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Fleet Profile: National Grid

Date: 08 June 2021   |   Author: Rachel Boagey

A carrot approach is sometimes more effective than a stick when it comes to persuading drivers to go green. Rachel Boagey talks to Lorna McAtear to find out how it worked for National Grid.

Lorna McAtear never set out to be in the automotive industry, but when working as an IT project manager at E.ON on a carbon reduction project, she was poached by the fleet to head up the decarbonisation agenda.

In 2014, upon her return from maternity, her commitment to fleet was recognised, and she joined Royal Mail, the largest fleet operator in the UK, where she spearheaded their involvement in 'Optimise Prime' - at the time the largest commercial vehicle EV project in the UK. Since then, McAtear has stayed firmly in the fleet industry, currently heading up the National Grid fleet - a role she's held since August 2019.

Although McAtear says the industry is experiencing a seismic shift right now, she explains one of her biggest career challenges so far is coming into the National Grid having a vision of what needs to happen in the future, while still trying to make the current situation better. 

"When I first started working here, I was really put through hoops. I had a lot of tactical things I needed to address, such as dealing with the aftermath of dieselgate and all of the WLTP changes that were happening in the industry, while at the same time trying to establish my ten-year strategy. It's frustrating when you have a vision of what you know needs to happen and it's trying to get the ball rolling and put it in place while still dealing with a lot of noise," she says. 

At the beginning of 2020, McAtear successfully set out this ten-year strategy with the aim to transform the National Grid fleet to 100% net zero, including cars, commercial vehicles and the plant. The strategy covered everything from upcoming legislation and being prepared for it, to communication and education of individuals, to process controls and policy changes. 

Much of McAtear's strategy involved looking at forthcoming legislation and educating the fleet on the importance of being prepared and not always firefighting in the background. "I looked at everything and where all the natural life cycles of vehicles fall, and was able to prove that as long as we follow this route then we don't need to panic, as there will be a natural transition in a time frame that works for us."

And that's exactly how McAtear planned to bring electric vehicles on to the fleet. "My plan was to make them as normal as possible, and by that, I mean they're just another vehicle. I don't have to adjust my company car policy because it's just a different fuel type, I don't need an 'EV policy' because it's just another vehicle on the fleet."

All of the National Grid's vehicles are leased on three-year life cycles - something McAtear believes EVs can fit right into if planned correctly. "If you can get ahead and plan it, you can make EVs fit into normal three-year life cycles. All I have to do is make a tweak to my fleet policy, which is no different to when a part of the highway code changes," she says. 

But first, a significant part of this strategy involves McAtear figuring out and proving whether electric cars were an investment her fleet should be making. "I did a whole-life cost calculation from a corporate point of view and proved that actually, electric vehicles costed in," she explains. "Once I presented all options it turned out adopting them was a no-brainer, so that allowed me to move forward with the rest of the strategy. The company realised they could give me more of a budget, but that it wouldn't leave them out of pocket - the reason being that over the life of the vehicle, it didn't cost them a penny more." 

McAtear says her unique strategy means that her drivers haven't been discouraged from choosing EVs when the time comes for them to change their vehicle, nor particularly encouraged when it comes to charging. "I haven't actually done anything as a fleet manager specifically to encourage my drivers into EVs. I often get asked if I did the early adoption trend of going around installing home chargers for all my drivers and my answer is 'no.'"

It may seem like an odd decision, but McAtear explains that she wanted to avoid what she calls the 'social discrimination' that comes with home chargers. "What I mean by that is we already have discrimination with car insurance as there's a post code lottery, which decides how much your insurance costs. This is why a company car is a great equaliser because the company pays that insurance. It's the same with EV charging - what about the employee that lives in a rental flat and can't get one installed? There's also the case of that employee who was living in a house and had one installed but then moved. I can't take it back off them again, so that's a loss that I'll never get back as it's not a laptop, and it's no longer benefitting anyone on the fleet." 

Instead, McAtear explains that she presented drivers with all the risks of having an EV, and let them know that if they wanted to move, they could. 

