It’s the hottest thing since front-wheel-drive. “Going green” has fleet managers in all corners of the industry scrambling to figure out how to reduce companies’ carbon footprint and fossil fuel use, while, at the same time, making certain that the fleet mission is accomplished. Resistance, particularly from drivers, makes going green a challenge, but shareholders and CEOs often have made environmental initiatives a company-wide priority that must meet pre-determined benchmarks.
One solution to the green challenge lies in electric vehicles (EVs), but many fleet managers have difficulty envisioning an application for these units. However, with a little creativity, fleets of all types can find ways to incorporate EVs.
All About the Mission
Ground zero for all fleets is finding vehicles that can accomplish the mission safely and efficiently. It’s not unlike staffing. Human Resources are given a position to fill, the job has certain educational and experience requirements, and candidates are judged on how well their backgrounds meet those requirements. The company wouldn’t likely fill a position in accounting with an engineer, or a plant manager opening with a salesperson.
The process is the same for fleets. Vehicles have a mission and a job to do, and the fleet manager reviews the “resume” of each vehicle and determines the best fit.
As EVs have been introduced into the marketplace, finding applications for their use in fleets has been, to say the least, a challenge. Occasionally, it is a matter of a fleet manager dismissing EVs as not fitting any of his or her existing fleet applications, e.g. sales, service, or marketing.
Existing fleet usage is generally not a good application for electric vehicles, for any number of reasons:
Range. Most electrics have limited range when compared to internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles — less than 100 miles, give or take. For fleet vehicles that accumulate 20,000 miles per year or more, this can certainly be a drawback.
Lack of infrastructure. Drivers have confidence that wherever they are, if they need gasoline, they can find it quickly. They don’t have that same confidence with EVs; charging stations are only now being installed for public use. Some areas have many, some none at all.
Size. Electric vehicles are necessarily small — compact or subcompact — with limited cargo and passenger space.
When fleet managers are trying to match EVs with their overall fleet mission, such reasoning makes perfect sense. There are (or can be), however, applications for business use that more creative-minded fleet managers will consider.
Electric vehicles aren’t a broad-based solution; however, the first step in finding applications for them is to address, rationally, the issues that, at first glance, seem to preclude business use.
The most common challenge made to using EVs is range. A tank of gasoline in an ICE vehicle will generally get 300 miles or more, versus an electric vehicle’s 75- to 100-mile range on a single full-charge. For a sales or service person driving 2,000-3,000 miles each month, the former is an easy choice. But, not all sales staff drive the interstates, cruising 50 miles to the next sales call. Some fight the stop-and-go traffic of downtown, and may only drive 20-30 miles each day. Some are assigned narrowly delineated territories; still others are pool vehicles, assigned and returned daily. For them, an electric vehicle may be an option.
Lack of infrastructure, no matter how limited the daily mileage, is a legitimate concern. When vehicles are assigned to drivers (and are taken home at the end of the workday), even if the daily mileage is low, an EV will need to be charged at some point during a week’s use. There are two primary charging processes for electrics, called Level 1 (110V) and Level 2 (220V). There is a third option, Level 3 (DC charging); however, its availability is currently very limited.
Most electric vehicles come with a Level 1 charger, which can be plugged into any domestic 110V outlet. Although fully recharging a dead battery would take approximately 22 hours, charging overnight, say from the end of a work day to the following morning, should be more than sufficient to provide enough miles for the next day. It is not likely a driver will completely deplete an electric car battery — any more than that same driver would drive an ICE car’s gas tank dry. For applications where a vehicle is centrally garaged, a Level 2 charger can be installed for a relatively low cost, and vehicles can always be fully charged each day.
The cargo and passenger space issue is a simple one to address. Just like selecting vehicles for any application, if space — either cargo or passenger — is an important criterion for selection, some electric models won’t be a solution. Today’s available EVs do have space for four passengers and either trunk or hatchback space for some amount of cargo. Choosing electric vehicles can be limited to applications for which a compact or subcompact car is acceptable.
Applications That Work
Where does this leave fleet managers who need or wish to go green, but are having difficulty finding fleet applications to use electric vehicles? Fortunately, with a little analysis, there are more applications for EVs than one would think at first glance.
In the commercial fleet sector, corporate fleets can use electrics in a number of applications.
