In 2018, business conglomerate Crescent Enterprises and environmental and waste management company Bee’ah announced that they were combining their efforts to launch ION, a joint venture with the goal of bringing sustainable commercial transportation to the region.

ION is dedicated to the development, acquisition and management of electric vehicle (EV) fleets for commercial use, deployed through platforms such as ride-hailing services, as well as corporate and government fleets. Aspiring to play a prominent role in the conversation about electric cars, ION is also seeking to engage with electric utility regulators, road transport authorities, legislators, environmental agencies and customer groups to gain insights and shape policies that will accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles.

ION is being managed within Crescent Enterprises by its in-house start-up incubator CE-Creates, and its VP Samer Choucair explains to T&FME how it is using its relationship with ride-hailer Careem to pioneer green transport, starting with the UAE.

“We set up CE-Creates about four and half years ago with the goal of conceiving and building sustainable businesses. We had no real focus on any specific industry. It was much more about building long term businesses that have a real positive social and positive environmental impact. And are financially sustainable in every sense of the word,” he begins.  “Now along the way various projects come along and naturally a lot of them have been in the green space focussed on renewables but one space that was obvious to tackle was sustainable mobility.”

When rumours began to circulate two years ago, that electric and autonomous vehicle powerhouse Tesla was considering a move to the GCC, the company reacted quickly and reached out to the US firm’s European office.

“We started a conversation around collaborating to run out fleets of Teslas across the region for the purpose of providing real accessible solutions to customers and actually contribute to reducing carbon emissions from transportation,” explains Choucair. “As we do with many other of our startups, we always look for strategic partnerships and like-minded businesses and individuals, companies that we can JV with if it makes sense.”

With Tesla on-board, CE-Creates was soon in talks with Careem for getting the vehicles onto the platform. However, the company recognised it still needed a local partner for the fledgling operation that understood not only the market but also had a strong record in sustainability. The answer was thankfully close to home.

“Being based in Sharjah, we have a good relationship with Bee’ah and our CEO has a very strong personal relationship as well,” he remarks. “They started not so long ago as an early stage start up. Today they have businesses in multiple different areas, they have over 7,000 employees. They are the leading company when it comes to waste management and all kinds of green initiatives around renewable energy and so on. So, they were a natural choice and when we discussed it with them we has an immediate idea that this made absolute sense.”

Very soon into the discussions with Bee’ah it became apparent that the relationship could be scale-able even to a regional level. 

“When we first opened the discussions with them it was about sharjah because they have a solid fleet operation in Sharjah; solid partnerships with the municipality, and so on. And in each of the other regions we were actually talking to other companies as well.

He continues: “Bee’ah has a very entrepreneurial mentality. They are driven by a purpose. They have huge ambitions and they are very agile for a business that size. All fantastic characteristics for a partner. We just clicked from day one. And it made absolute sense. Very aligned in terms of our vision and ambitions and all the core values are pretty much the same. So, it made sense, and it very quickly went from let’s look at the partnership from Sharjah to let’s take this partnership across the region and make and build something big, really substantial out of this.”

Choucair tells T&FME that ION is ‘very much a 50/50’ partnership with CE-Creates offering its start-up expertise having incubated companies like Gulftainer and Momentum Logistics and Bee’ah bringing vital fleet understanding and insight into the dealing with municipalities like Sharjah and Abu Dhabi.

“We didn’t really define exactly what each party will be bringing to the table, but I think we understand what the strengths of each of us are and we are developing those as we go on.”

Following a hiatus during the summer of 2017, the hard work of building ION began in the autumn with the companies concentrating on what a potential pilot scheme would look like and how it could make the necessary impact in the market. Choucair says that all the possibilities of what a sustainable transporter would look like were on the table.

“Initially the idea was that we wanted to get into sustainable transport but how? And in what format? Are we talking about logistics? Or are we talking about people. Are we talking about taxis? Are we talking about chauffeur driven services or are we talking about car rental. There’s so much out there.”

When asked by T&FME how on earth did they work on all those potential visions for ION, Choucair proffers a distinct answer.

“So, we didn’t, we said you know what, we have we have the project in hand and it’s a specific project in Dubai with Tesla and Careem and we said let’s just get this going and roll it out. We’re going to learn as we go. And that’s exactly what we did. We rolled out the fleet of cars. We had an agreement with Careem to put this fleet on their platform; to use this as a test to really gauge demand in the market and more importantly to really understand the operational intricacies of something like this. And I tell you, we might have spent three- or four-month planning this on paper but the minute we got on the ground, it was a whole different ballgame.”

One of the biggest challenges, and this will be familiar to most readers of T&FME, was recruiting drivers suitable for a limousine service pitched (initially at least) at the business user market.

“You know hiring drivers was one off the things we took for granted – it was the least of our worries and it turned out to be the biggest challenge,” he says wryly. “It’s unbelievable and it still shocks me today. You know eight months on from when we started hiring, eight months on from when I started, we’ve still not hired the entire number of drivers we’re looking for.”

He continues: “In Dubai, there are a lot of stringent requirements in terms of the driver having to be trained in a certain way, have their certifications refreshed on an annual basis, being released from previous employers, and so on. There’s quite a bit of regulation around the limousine category in particular.

“There were a lot of challenges that we weren’t aware of. As well as new changes, changes that had been applied as we were getting started. So operationally there was a lot for us to deal with and a lot that we’ve learned.”

Even with a cadre of drivers on board, other problems were to lie ahead made more difficult because of the nature of running one of the first commercial electric vehicle car fleets in a region where the technology remains new and largely untested at the scale the pilot required.

ION conducted the pilot of its striking fleet of turquoise Tesla Model S electric vehicles in Dubai through the ride-hailing service, Careem in May with users of the application able to book ION’s electric cars for a ride anywhere in Dubai. A roll-out in Abu Dhabi is also imminent but Choucair says when it comes to running an electric vehicle fleet, every day is an education.

“Once you actually start operating, you go into a whole new set of challenges you need to learn There is no precedent give of operating these fleets of electric vehicles in this climate. No precedent for us to learn from, in terms of how the charging cycles work; at what point do you cut off taking orders from some passengers? Or knowing how the different charging stations operate and where and what charging stations you can use and what time of day, and so on.

“And then there is drivers themselves. They come from a background of driving traditional combustion engines. Now they have to reset their whole approach and way of thinking of how to deal with this new vehicle. We’ve had a couple of incidents of running out of power in Al Ain, for example, and having to bring the car back on a flatbed.”

He continues: “We tried to mitigate all of the known risks by bringing on board people who come from that background and are from that industry. We ourselves have fleet operators within Momentum Logistics as well as Bee’ah having fleet operators within Bee’ah’s waste management divison. So, there is expertise there but there is a whole new set of challenges that we weren’t aware of that we needed to learn and deal with along the way.”

With the pilot scheme underway, the task now is to roll out the fully green fleet management enterprise in the UAE and across the wider region.

“The idea behind Ion is to not only provide a platform that has not only cars but any kind of sustainable green transportation or let’s say electric transport. We’re looking at everything from buses to bicyles, to motorbikes, scooters. The idea is to build a digital platform that links all sorts of sustainable transport to the end users. So, me, as an end user I have an ION app that I can open up and tell me you know I still want to go from point A to point B and it’ll give me ways to get there whether it’s through a bus or a car or a bicycle or a scooter. 

“It is not going to be restricted to chauffeured cars. We’re even looking at models of car sharing platforms using electric vehicles as well. And of course the ultimate goal is for autonomous vehicles of sorts. Even today we’re looking at some autonomous buses electric buses that could be rolled out within closed communities.”