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Canary Wharf: UFO Drive launches electric vehicle rental in Canada Square car park

Head of firm’s UK operation Jonathan Shine says firm is symbiosis between rental, digital and electric

UFO Drive's Jonathan Shine
UFO Drive’s Jonathan Shine – image Patrick Straub

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There’s no doubt whatsoever that electricity is the future mainstream source of energy for cars.

Petrol prices have reached record highs, London’s ultra low emissions zone (ULEZ) recently expanded to cover Tower Hamlets and Newham and world leaders are grappling ahead of COP26 to battle climate change.

Meanwhile the technology for low carbon personal transportation is already here, quietly accelerating past fossil fuel-powered vehicles as they belch out particulates into the lungs of the population and CO2 into the atmosphere.

Car designers have done a good job over the years of hiding the fumes away – directing the exhaust well away from the rarefied, filtered air breathed by those in the vehicles they sell. But, when placed beside the comparative cleanliness of a near-silent electric machine, the mask quickly slips.

Apposite, then, that UFO Drive recently parked up its Tesla Model 3s in Canary Wharf. The company offers electric vehicle hire in cities across seven European countries, and expanded to the UK, launching in London in January 2020. 

Almost entirely app-based, customers book vehicles for a minimum of a day’s hire. These can either be picked up from one of UFO’s locations at any time or delivered to the client for a fee.

Jonathan Shine is the man in charge of the firm’s operations in the UK as it continues to grow with more cars already planned for Canary Wharf and further locations in the pipeline.

“I’ve been working in the electric vehicle industry for 20 years now,” he said. “I was working as a computer programmer and somehow learned that on in September 2001, Hertz was launching its new electric car, so I went out and rented one for a week – it was £70.

“It was a little car by Ford, a really cool vehicle, like a Smart car, really chic, with a range of about 50 miles, unless you put the heating on.

“It was gorgeous. I got in and thought: ‘This is happening, it’s really possible to have a really nice electric car’.

“I love vehicles, but I hate the way they pollute and I thought this was the way forward. So I looked at opportunities to get involved.

“At one point I had the chance to be the importer for what became the G-Wiz, but I spurned it because the cars were just horrible. I got into one and thought: ‘This is bad for the EV world, sub-standard, uncomfortable and not particularly safe’. It wasn’t the future.”

It’s fair to say things have come on a bit. Having worked in many electric vehicle related roles over the years, Jonathan has also gone from owning the original Nissan Leaf with a 90-mile range to the Hyundai Kona, which can travel 300 miles on a single charge and cost £30,000. 

Some people are, of course, still nervous about the practicalities of owning and that’s – in part, at least – where UFO Drive comes in.

“I came across the company towards the end of 2019, contacted the CEO and said I liked the concept,” said Jonathan. “He was just about to launch in London, so it was right time, right place. 

“Aidan (McClean) is amazing. He’s an Irish man living in Luxembourg and is a little bit mad in a good way. You know he’s going to succeed because he’s so determined and energised – he brings everyone along with him.

“He’s travelled a lot, and wondered why, in this day and age, you still have to join a queue to rent a car, get a contract, get a key and sign hundreds of bits of paper.

“He created UFO Drive to revolutionise car rental and make it really smooth and sleek – so people can go from plane to car in five minutes.

“He realised, however, that if you’re going to start a new car rental company, it’s going to have to be electric and there would need to be a symbiosis between digital, rental and electric.”

That premise has resulted in UFO Drive, which now operates 18 locations in eight countries including Oxford Street, Park Lane, Westfield London in Shepherd’s Bush and Canary Wharf.

Rental fees are dependent on duration but can be as little as £70 per day for longer trips and include charging. Typically customers can expect to pay about £100 for a day. 

Tesla Model 3s ready to hire in Canary Wharf
Tesla Model 3s ready to hire in Canary Wharf – image Patrick Straub

Pretty much all aspects of the rental are handled digitally via the smartphone app including locking and unlocking the vehicle, which can be picked up and dropped off at any time at UFO’s bays. 

“Every car is cleaned and charged professionally after every single rental and that’s important,” said Jonathan. “When you rent one, you know the car will be prepared and ready to drive – it will be looking good and we’ll have checked it for any damage so you know you won’t be stung for that because it will have been recorded.

“When people rent with us, they see the convenience, they love driving the cars, even if they rent for the weekend, which is more expensive because of the demand.

