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BusinessCar roundtable: Maximising EV potential in fleet

Date: 16 May 2018   |   Author: Sean Keywood

For the third time, BusinessCar gathered key players in the worlds of fleet and EV to discuss how the former can get the most from the latter. Sean Keywood reports.

The best way for fleet managers to evaluate how electric vehicles (EVs) can work for them is to get behind the wheel and try the vehicles for themselves.

That was some of the advice to emerge from BusinessCar's third roundtable on the subject of electric fleets.

Held in collaboration with charging specialists Ensto, it featured experts discussing how to maximise EV potential in fleet.

Having discussed some of the common fears about the vehicles, including the availability of charging points, the panel agreed that first-hand experience was the best way for managers to establish the facts.

Go out and drive

Ensto UK director James O'Neill said, "A lot of fleet decision-makers haven't even driven an EV yet. 

"I think the key for any fleet manager is to go out and drive one, and find out about the network, its good points and bad points."

IT infrastructure firm Computacenter's deputy financial controller Keith Cook agreed with this assessment, having taken this step himself.

"I had so much information thrown at me and decided, 'You know what, I'm going to drive one,'" he said.

"It's been good and bad - in London, great; outside, not so good."

Zoom EV founder Greg Fairbotham said that managers would be likely to find willing volunteers at their firms to try running EVs. The resulting data would then be ideal for putting a case for the vehicles
to superiors.

He said, "There are internal innovators, people who would get their hand up and give you the data, so then in your business you can go to your finance guy and say 'look at the numbers'."

TR Fleet MD Julie Summerell said her fleet was going to be trialling a telematics solution to provide evidence.

She said, "It's based on actual use - that's the attraction to me. We all think we know where it will work and won't work in our fleets, but it's about evidencing it. 

"I'm using technology to help me formulate a decision."

SG Fleet consultancy director Graham Kerr said he had spoken to clients and found concerns included public charging access, range anxiety, and fears of weather and driving conditions affecting EV use.

He added, "You'd think now, with all the dialogue, we should be past that. These are big companies."

O'Neill said new technology would do much to improve things for fleets.

"Everyone talks about vehicle-to-grid, and the communication protocol that's involved in the charge points and involved in the cars is exciting," he said.

"We will probably start to see the realisation of that in 2019, where actually you're getting a lot more usable data, tangible data for a fleet from the charge point and from the car. 

"What that will enable you to do is identify time of charge, what the person's charging habits are, and the efficiency of their driving, so you're going to get that full-circle picture starting to come through, which, as a fleet person, is exciting."   

O'Neill added that manufacturers should also provide accurate data on range in hot and cold conditions to reassure fleets.

Onus on manufacturers

Many participants felt that more should be done to win employees over to the idea of switching to an EV, and O'Neill said that, rather than just being an issue for fleet managers, this should also be a matter for car manufacturers.

"I don't think the onus should be on the fleet side to get people to try EVs," he said.

"I think it should be on the manufacturers to get it into the private market in general. Everyone has a family member who owns a car. Why should it always be on the fleets?"

LeasePlan's head of consultancy, Matthew Walters, said that manufacturers could also help by offering models aimed at all sections of the market.

He said, "One of the things we have seen is, now, you've got very aspirational vehicles coming and you've got the Nissan Leaf, but there's nothing in that space between them. 

"As a petrol BMW 5 Series driver, there's nothing there for me. You've either got a money tree and everyone's in Teslas or you've got staffing issues."

When it comes to installing the infrastructure that goes with an EV fleet, O'Neill said it was important to ask the right questions. "Every time someone comes to you and says, 'here's the infrastructure you need for your fleet', people should ask why," he said.

Walters said that an often hidden and high cost was that of upgrading a building's electricity supply, sometimes needed to meet demand from charging vehicles.

In response, O'Neill said the problem could be mitigated by charge point software which was able to mediate supply. 

"Software is now moving to the point where it can forecast when someone needs to move on. We have done some sites where they may have some priority spaces, but the supply to everything else is mediated," he said.

"If you get a situation where there's a cost for the charger, then a cost for supply, it's blown your costs out of the water. 

"It's about asking that person for a proposal on the maximum you can have without load management and with load management."

Costs are 'nearly there'

A hot topic of discussion for the panel was the need for fleet professionals to persuade others in their firms that the costs associated with EVs could be made to add up.

On this subject, Walters said that while the figures were nearly there, other factors were now driving interest in electrification.

"I'm not seeing finances driving this. Up to last June or July, the conversations I and my team were having with customers were all financial," he said.

"Since the middle of last year, they have been all about the sustainability agenda first. There seems to be a real willingness to make this work - it's not just about WLTP coming in, legislation, or news articles about diesel, it's a genuine, 'We need to look again, this is an option for us now.'"

When asked how much more money companies were prepared to put into an electric fleet, Walters conceded it was "very little", but said the picture was changing.

He said, "It's really tough at the moment, sat in a room with a fleet operator that wants to do the right thing and a financial controller. It's a really tough argument, because then you have got the questions of who funds the home charge point, who funds the office infrastructure. 

"But the conversations are much more energised, and now we are nearly at that tipping point in terms of whole-life costs and demonstrating business cases to say these vehicles are more worthwhile."

Maintenance matters

The panel also discussed ongoing maintenance for EV fleets. This is an area in which London Fire Brigade fleet and operational equipment manager Bob Whitmore said he had seen an unexpected drawback.

"Running gear has been very reliable, but down time has been woeful, mostly around collision damage repairs and the ability of repair depots to deal with high-voltage electrical systems," he said.

"People have to be specially trained, because the risks are high if you get it wrong. If you have a reasonably high collision record, you are likely to see unexpected costs there."

Walters agreed that some unexpected costs had been seen with EVs, but added that overall the costs were still low.

The panel heard that another fear was that the government could introduce taxation on charging EVs to compensate for a potential decline in fuel duty from petrol and diesel. However, Walters said this should not be a deterrent, as fossil fuel taxes would be likely to go up at the same time. While it was possible that the government would not have joined-up thinking on the topic, he believed it still should not be a potential barrier.

He added, "I think fossil fuels will have a place on fleets for a long time to come, combined with plug-ins and EVs. 

"I think the mix will be there for a while, but all these things are changing. It needs all the component parts, including government, local government, charging companies and fleet representatives to come together, and start thinking how we develop this in the right way."