vehicle were cited as the reason, but this only serves to highlight the problem that independent transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber, Lyft, and Didi are likely to face as the transition to automated vehicles (AVs) begins. Companies that currently operate with minimal physical assets, relying instead on independent contractors, will face a huge challenge surviving as standalone businesses when confronted with building or buying massive fleets of costly AVs.

The leasing program was designed to provide drivers operating on the Uber platform with access to new, well-maintained vehicles at a relatively affordable price that also included unlimited mileage and free maintenance. For passengers, knowing that a ride won’t be a broken-down rattle trap makes using the service much more appealing. Many of the drivers operating on these services don’t have the financial wherewithal to get a loan or a lease on a new vehicle, so the program seemed like a great path toward earning more money.

Since Uber doesn’t manufacture vehicles, it has to acquire them before leasing them to drivers. Wall Street banks loaned the company $1 billion in 2015 to get the program launched, but Uber’s lack of vertical integration means added costs at every level in the value chain. Losses originally projected to be about $500 per leased car increased 18-fold. This is not a formula for a building a sustainable enterprise.

Not Just Uber

Uber is not the only company acquiring cars. Following General Motors’ (GM’s) $500 million investment in Lyft in early 2016, the automaker launched Express Drive to provide low cost rentals of GM cars to Lyft drivers. Unlike Uber, GM has a ready supply of relatively new off-lease vehicles available. GM tapped this supply for Express Drive as well as its more traditional carsharing service, Maven, that also launched in 2016.

Like most other automakers, GM has a captive finance arm through which it could fund the program at lower cost than Uber. Repurposing off-lease vehicles for these mobility services reduces the supply of used vehicles in the market, helping residual values. Having these relatively new vehicles in the field also exposes people to contemporary GM products that may have a marketing benefit. The network of thousands of GM dealers can provide maintenance and repair services, something for which a TNC would likely have to pay a premium. In spring 2017, GM added Maven Gig, which provides similar low cost rentals to drivers on platforms beyond Lyft.

Vertical Integration Is Key

GM may be losing some money on the current Express Drive and Maven Gig programs. However, unlike the TNCs, the automaker is profitable and can afford to subsidize this effort. Doing so also helps to reduce potential losses in other parts of the business. For a TNC without this level of vertical integration, it’s unlikely such a program would aid in reaching net profitability in any realistic timeframe.

The same factors that benefit an automaker in this regard also come into play when looking at the deployment of automated mobility services. If Uber has to pay Volvo or some other automaker for very expensive vehicles, plus cover insurance maintenance and fuel, even eliminating the cost of drivers may not lead to profits. It’s likely that only acquisition by an automaker can save TNCs from extinction. Yet, that may only happen if their inflated valuations collapse.


Utilities Bet on Open Standards for PEV Charging

— August 10, 2017

Electricity as a transportation fuel has only been used in a few mass transit platforms like light rail that are large-scale megawatt consumers. These platforms have highly predictable load patterns, and these electricity consumers are generally visible to utilities because their load is large enough to require utility coordination on infrastructure development. The next step in transportation electrification, happening now, is the advent of light duty, individually owned plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs). This is a step toward less predictable load shapes and less load visibility (not good from a utility perspective), but also one toward increased load and theoretically highly flexible load (which is good).

Understandably, utility interests in this new load have varied largely as a function of expected PEV adoption in a utility’s territory. Since the emergence of mass market PEVs in 2010, many utilities were skeptical of the potential for PEVs, in part because many initial market adoption forecasts turned out to be highly optimistic. However, with over 6 years of market development in the books that have witnessed marked advances in PEV capabilities alongside reduced costs—exemplified by the Chevrolet Bolt and Tesla Model 3—utilities are coming around to the realization that a PEV strategy is a must. The latest example of this need is an investment from Energy Impact Partners (EIP) in the EV charging services company Greenlots.

This investment is an important indicator of utility interests because EIP is a utility investment group that represents a network of 47 utilities in 12 countries and this is its first investment regarding EV charging services. The investment is especially significant because Greenlots, which offers EV charging and energy management solutions, is one of the more vocal proponents of an open standards-based approach to charging network development.

In a sense, Greenlots is championing a system analogous to cell phone services in which the equipment (cell phone) is not tied to a service provider (e.g., Sprint, Verizon, etc.), allowing charging station owners to switch between service providers as they see fit. This is not the way PEV charging services originated. Many early installations were and continue to be tied to a manufacturer’s hardware and management software platforms. When or if these manufacturers fail (as happens with emerging markets), their installed equipment can become ineffective.

Beyond the concern of stranded charging units, the evolution of PEV charging encompasses a variety of services for which no one company is likely to have the best solution. Therefore, vendor lock-in could be detrimental to preventing obsolescence. Equipment-agnostic services can include the dynamic management of PEV load in time with grid operator pricing signals, the discharging of power from vehicle into infrastructure, vehicle energy information interfaces for consumers, and streamlined payment and transaction management systems, among others. Flexibility among major consumers (utilities, energy service companies, and/or property owners) to pick among such solutions can reduce costs while enhancing the ability to share data from multiple services.