“People really enjoy the flexibility of it, the experience of it and the ease of it. We also give loyalty discounts and it’s great to see people come back again and again. 

“We have one customer who has completed 27 rentals with us and that’s the record at the moment. 

“We also do deliveries and, once we expand here, we’re going to offer those across a wider area.

“Customers love that – it costs a bit more, but you can start your journey from outside your house and you don’t have to be there to receive the key – it’s all electronic, all done via the app. You don’t have to sign any paperwork – you just start it.”

While the company is primarily focused on Teslas at present it will be expanding its offering of other electric vehicles as charging networks improve – something Jonathan expects to happen rapidly in the near future. It will also be boosting its Canary Wharf bays from four to eight in order to keep pace with demand.

“Something else that’s really important is that we’re a small company so you get a good, personal service,” said Jonathan. 

“The idea is that it feels like a family business – we’ll sort it out if you have a problem. We take really good care of our customers – that’s our focus and it’s at the heart of everything we do.”

Customers hire UFO drive cars via a smartphone app
Customers hire UFO drive cars via a smartphone app

While holidays and longer trips are UFO’s niche, there is another reason people hire its cars and, despite a forthcoming pop-up in Glasgow for COP26, that’s not just to show off their eco-credentials. 

“We are all electric and one of the pleasantly surprising aspects of the business is the demand for that,” said Jonathan. 

“Hiring electric vehicles is already something people just Google for environmental reasons.

“But it’s also a way to try them out before you commit to buying one yourself. With petrol prices at record highs everything points to hiring an EV where charging is included.

“At present it’s a niche part of the market but that makes us really stand out and we’re the only ones doing it really well because of the digital operation we have.

“There are other companies up and down the country but they’re comparatively expensive.

“With us, you are driving a premium vehicle, we can deliver it to you, there’s 24/7 flexibility and we’re affordable. If you add all those things together, it makes sense.

“We think Canary Wharf is very promising for us and could be one of our best locations. Many of the people who work here or live locally have no parking and don’t have a car because they don’t need one for what they do every day.

“But when they need to go away for a couple of days they now have the option of renting an electric vehicle and everything that means as well as the sheer fun of it.”

UFO Drive’s fleet of Tesla Model 3s is located on Parking Level 3 in Canada Square car park in Canary Wharf.

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Wapping: How Stirling Eco is bringing art to the booming world of electric vehicles

Founder and CEO Robert Grace is building a moped-focused brand that’s filled with creativity and a flare

Stirling Eco founder and CEO Robert Grace – image Matt Grayson

Creativity courses through Robert Grace like the electric mopeds he designs and sells flow through the streets of London. The founder and CEO of Stirling Eco began his career in decorative ceramic tiling, rising through an apprenticeship to the pinnacle of the industry with a company – Grace Of London – that produces intricate mosaic designs using 12, 18 and 24-carat gold, other precious metals and Swarovski crystals.

So what prompted him to launch an electric vehicle company and base his operation on The Highway in Wapping? 

“Stirling Eco came about because I was asked to decorate a bike – an electric moped – about three years ago by a German company because of my reputation with gilding and ceramics and so on,” said Robert. “I said: ‘Sure, send it over’. This bike was to be decorated for a big fancy show in America and, when I got it, put it together, sat on it and tried it out, I realised there was nothing much like it in the UK.

“We actually stock that model in the showroom now – it’s called the Ridgeback. So we did a bit of product research and we were so far ahead of the curve.

“During the first lockdown, I was fortunate that I was staying for three months in Poole, in my friend’s beautiful house, 80 metres from the sea, sitting in the garden and thinking about what the world was going to be like. When you set up a business, you try to imagine how things will be in five years, but the virus turned everything on its head.

“We couldn’t really see beyond 12 months at the time, but I wanted to work out what could set us apart if we went into this market, just as I was set apart from my peers as a tile fixer by the creative component to what I was doing. We decided it would absolutely be the art side of the business that set us apart with the bikes, so we set about designing something really stylish.

“Primarily it had to be functional because people would buy it to get to and from work – it had to work correctly, but beyond that there was no reason it couldn’t be sexy and fun as well.”

The result was the Electro Ride, a low slung collection of curves evoking classic chopper motorcycles but built for modern urban riding. Powered by a 2,000W motor it boasts a 45mph top speed although comes limited to 30mph, has a range of 30 miles on a single four-hour charge and starts at £2,410 for the entry level model. 