To incentivise drivers to make the move to EV, the fleet may begin looking at other schemes, offering rewards and helping drivers with their decision by offsetting some of the costs so some employees can pay for their car over a longer period of time, rather than taking a big hit upfront. 

The fleet has also had some workplace chargers installed in key locations, which were previously on trial for commercial vehicles, but we made sure to future-proof it so that cars turning up to the workplace could also use them. "We are looking at installing more of these, but we're trying to understand utilisation before we do a massive roll-out," says McAtear. "Not everyone is going to be in the office at the same time and some people do charge from home, so we don't need to rush and spend a load of money yet. I often get quoted saying something along the lines of 'Don't panic, do it within realistic time frames' as I'm a firm believer that if you try to do too much all at once, you'll make mistakes and spend more money than you perhaps need to spend." 

Several years ago, a 'green voucher' was introduced on the fleet, which effectively allowed more money to be spent if the employee chose an environmentally friendly vehicle. "This was recently updated, so those choosing pure EV's had 25% added on to their allowance," explains McAtear. "Feedback from drivers also meant we reviewed personal contributions and we permitted people to add more of their own money for a pure EV." 

As for the challenges the fleet has faced with EVs, McAtear explains that they are constantly changing. "The original challenge was the supply of vehicles, there just weren't enough. That slowly changed to 'not enough vehicles with a decent range' and that is still true for some of our essential drivers doing significant mileage. The changes to BIK helped remarkably in persuading drivers to make the shift, the benefit gains started to outweigh many of the perceived barriers and people were willing to 'give it a go'.

Despite not doing too much to incentivise drivers into EVs so far, the car fleet already has 387 pure EVs out of a total of 1,732, with another 180 EVs on order. In fact, of an order bank of 400, McAtear tells us only 15 are pure ICE vehicles. This is significantly different to just a year ago when the fleet was a mix of ICE and PHEV. "Every day I'm signing off orders for pure EVs and I see this continuing this way until all the pure ICE vehicles have been replaced in their natural replacement cycles," she says. 

On the subject of Covid-19 and how it has affected the fleet, McAtear explains that as the National Grid is an essential service, it needed to continue as if things were normal, while faced by many inevitable challenges.

"We saw the supply chain go on lockdown and we had a lot of our fleet working from home, but we still had workers out and about and this has ignited interesting conversations internally and made us do a lot of forward thinking," says McAtear. "We've always had job need drivers and perk drivers, and we still have these, but now we have a new bracket of essential drivers. The traditional model is for drivers doing 10,000 miles in order to get a company car, but any drivers who have had to do business journeys during the pandemic are the true 'essential users.'

"The previous 'job need' drivers from before are the ones that have been able to work from home in this temporary environment and might not do much travelling in the future because we've found other ways of doing it. Covid-19  has given us an opportunity to review where we are and think what mobility as a service (MAAS) might look like in five years' time." 

McAtear explains that her strategy of making things 'normal' applies here too. "I am using the changes to working practices caused by Covid as an opportunity to completely rethink employee mobility. I've turned this perceived challenge into an opportunity to look at how more flexible working might change the roles of our employees. I ultimately want to work towards MAAS, but the first step is to stop thinking of company cars in the traditional way with mileage limits.

"Actually, if we start gathering the data now, how can we shift the offering to our drivers and make it so that it becomes more suitable for the employee and what we do," McAtear says. 

Undoubtedly, McAtear says her biggest challenge so far is, and continues to be, the speed of change. "The industry hasn't seen such a seismic shift like this since the invention of the Internal combustion engine 100 years ago. With the air quality crisis, it is now increasingly unacceptable to be doing nothing, whether that is you as the fleet manager or you as an individual, we all now have a part to play.  

"As a fleet manager, every time you think you've caught up you have a dieselgate thrown at you, clean air zones, or an ICE ban, let alone Covid and Brexit. You now need to understand electricity and charging, and if you want to get ahead and plan you now need to become a chemist when exploring all the different fuel types like hydrogen."

McAtear says her strategy intends to take the fleet on a journey. "This isn't a sprint, this is more like an obstacle course with bumps and hurdles to overcome on the way, and we only win when we all cross the line together."