BusinessCar Roundtable: The challenges and benefits of EVs in fleets
26 June 2017
Author: Rachel Boagey
More than half of all new cars in the UK are bought by fleets, meaning they have a huge responsibility to meet the impending challenge of Government targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% from 1990 levels between 2023 to 2027.
An obvious way for fleets to meet these levels is by investing in alternatively fuelled vehicles (AFVs), which have the potential to help them not only achieve a competitive advantage but also move their fleets towards a more sustainable future.
Despite these potential benefits to fleets, however, there are still many concerns surrounding the adoption of EVs that are significantly halting their uptake. To address the benefits and issues surrounding getting fleets plugged-in, BusinessCar, in collaboration with charging specialists Ensto, held a roundtable in London, where electric car experts joined together to discuss whether EVs in particular can become a more inviting prospect to fleets going forward.
The first steps to introduction
Between January 2010 and June 2015 42,700 ULEVs were registered for the first time in the UK. Over the same period, however, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) discovered that almost 3.4 million cars were registered - making ULEVs a tiny percentage of the overall vehicle fleet. Reducing overall costs for any fleet manager is a constant uphill battle and over their lifetime, when deployed correctly, EVs can save fleets money compared to traditional internal combustion engine vehicles. However, the first major hurdle faced by fleets is the initial cost of adding them to their fleet.
Andy Hyatt, transport and fleet manager, NHS Foundation Trust, was the first to explain why the organisation hasn't yet adopted EVs: "Currently, price is a big problem when it comes to introducing EVs into fleets, as they are just too expensive," he said. "Leasing them is going to cost me over £4,500 per vehicle per year when I can get a regular car for £3,300. This is a massive difference, especially for fleets that are trying to save money."
Matthew Trevaskis is head of electric vehicles at the Renewable Energy Association and agreed that the upfront cost of EVs is perceived as a barrier to fleets right now: "A project to put 15 Renault Zoes into the NHS, for example, took significant capital budget but gave a massive operational saving that broke even in three years. If you have the capital you can make the numbers work, but generally it's very hard from a normal fleet position of finance to go big and do something on that size."
Bums on seats
As well as cost, the road to widespread EV adoption in fleets is dependent on the availability of charging infrastructure. For fleets, time is money, and the last thing a fleet wants is for their drivers to be stuck on the motorway for hours charging their vehicles.
"So far, the UK's public charging infrastructure is struggling to keep pace with EV uptake, making fleets question whether plugging in their fleet is really a good move," explained Hyatt from the NHS. In fact, a Committee on Climate Change report recently estimated that by 2020 the UK could have around 700,000 EVs on the road - so an additional 60,000 chargers could be required in the next three years.
This draws attention to the need for home charging, explained Ben Wicks, senior campaign manager at the SMMT: "It is safe to say that the benefit of using an EV is lost without the ability to charge from home. This is the main method in which EV drivers should be charging their vehicles as it will enable them to start their EV with a full charge rather than having to stop and search for a charge point straight away."
Hyatt said that in Birmingham, one in 93 people are driving an alternatively fuelled vehicle: "People want them and there is demand for them and what they can provide, but why are people going to keep on buying them if the infrastructure isn't there?"
One of the most significant perceived issues around EVs is so-called 'range anxiety' or the fear that the vehicle won't have enough stored power to handle the daily routine of driving.
Paul Marchment is development manager at leasing company Arval, and he explained that a major hurdle with EV adoption is getting what he calls "bums on seats" in the industry due to range anxiety: "I'm staggered by the number of people who haven't ever driven an EV because they don't really understand it and they build up so much of this range anxiety before they do. I think it's important to encourage people to take an extended test drive and see if the car works for them and their situation."
However, with the range of EVs constantly increasing, we asked when will this not be a problem and whether there is a figure for when range anxiety becomes redundant.
Marchment said this 'golden figure' is almost impossible to achieve: "We used to have people telling us they will introduce EVs into their fleet when they can do 200-300 miles and now they have reached that they are saying they want more before they will think about it. It's an ever-stretching figure."
Many roundtable attendees agreed that the key, in fact, may lie in challenging people to be realistic with how they use the car and where. "Why would anyone need a 300-mile range for a six-mile commute?" asked Marchment. "Drivers really need to be challenged about where they actually use their cars and how because there are ways to avoid range being a problem. They could go down the range-extender route or have a back-up car if necessary, but soon charging will be so quick that this will hopefully not be a problem."
While sufficient charging infrastructure would help shift electric into fleets, a change of mindset towards EVs is also vital. "The most important part is capturing hearts and minds of people you want to use the cars," explained Ricki Sayer, fleet manager at distribution network operator UK Power Networks. "The range of an EV often fits nicely with the journeys being done by the fleet but the mentality isn't changing. People still like to buy what they know and changing their mindset on that isn't an easy task."
Marchment explained that Arval has witnessed lots of resistance from companies who have opted out of introducing EVs onto fleets but then their drivers have gone and bought their own EV: "What the industry needs to do is win that trust with a company. There will be resistance initially but education and challenging habits is a huge part when it comes to EVs being adopted into fleets."
James O'Neill, UK director at charging infrastructure company Ensto, believes that fleets have to be offered the right products that will give them peace of mind and deliver the right service: "That's what EVs can provide. Depending on the size of fleet, for the majority of medium-level car fleets that do shorter runs it's tackling the mindset and changing it as EVs could be really beneficial to them."
Changing mindsets is a challenge for the EV industry, but the doubts and negative press surrounding diesel may have come just at the right time to rejuvenate the uptake of EVs, as Marchment added: "While people are often unaware of the values of electrifying their fleet, they are beginning to get nervous about residual values of diesel now too. Perhaps this will push EVs to where they need to be."
Taking tips from abroad
The Government has introduced a number of fiscal incentives to make electric and plug-in vehicles more attractive in the UK, including incentives now being in place for electric cars and vans aimed at reducing whole-life costs and encourage anyone thinking about making the switch, including low or zero road tax and exemption from the London Congestion Charge.
Norman Harding, corporate fleet manager, London Borough of Hackney, explained that the Government is making a lot of funding available through plug-in schemes. He has around 25 EVs on fleet and another 13 waiting to be delivered and is keen to develop this further, but these are cars and small vans. He said: "We see diesel staying around for a few years yet, especially for commercial vehicles. Hackney is funding fleet replacements through purchase so that they are not tied to a lease contract, giving the flexibility to sell at any time to replace with EV technology when it becomes available for larger vehicles."
Norway is already spearheading Europe's EV surge with the highest per capita number of all-electric cars in the world: more than 100,000 in a country of 5.2 million people. This is due to rapid technological advances and strong government support for EVs.
Ensto president Juha Stenberg said: "Norway offers strong subsidies for EVs, no VAT, free parking as well as allowing them to drive in bus lanes. They're really pushing the technology there and people are going for it because it's not expensive for them."
A sustainable future
For the foreseeable future, especially with diesel declining, EVs are likely to continue to increase their presence in fleets, but despite Government initiatives they are still far from mainstream in the UK. Currently, EVs don't come to the table unless customers ask specifically for them, explained O'Neill: "Manufacturers haven't yet fully embodied it into their approach, and for EVs to become mainstream in fleets this is an important hurdle to cross. For example, my father visited a car manufacturer recently and said he wants an EV and they offered him a diesel."
A push from Government, manufacturers and a change of mindset from fleets are all ways in which electric vehicles can begin to become not just accepted but demanded by fleet drivers, and only then will a sustainable future really begin.