Apr 29, 2023

Uber aims for greener trips and to expand London electric vehicle fleet

New features come to Uber app and firm is funding installation of 700 public charging points in east London

My Uber driver is weaving around north London looking for a charging point for his electric car. We pass a lamp-post charger, which he dismisses as "a smart solution but slow", and a dedicated but occupied bay for electric vehicle (EV) charging.

Here, like much of inner London, there are few homes with driveways for overnight charging, leaving drivers at the mercy of limited public points. "You’ve just got to hope no one's there when you need it," he says.

This Uber driver can do more than most to tackle the issue: the Guardian is being driven by the firm's UK general manager, Andrew Brem, licensed to carry passengers since Christmas. Brem is overseeing the installation in east London of the first of 700 Uber-funded public chargers.

In terms of converting its fleet to electric vehicles, London is as good as it gets for Uber. The global bosses of the ridesharing firm will host a "sustainability" event in the UK capital on Thursday to announce measures to push greener trips for users and drivers. The chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, will take to the Bafta stage to unveil features in the app – with actor Edward Norton, a longtime Uber backer and climate campaigner, flying in to add a little Hollywood fizz.

The choice of London is not accidental: a city that leads the way for Uber in electric vehicle uptake, doubling EV numbers since early 2022 to host 10,000 of the 60,000 registered on the app worldwide. Uber has targeted a fully electric fleet in London by the end of 2025 – an ambition that looks a tall order if it hopes to keep the current number of 45,000 registered vehicles in action.

The transition is partly facilitated by a £145m clean air fund Uber banked from levies on trips between 2019 and 2022 into individual pots for drivers to buy or subsidise renting an EV, shepherded in by Brem's predecessor, Jamie Heywood (who now runs a solar power firm in Germany).

Brem, meanwhile, isn't just topping up his salary by driving to get the view from the shop floor; he wanted to go through the process last year when Uber was struggling for drivers as labour shortages bit. Even for a "vanilla" type, as he puts it, with a fixed address and being adept with the admin, the Transport for London licensing process took him eight months.

Uber has had an uneasy past with TfL but Brem acknowledges the wider context of city policies as being the major factor in EV growth. The congestion charge and the ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) have been significant incentives to electrify – and since the start of 2023, Transport for London has only licensed private hire vehicles that are zero-emissions capable.

London has more of the UK's 43,000 chargers than other regions, and TfL and the mayor, Sadiq Khan, are to unveil more, but the capital's relative success masks inequalities. Much is in the hands of boroughs – and wealthier boroughs have more public chargers. "Not where I’d argue they are most needed," Brem says, "in Redbridge, Brent or Newham, where people drive most and where most of our drivers are."

One Uber driver he met has taken to throwing a cable out of the window of his second-floor flat, for convenience and cost-saving: "The difference between charging overnight at home or rocking up to a Tesla supercharger is absolutely enormous."

Returning to the Guardian offices, Brem, the former chief commercial officer of British Airways, forgets to officially end the booked ride as our interview continues. A warning message pops up on his phone, with an invitation to watch an instructional video on sexual harassment policies – a reminder of Uber's efforts to clean up in other ways after concerns over safety and checks on drivers that saw its London licence imperilled for a second time in 2019.

As the Guardian's collaborative investigation into the company, the Uber files, underlined, the firm has had an unsavoury history of attempting to circumvent rules around the globe.

Brem says Uber is a very different place now: "We’ve all seen the movie and read the files. That was the past."

Now, he says, they "influence with integrity". He is still not happy about court rulings in Britain that demanded Uber treats drivers as workers. Brem claims those regulations "have not caught up with the gig economy … or are ridiculously bureaucratic or unfair, where competitors are not complying".

But he says Uber follows the rules, whether it likes them or not: "The culture is not conservative or staid but it is nonetheless one that takes obligations very seriously. We just try and change them."