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Smart Columbus Encourages Uber Drivers to Go Electric

As part of a broad rethinking of transportation, Ohio's capital is making $90,000 available for ride-hailing drivers who trade in their gas-powered car for an electric model.

Ubers in Columbus, Ohio, may be getting a whole lot quieter, and more sustainable.

Smart Columbus, the multimillion-dollar effort to reimagine wide swaths of the transportation sector in the city, is making grants available to drivers of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft to phase out their gas-powered car and buy an electric vehicle.

Known officially as the “Smart Columbus Transportation Service Provider Battery Electric Vehicle Rebate Program,” the project has $90,000 in incentive funding available. This rollout represents the second phase of the program. The first, in June of this year, made $120,000 available to taxi companies as rebates when old gas-guzzling cabs were switched out for electric cars. That program made $3,000 available per car. Funding is provided by a $10 million grant awarded to Columbus by Paul G. Allen Philanthropies.

“We wanted this program to impact enough vehicle purchases to measurably reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from ride-haling services,” said Bud Braughton, project manager for the city of Columbus, explaining the thinking behind setting $3,000 per car rebates. “Targeting $3,000 per vehicle helps us convert 40 gasoline powered vehicles to EVs across the program, which translates to 135 to 269 metric tons of CO2 emissions eliminated per year, for the service life of the 40 vehicles funded.”

Participants must provide documentation showing they’ve traveled at least 10,000 miles in fare trips in the last year in order to qualify for the full amount. Rebate applications are available on the Smart Columbus website and are due by Jan. 31, 2019.

The program to target high-mileage vehicles as an area to incentivize EV adoption makes sense on a number of levels, say organizers. For one, greenhouse gas emissions reductions are multiplied when fleets or passenger vehicles are no longer burning gasoline or diesel. Secondly, having an Uber ride show up in an electric car has the ability to introduce the technology to more riders, who may not be entirely familiar with it.

“This incentive program focuses on transportation service providers (TSPs), which typically drive four times as many miles per year as personal vehicle owners,” Braughton explained. “The pollution reduction benefits for TSP vehicles is therefore four times as great as for personal vehicles. 

“We also believe the program will generate thousands of positive experiences when our residents hail and ride in an electric vehicle — potentially experiencing an electric vehicle for the first time,” he added.

Ohio isn't alone in its push to transition high-mileage and high-use vehciles to electric-power. In California, several steps have been taken to speed the transition of heavy vehicles to cleaner, electric engines. The California Air Resources Board recently approved a new rule that requires transit agencies to phase in electric buses, with fully electric fleets by 2040. And in Los Angeles, a demonstration project will put more than 20 battery-electric big rigs on the highways to move goods along the much-trafficked routes between the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to warehousing and distribution facilities in the Inland Empire roughly 50 miles away.

California, home to the largest market share of electric vehicles in the country, recently marked the sale of the 500,000th electric car, according to Veloz, an industry nonprofit that tracks electric car sales. Electric car sales in California hit 512,717 in November, up 30 percent from October and up 164 percent from one year ago. 

Smart Columbus announced in November that EV sales exceeded 1 percent of vehicles sold during the summer months in 2018. That share may sound like a sliver, but marks a milestone in EV sales in the region. The increase is largely credited to the sales of Tesla’s Model 3, a more affordable version of the signature electric car, making up 54.6 percent of EVs sold in the region over the summer, according to Smart Columbus officials. The city is also home to the Smart Columbus Experience Center, where potential EV owners can learn more about, as well as drive, electric cars.

“Columbus is emerging as the Midwest’s leading city for EV adoption,” said Mark Patton, vice president, Smart Cities for the Columbus Partnership, in a statement. “These record-breaking sales figures demonstrate that central Ohio car buyers understand that electric vehicles are the future, and our market is ready to buy them today.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.