Lyft is hailing a ride to an all-electric future. The rideshare company announced Wednesday that it is committing to have 100 percent electric vehicles on its platform by 2030, a move that seeks to get out ahead of new emissions regulations under development in California.

"We are taking a big step forward, leading our industry and helping to meet the climate challenge that faces all of us," Sam Arons, director of sustainability at Lyft, said in an interview with Greentech Media (listen to the full interview on the Political Climate podcast).

The new pledge will require transitioning all vehicles used on the Lyft platform to EVs “or other zero-emission technologies” over the next decade. Lyft will have the ability to source EVs directly for its Express Drive rental car program, its consumer rental car program and its autonomous vehicle program. But the vast majority of vehicles used on Lyft’s network are driver-owned, which means the rideshare company will also take on a bigger role in facilitating the transition to EVs more broadly.

"The idea is that we need to do a lot of hard work over the next 10 years to make EV driving so compelling that all of these drivers are basically jumping out of their chair at the opportunity to drive an EV,” said Arons.

This work will include connecting Lyft drivers to existing EV incentive programs, as well as advocating for new incentive policies at various levels of government. It will involve negotiating with auto manufacturers to reduce EV prices and aggregating demand to help drive down costs across the supply chain. Lyft also plans to do more to connect drivers to charging providers and help make EV charging infrastructure more ubiquitous and reliable.

"If we can do all those things, we think we're going to get to the point probably somewhere around mid-decade, as the battery cost curve keeps coming down, where it's going to be so compelling that drivers will want to do this," said Arons. "We can help everybody to switch to an EV and have a better experience and have more net earnings than they would if they had continued to drive a gasoline vehicle."

Drivers who participate in Lyft’s EV rental program in Seattle, Atlanta and Denver are currently saving between $50 and $70 per week on fuel costs, he said.

Uber, Lyft's top competitor, has taken steps to integrate its service with public transit and promote EV adoption under policy pressure but has yet to announce a specific EV target. John Zimmer, Lyft co-founder and president, was asked on a press call Wednesday if the company would prohibit drivers with internal combustion engine cars from using its platform starting in 2030, but he did not give a definitive answer.

"We need to make it a financial no-brainer — that's on us," he said. Lyft released a white paper Wednesday outlining a multipoint plan for meeting its EV target, which could include collaborating with auto manufacturers to make an EV model designed specifically with rideshare use in mind.

New California emissions rules just around the corner

Lyft announced it will end its two-year-old carbon offset program in order to focus its efforts on direct decarbonization through electrification. The company acknowledged in a blog post that ending carbon-neutral rides will increase its net emissions in the short term, but it contends that the move should "dramatically" lower emissions over the long term and slash gasoline consumption by more than 1 billion gallons over the next decade.

California regulators are paying close attention to the emissions from transportation network companies (TNCs), such as Uber and Lyft. Legislation passed in 2018 requires that state air quality officials impose rules on the TNC industry that would take effect by 2023. California Air Resources Board (CARB) staff are in the process of drafting those rules and are expected to present them to the full board by the end of the year. 

A 2018 CARB analysis found that vehicles used in ridesharing services produce approximately 50 percent more emissions per passenger mile than the average passenger car in the state. The additional emissions stem primarily from "deadhead miles," the miles driven by the driver on their own in between picking up and dropping off passengers. CARB staff calculated the TNC fleet average for deadhead mileage to be around 39 percent. Rideshare drivers also spend more time idling in between trips.

Despite these stark figures, the same study found that ride-hail vehicles operating in California in 2018 produced a tiny portion of the state’s overall carbon emissions, accounting for just 1 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from light-duty vehicles. For context, light-duty vehicles produce around 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in California.

But according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the climate impact of ridesharing is greater than it might appear. That’s because ride-hail vehicles are not only replacing personal car trips but are also actually increasing the overall number of car trips.

"In the absence of ride-hailing, many would-be ride-hailing passengers would take mass transit, walk, bike or forgo the trip," the organization wrote in a report published earlier this year.

Also, while the COVID-19 pandemic has caused ridership to crater, use is expected to pick back up as the U.S. economy reopens and as commuters remain wary of taking public transit in the presence of larger groups of people.

"Building back better" from COVID-19

The Union of Concerned Scientists' report concluded that the environmental impacts of the rideshare industry could be mitigated if companies take strong steps to electrify vehicles, promote carpooling and facilitate connections to mass transit. Arons said that Lyft is working on all of these fronts. Shifting to EVs is a big piece of the puzzle, but the company really views itself as a "multimodal technology platform."

"The post-COVID-19 a great opportunity to build back better, and building back better doesn't mean only EVs; it means becoming a better partner and a better piece of the transportation ecosystem, which absolutely must include transit," Arons said.

Lyft is partnering with public transit authorities to facilitate first- and last-mile commuting between buses and trains and a user's final destination. The company's app also lets users choose between different modes of transportation, including electric scooters.

California's top air regulator praised the rideshare company for taking a more holistic approach.

“Getting to zero emissions is about more than electric vehicles — it’s about making it easier for people to get around without cars," said California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols. "Lyft’s focus on creating easy access to a network of affordable low-carbon transportation options — including bikes, scooters, EVs and transit — is a blueprint for the zero-emission transportation system of the future."

Lyft is building on existing partnerships with the Environmental Defense Fund and other environmental groups to meet its electrification and low-carbon transportation goals. The company is also joining The Climate Group’s EV100 initiative to help jump-start its EV efforts.

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement that Lyft’s new EV commitment accelerates efforts to create "a cleaner, more prosperous and more equitable future" coming out of the coronavirus pandemic. It also "sets the standard for other tech and transportation leaders to follow suit."