Beyond Ultra-Fast Charging: Part 2

— June 1, 2017

The potential of automated drive has produced many a report theorizing about the likely impacts of automated drive technologies on the transportation system, the built environment, and more generally, society. Navigant Research is no stranger here; however, our tack is far more conservative than some others. The basic theory most of these reports (including ours) supports is that automation adopted primarily in passenger mobility schemes will drastically reduce transportation costs and increase passenger convenience. This leads to more transportation overall with higher dependency on automated light duty vehicles, but also less use (proportionally) of alternative transportation modes (bike, bus, rail, air, etc.).

The above means that automated vehicles are likely to be highly utilized and therefore automated mobility fleet managers are likely to desire durable vehicles with limited downtime for maintenance or refueling. To be competitive for automated services, battery EVs (BEVs) would have to rely on ultra-fast charging, which would make batteries less durable. Otherwise, they would require more advanced battery systems or significant increases in battery size (to bring charge rate [kW] and battery capacity [kWh] closer to a 1:1 ratio), either of which makes them more expensive.

More Pollution Regulations Are in the Future

At the same time, cities (where automated mobility services are likely to emerge) will probably adopt regulations limiting polluting vehicles within certain geographic boundaries. If they don’t, the ultimate impact of automation is likely more fossil fuel consumption. In such an environment, plug-in hybrids (like those employed by Waymo) may have the upper hand. Alternatively, this could be an opportunity for battery swapping.

Battery swapping notably has a poor record, but many of the barriers to battery swapping as a solution for the passenger BEV market don’t apply with automated mobility fleets. Battery swapping in part failed as a global strategy because it depended on OEMs agreeing on a common battery pack. In a managed fleet with vehicles from a single OEM, this is no longer a problem.

Is Battery Swapping the Answer?

Battery swapping solves reliability concerns, as the charge rate can be managed to optimize life and the battery can be enrolled in revenue generating grid services when off the vehicle. This would also make transportation electrification’s impact on the grid gentler. Additionally, swapping is a faster solution than the fastest wired or wireless charging solution and (as Tesla showcased) faster than liquid or gaseous refueling.

The last advantage is that in fully automated services, range is not as big of an issue as it is when there is a human driver. Theoretically, battery swap packs could be built smaller and added to the vehicle in increments to satisfy certain uses. As an example, instead of having two or more 200-mile battery packs per vehicle, managers could instead employ three or more 100-mile battery packs, which would further reduce overall system costs and risk.

It will be some time before such a solution might be employed. It is a later consideration in the evolution of mobility automation business models. The priority considerations are the development of the automated drive technology itself and the regulations to permit driverless vehicles. It is likely that initial services will leverage conventional refueling and/or recharging infrastructure until reliable business models have been produced. After that development, then competition within mobility services will drive such innovations.


Beyond Ultra-Fast Charging: Part 1

— May 31, 2017

Now that the continued decline in battery prices can make battery EVs (BEVs) cheaper to drive than the competition, ultra-fast charging is viewed as the final link to making them mainstream. Given that, the automotive industry is focusing on approximating the time it takes to gas up by rolling out ultra-fast charge networks in North America and Europe.

Tesla’s success with the supercharger network supports the above assumption, but there may be flaws in the ultra-fast charging concept relating to the basics of batteries. The primary component being that charging at a power capacity (measured in kilowatts) higher than the BEV’s battery energy capacity (measured in kilowatt-hours) stresses the battery, reducing its useful capacity over time. Most of the upcoming vehicles capable of accepting an ultra-fast charge will likely have battery capacities between 30 kWh and 80 kWh, whereas upcoming ultra-fast chargers can provide 120 kW-320 kW or more, 4-10 times the battery’s energy capacity.

Reducing Side Effects of Ultra-Fast Charging

Automakers and charging networks can develop systems to diminish the cumulative effects that ultra-fast charging has on batteries (as recently evidenced by Tesla). These solutions are effectively reducing the charging rate under certain technical and ambient environment conditions, limiting the value-add of the fast charging. Such limitations haven’t yet been seriously evidenced because the fastest charging today is only operating at around 2 times the battery capacity. Most charging generally occurs at sub-1X rates.

Only when BEV owners primarily rely on fast charging over slow charging will these limitations become more common and more concerning to potential customers. This is more and more likely given the increasing range of BEVs alongside the development of the ultra-fast charging networks. The advances in BEV and charging technologies mean that BEVs will no longer be limited to single-family homeowners with a reliable charging station in the garage. Indeed, many without residential parking spaces (and therefore charging equipment) may now view the long range BEV an option so long as they can fast charge.

Such ambitions should be tempered through consumer education efforts and/or the development of more modest slow charging options in long-term parking structures. This unfortunately further complicates an already complicated pitch to the mass market. It also threatens consumer consideration of electrification or limits use of the ultra-fast chargers themselves. However, such concern is warranted to avoid negative shifts in consumer perceptions.

Overall, as long as BEVs are primarily purchased by single-family homeowners, this potential problem is probably marginal. However, for the future transportation modes dominated by automated vehicles, it is likely a non-starter.


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