(Reuters) - Uber Inc said on Friday it struck a deal with Chinese automaker BYD Co Ltd to test a fleet of electric cars for its drivers.
The test program, which kicked off a few weeks ago in Chicago and could eventually expand to other cities, is the Silicon Valley startup's first attempt to focus on an electric vehicle, said Uber spokeswoman Lauren Altmin."We've seen interest in the program already from current and potential Chicago partners (drivers)," Altmin said.
Uber, which allows users to summon rides on their smartphones, originally started with a luxury town-car service but in many cities has added UberX, a low frills service with nonprofessional drivers using personal cars. The BYD offering is aimed at those drivers.
The electric car is part of Uber's program to help drivers buy or lease new or used cars. The BYD e6 vehicles are available through Green Wheels USA, a Chicago car dealership that focuses on electric and hybrid cars and also builds EV charging stations.
About 25 BYD vehicles are currently being used by Uber drivers in Chicago, and the hope is to bring that number to a couple of hundred by the end of the year, according to Doug Snower, Green Wheels' president.
Uber began talking to BYD and Green Wheels late last year, Altmin said.
For BYD the deal with Uber could be a step toward the long-held goal of selling its cars to U.S. consumers. The company, whose name stands for "build your dream", is a major automaker in China, but its e6 vehicle has thus far only been used in pilot programs in the United States.
Nissan Motor Co Ltd and Tesla Motors Inc are better known in the United States for their electric cars, the Leaf and the Model S. Uber would not comment on why it had picked a company with a relatively unknown brand.
The e6 is larger than many other electric cars, however, and is being used in London by chauffer service Thriev.
BYD gained Warren Buffett's backing in 2009 and announced plans to sell its e6 electric car in the United States the following year. Since then, BYD's U.S. business has focused mainly on electric buses for public transportation.
BYD publicized the program on its Facebook page but declined to comment on the deal with Uber.
The Facebook post, which has a picture of the vehicle, says the e6 has a 186 mile range on a single charge. It also says financing is available from BYD-approved lenders.
Green Wheels is offering several options to drivers interested in the e6. The most popular program, Snower said, allows an Uber driver to pay $200 a week to use an e6 for his or her driving shift. The vehicle is then returned to a Green Wheels lot, where it is charged until it is used again.
Drivers can also enter into a more traditional lease or a lease-to-own program, Snower said.
Reporting By Nichola Groom; editing by Andrew Hay