Security. Many companies have either a corporate campus or other facility (plant, distribution/warehouse, etc.) for which they have full-time security patrols. Private security has been described as a “24-hour left turn at 15 miles per hour” — an oversimplification to be sure, but not entirely inaccurate. Security responsibilities are primarily observation and reporting, checking parking and visitor passes, and securing facilities (door locks, access). Electric vehicles are an excellent solution to this need; mileage is limited, vehicles are centrally garaged (for charging), and space is usually not a major requirement.
Pool use. Pool vehicles are not uncommon fleet applications. A large corporate campus (e.g., one with multiple buildings) often has pool vehicles available for staff who need to attend meetings at a building on the far side of the facility. Employees who must travel locally (attend off-site meetings, light local delivery, even picking up guests at the airport) are often provided use of pool vehicles. Branch and regional offices, too, use pool vehicles for such purposes. An electric vehicle provides an excellent solution for this type of application.
Local fleet use. Not all business applications for EVs are “specialty.” Even within the general fleet inventory, there can be those that entail only local or low-mileage driving. Insurance adjusters, for example, often drive only locally, writing estimates of automotive or other property damage, taking photos, etc. They usually work alone (no need for extensive passenger space), and don’t carry a great deal of equipment (only a camera, paperwork, and laptop), so there’s no need for a great deal of cargo space. A local branch office of an insurance company, for example, can use electric sedans to great advantage. Even if vehicles are assigned and taken home, the limited usage will ensure that charging and range won’t be a problem. Local delivery, such as for a print shop, office services, or supply company is another fleet application for which EVs can be a solution. Many fleets have such low-mileage, space-limited applications, even within regular fleet operations.
Are There Benefits?
Beyond just showing the world that the company is addressing environmental concerns, and the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, from a practical standpoint, there are advantages to finding applications for electric vehicles.
When the right applications are found for electrics, downtime for service is nearly eliminated. Regular preventive maintenance on ICE vehicles includes oil and oil filter changes, other filter checks and replacements (air filter, gas filter, transmission/transaxle filters), other fluids (transmission fluid); maintenance and repair issues also include emissions, various hoses, belts, and gaskets, and other items involved in internal combustion, cooling, and lubrication. Fully electric vehicles have no engine fluids (no engine), no engine oil (nor filter), and no air filter — none of the usual items used for conventional gasoline-powered fleet vehicles. Beyond brakes and tires, the only regularly scheduled preventive maintenance generally consists of an annual battery pack check.
Although range is limited, comparing the respective costs of EVs vs. ICE vehicles reveals how much less expensive electric vehicles can be. A gasoline-powered car with a 20-gallon tank achieving 20 miles per gallon will have a range of 400 miles; with $3.50 per gallon fuel cost, for a total cost of $70. In comparison, assuming a range of 75 miles, 16 kilowatt hours to fully charge an empty battery, and the national average of 12 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity (as of press time), 75 miles will cost $1.92. The ICE range of 400 miles is 5.3 times the 75-mile electric range; thus, power cost for 400 miles of driving in the electric will be $10.18. That’s just short of one-seventh of a fraction of the cost of a gasoline-powered car — dramatic savings by any measure.
In addition to cost advantages, some electric vehicles are small enough to help inner city drivers navigate narrow city streets and fit into precious city parking. While there are certainly small ICE cars, there aren’t any that can drive the 20 or 30 miles an inner city fleet vehicle drives for pennies.
Limited Applications, Substantial Benefits
Electric vehicle manufacturers must be careful not to try to market the product as an overall fleet solution; they aren’t — yet. The challenges of range, infrastructure, and size are real. By the same token, however, fleet managers must not view their existing fleet, and deny electric vehicles a place. The fact that a sales rep drives 25,000 miles each year is not a reason to reject EVs outright.
As we’ve seen, it may take a little bit of outside-the-box thinking to find a home for EVs. Corporate or branch/regional pool use, security, low-mileage fleet use, all are legitimate business use, and all can be accomplished without great sacrifice by electric vehicles.
Not yet mentioned, but definitely a consideration, is what the public, company shareholders, and many employees desire: to see the company take measures to reduce its carbon footprint, help reduce the nation’s dependence on oil imports, and protect the environment. Going green, however, is not an easy task. Fleet managers are limited by the mission of the fleet when considering green options.
Electric vehicles will continue to evolve, with increasing range, more extensive infrastructure, and thus provide more and more solutions to fleet managers. Going green will, as time goes on, develop a number of solutions. But, electric vehicles will always be part of that effort. Why? Because every building (offices, homes, manufacturing plants, retail locations, and public structures) uses, and will continue to use, electricity. Today, although they are somewhat limited to local and low-mileage applications, creative fleet managers can find applications for EVs.