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Credit: Noya Fields / Flickr / Creative Commons

Questions remain about its grid impact and usefulness, but some say the pilot could be a model for a larger program.

An electric vehicle ride-sharing service launched by ComEd in Chicago as a pilot project in 2017 is three months into its second year and preparing for an expansion.

The ComEd Dash electric vehicle ride-sharing pilot, part of the Bronzeville neighborhood Community of the Future initiative, began serving residents at TRC Senior Village in December 2017. For a $3 one-way fare, residents of the affordable housing complex can reserve a short ride in an electric vehicle known as the Innova EV Dash.

The two-seat vehicle, first introduced in 2013, is meant for local driving. It reaches 35 mph and isn’t allowed on highways. An email from ComEd said the car has a range of 150 miles per charge of its lithium-ion battery. It’s also described as “internet of things”-connected, “with more than 40 built-in sensors that collect data about the car’s performance and ridership statistics,” according to ComEd.

Currently the Bronzeville pilot — managed by ComEd along with Innova and the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership — has two cars, a charger at a local bed-and-breakfast and 11 drivers. In the next phase, for which preparation is planned to begin this month, administrators want to test the service at local universities.

While reports of the pilot’s success so far vary, officials, participants and some experts say it could be a model for a larger-scale program.

ComEd has several goals with the pilot, Melissa Washington, the company’s vice president of external affairs, said in an interview. Aside from testing the viability of the service itself, “the other thing we look at is how well are we able to utilize the technology: either the electric vehicle or the battery,” Washington said. She added that the company also wants to see how the electric vehicle technology integrates with other technology used in the Bronzeville community project. Among other things, this includes a microgrid in development, and, as of recently, several off-grid streetlights.

Research from ComEd shows that while charging demand for the Dash only reached 1.48 kilowatts in the third quarter of 2018, 93 percent of the charging happened during ComEd’s peak hours. This is small demand for the two cars in the program now, but it could be an issue for a whole fleet of cars. Electric vehicle experts often stress the value of off-peak charging to minimize demand and grid load.

The reason for the on-peak charging is that drivers charge the cars around their shifts; since the Dash program operates during the daytime, charging happens during peak hours, a ComEd spokesperson explained in an email.

Given that the program serves seniors, most of whom probably don’t go out late at night, charging during nighttime off-peak hours shouldn’t logistically be a problem, said Mark Nabong, a senior attorney at NRDC. He added that as smart charging capabilities become more common and drivers become better educated on proper charging patterns, off-peak charging could become easier.

There ideally should also be financial incentives for off-peak charging, depending on who owns the cars and chargers, Nabong said. Washington said that for the ComEd pilot, Innova owns the cars and Eluminocity owns the charger.

Melissa Washington, left, and others at the 2017 program launch.

The Dash

“Imagine driving an enclosed bicycle that you don’t have to pedal,” said Ervin Sejdic when asked what it’s like to drive the Dash. Sejdic, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, led a yearlong pilot project using the car that began in 2014. The university received four vehicles, two of which were to be used for services like student transport, and two of which were to be used for research.

“It’s a great solution to low-cost city transportation needs,” which could make it a viable option in Zipcar-like rental programs, Sejdic said. In that case, he noted, a sufficient charging network is important.

It was difficult at times to navigate the cars in a hilly city like Pittsburgh, Sejdic said: It didn’t always feel like the cars would make it up the hills. And sometimes they didn’t charge properly, especially in cold weather, which may have been because of the university’s own charging equipment. (Depending on the program, Innova supplies chargers too.) Still, for organizations that use large fleets of small vehicles, the Dash could be an environmentally friendly option to meet that need, he said.

“Our Dash is purpose-built as a low-cost, low-speed form of neighborhood transportation, deliberately — not accidentally — designed to be much less expensive to own and operate than its major-manufacturer peers like a Prius or Leaf,” Paul Mack, Innova’s chief project engineer, wrote in an email. “This allows us to offer rides for a few dollars — much less than we would be compelled to charge if we used full-size EVs or hybrids, and about one-fifth as much as Uber.”

While Mack acknowledged comparisons to high-end vehicles are inevitable, he emphasized that the Dash isn’t meant to be a high-end luxury vehicle. He added that in terms of energy efficiency, he’s calculated that the Dash compares favorably to the Nissan Leaf.

Potential for growth

Substantial evidence isn’t available on the success of “first mile/last mile” programs like the Dash pilot, since very few programs exist. In the case of TRC, residents seem satisfied for the most part. And given the relatively low cost for rides, it could offer access for more people to use electric vehicles.

Of TRC Senior Village’s 70 residents, Letrice Hall, the property manager, estimated that between 10 and 15 residents use the service, while three work as ride ticket sellers. Hall said that the residents she’s talked to “love” the Dash program, particularly because it allows them to build relationships with the drivers and ticket sellers.

She acknowledged she’s heard from residents that they wish they could travel farther; as of now, drivers have boundaries they have to stay within — one to two miles to get to a grocery store or train station, for example.

The limited distance is also why Patricia Abrams, TRC’s executive director, thinks the program only provides minimal benefit. She pointed out that most of TRC’s residents don’t use it. They have other family or friends who can help them, or they just walk to the train station. Considering the price, she said, that’s often the more sensible option, especially since many residents are on very tight budgets.

Washington noted that the program didn’t attract the ridership they initially hoped for, which led ComEd to expand the program to two other senior living facilities in the Bronzeville neighborhood. According to data provided by ComEd, “Ridership in Q4 2018 exceeded our target goals by 34% as a result of these program enhancements.”

“I know it’s a pilot program, but I think it benefits TRC,” Hall said. And if the program ends up expanding, she hopes more senior living facilities participate.

Nabong, at NRDC, said that along with environmental benefits electric vehicles offer, it’s important to understand how the program affects transit as a whole when gauging the success of programs like this one. Once a city adopts it, he said, “do you see folks using public transportation more? Do you see folks out more? Do you see the elderly not being home-bound?”

“It’s not just about how people swap out [internal combustion engine] vehicles with electric vehicles,” Nabong said. With technical advances like transportation electrification, “you will actually see transportation used differently.”

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David has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care, and was a Chicago correspondent for the Energy News Network. Now based in New York, David covers northern New England.