A gilded Electro Ride with Swarovski crystals - image Matt Grayson
A gilded Electro Ride with Swarovski crystals – image Matt Grayson

 “You can buy an electric motorbike that does 70mph for 100 miles, but that isn’t the market that we’re in,” said Robert. “We want to transform the way people travel around cities – that’s the nucleus of our idea, that’s where everything begins. The components we use are pretty much standard – a moped is two wheels, handlebars and a throttle but electric vehicle technology is so fluid at the moment. The motors are getting more efficient, the batteries are lasting longer and controllers are evolving.

“So changing the motors on these to upgrade them is relatively inexpensive – it’s not like changing an engine in a car – and the maintenance on them is really simple. Really it’s just tyres and brake pads.

“That’s why we’re an art-orientated business – we can decorate bikes personally for clients and then upgrade the technology as it becomes available.” 

Walk in to Stirling Eco’s showroom and there’s little doubt that you’re at a dealer with a difference. As well as selling the Electro Ride, the company stocks a range of other electric vehicles including the Vespa-style Trento.

Part art gallery, part den for electric vehicle enthusiasts, it boasts street art murals and paintings and a red carpet area for those seduced by the glitz and glam of celebrity.

Taken as a whole it forms the perfect backdrop to the mopeds – especially the art bikes, which include one gilded in 24-carat gold and festooned with sparkling crystals, available for £25,000.

“It’s the usual analogy of being a very small fish in a very big pond because we’re competing with big brands,” said Robert. 

“If we were in the same room as them we couldn’t compete – we’d get torn apart. So that’s why we’re here on The Highway. What we’ve decided to be here is the most exotic fish in the tank and this is our aquarium. That’s why people’s eyes are drawn to us.

“We’ve got graffiti artists here, but we didn’t want the showroom to look like Camden Town, so there’s a really good objective mix of artwork here, combining the work of the Bickerton Grace Gallery, which I set up with photographer Anne-Marie Bickerton, with what we were doing with the bikes.”

Stirling Eco creative director Tee Blackwood models the Electro Ride
Stirling Eco creative director Tee Blackwood models the Electro Ride

A quick glance through Stirling Eco’s social media channels reveals a brand that’s unafraid to have a bit of fun while creating some buzz, tempting celebrities to mount its bikes and even collaborating with Ryan Reynolds’ stunt double in the Deadpool movies. 

Look beyond the hype though and there’s both a solid business case and an environmentally conscious core to the firm’s operation. 

At the time of writing London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) is set for a significant expansion, potentially affecting millions of car owners in just over 120 days.

Robert said: “There’s a massive number of people who will, all of a sudden, have to think about paying £12.50 a day to keep their car in the zone if it doesn’t fit in with the new restrictions.

“Many of those will be two-car families where they need two modes of transport. A lot of our clients are coming in because they can’t afford to keep two cars and they’re seeing us as an alternative. They need to keep one car to visit people outside London because our bikes aren’t allowed on the motorway, but they’re looking to us for a vehicle that’s ULEZ compliant, totally tax-free and that you can ride into the City without paying the congestion charge or polluting the atmosphere.

“We’re doing things properly. You need a CBT at least to ride one of our bikes and they have to be insured. But you also get flexibility – you can take the battery out and into your house to charge it, which costs about £1 for 30 miles.

“As a company we really want to look after people. The batteries are guaranteed for 12 months and we pride ourselves on really good aftercare and like to stay in touch with our clients. We even organise rides and people are welcome to join us.

“The nice thing about these bikes is that when you pull up at the traffic lights you get people asking about them – they really turn heads.

“I’d like to share the story of a client of ours called Greg. He works for a big law firm in IT and used to get the Tube every day from Golders Green to Moorgate and used to arrive at work angry every day.

“He came in the other day and we asked him how the bike was as he’d been riding it for about two months.

“He said: ‘Rob, I arrive at work happy every day’. It was really nice to hear him say that – now in terms of the commute he’s in control, there’s no-one around him, breathing on him, that’s freedom.”

There’s a sense that Stirling Eco, which launched in 2020 is very much at the start of its journey and with a showroom filled with art and creative people it’s a space that demands attention.

As for Robert’s tiling, he’s accepted Wharf Life’s challenge to create a special edition of the Electro Ride decorated with his signature mosaics. We’ll watch this space with interest.

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