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.


New OEM Products and Investment Boost Light EV Market

— August 1, 2017

Various light EV (LEV) technologies are emerging to address the congestion, poor air quality, and lack of mobility options negatively affecting transportation markets around the world. LEVs include low speed EVs—also referred to as neighborhood EVs—and electric-powered two-wheel vehicles such as electric motorcycles (e-motorcycles) and electric scooters (e-scooters). These vehicles offer the ability to improve personal mobility while simultaneously reducing pollution from the transportation sector, which are attributes desired by government authorities and citizens alike. In contrast to private cars, LEVs occupy less physical space, contributing less to traffic congestion and providing more flexibility in where they can travel and be parked. Additionally, these vehicles are generally more affordable and have lower capability requirements than full-sized EVs. Due to these advantages, electricity is more competitive with light vehicles compared to the full-sized vehicle market.

Significant OEM Announcements

Leading automotive OEMs, such as BMW and Mahindra, are recognizing the opportunities in the LEV market, and both companies made industry headlines in July. BMW Motorrad released its X2City e-scooter, designed for a variety of urban mobility applications. The kick e-scooter has a foldable steering unit (for easy storage) and a top speed of 25 km/h (15.5 mph) and an electric range of 25 km-35 km (15-22 miles). Rather than distributing the X2City through the BMW Motorrad dealer network, the e-scooter will be sold in bike shops and online by the end of 2017. It is expected to retail for about €2,500 ($2,950).

Indian conglomerate Mahindra Group announced that it will double its investment in the United States, adding another $1 billion in funding. The Mahindra GenZe e-bike and e-scooter brands are key to Mahindra’s North American strategy, which is disruptive to traditional transportation technologies. GenZe recently announced a partnership with the on-demand delivery company Postmates. It will be supplying LEVs in the company’s New York and San Francisco operations and will expand to supply more delivery vehicles to Postmates’ network of 200 cities over the next year.

Market Opportunities

Increasing urbanization and government policies are pushing consumers in heavily populated cities to move away from full-sized cars for motorized transportation, creating opportunities for LEVs. Navigant Research expects the market for LEVs to expand significantly over the next 10 years. According to Navigant Research’s Light Electric Vehicles report, revenue generated by global LEV unit sales is expected to more than double over the next 10 years—growing from a $9.3 billion market in 2017 to $23.9 billion by 2026.

The market will be driven by continued declines in technology costs, advances in technology capabilities, and positive national and local regulatory policies. Unlike other large EVs, the purchase price of LEVs in most markets is closer to their internal combustion engine equivalent. LEVs also have lower licensing and crash test requirements compared to other vehicles, easing adoption for businesses to produce them and for consumers to purchase them. While the market for LEVs is improving, several obstacles still need to be overcome. These obstacles include low retail gasoline prices, relatively high purchase costs, and technology limitations.


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.


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