“The one thing you’re not short of as a fleet manager is data. You can get data reports and spreadsheets thrown at you right, left, and centre by suppliers. They will happily give them to you all day long. But what we found when we spoke to fleet managers is: ‘don’t give me more data; do something meaningful with it’.”

That’s Ford Fleet Management’s MD, John Wright’s view on something with which many operators will be all too familiar. The Blue Oval’s leasing and fleet management offshoot launched in early 202,1 as a tie-up with what was then ALD Automotive, now Ayvens, as an uptime specialist offering to keep clientele rolling whatever the weather with a combination of standby vehicles and pragmatic use of telematics data.

Its latest venture is a software system known as Fleet Vision. Developed with the AA’s Prestige Fleet Servicing (it does software development as well as SMR work) and launched in late 2023, it aims to soak up information from the firm’s vehicles (all Fords have been factory-fitted with connectivity hardware since mid-2019) and flag up issues before they reach debilitation point.  

He is keen to add that the service is not limited to Ford’s own vehicles and says the system can absorb telematics data from others and, crucially, convert it into something a fleet can understand and make use of – or just do the whole thing for them.   

“You can have a dashboard, you can see everything, and you can self-serve if you want, but actually, we think you want to spend a little bit more money per month, per vehicle, and we will interpret those signals for you and actually do something with them,” he explains. 

“The ultimate expression of it is that we’ve got people in the office monitoring the signals from our customers’ vehicles and making decisions for them. They don’t have to rely on the driver saying, ‘oh, an orange light’s come on on my dashboard. What do I do now?’ We actually know either that it’s on or – even better – we knew that it was about to come on and we’ve done something about it.” 

The firm is geared towards vans and its genesis was, according to Wright, part of Ford’s “reboot” of its LCV operations, when it spotted a gap in its portfolio for a leasing and fleet management business – notable in an age of leasing industry consolidation. Head of fleet management services, Craig Andrews, explains that it has also incorporated LCV-specific elements into the software. 

“If you’ve got tail lifts, winches, stretchers – anything that’s got a regulatory compliance event – a customer can now see, by vehicle, all of the scheduled time when they know it’s going to be off the road. We can add to those events to try and minimise the time that the vehicle’s off the road and include the health alerts from the telematics.”

At the more traditional end of things, the company now has around 4,000 vehicles on its books and a managed fleet of circa 6,500. We first interviewed Wright in mid-2021, in the throes of post-pandemic production shortages, which he believes have upended the vehicle acquisition game.  

“I think it’s fundamentally changed the mindset of a lot of fleet operators,” he explains, “if they changed their vehicles every four years, they now change them every five. Some are even pushing lead times out further. 

“They had to think about what happens when you can’t just ring up a dealer and get a replacement vehicle – you couldn’t even get a courtesy vehicle at the height of the problems – so everybody’s had to really dig deep and rethink how they engage with their supply chain. It changed our expectations in terms of what fleet business looks like today versus what it looked like two years ago.”

That change, according to Wright, is from supply to demand: “There was generally an OEM-led approach, where they were able to produce as much product as they wanted, and as much as they thought the market could stand. And very often, that led to more volume and incentive-based marketing, rather than demand-based, which is what we’re in now. 

“Generally, I think we’re in a better place, although the transition has been quite painful at times, for all parts of the supply chain, as they get used to assets just fundamentally costing more money.”

The firm was also big on short and medium-term leases in its early days – partly as uptime tools but also to plug the gap when fleets just did not know when their next vehicles would arrive. It also coincided with the motor industry’s craze for subscription – also short-term flexible funding – which, as we reported in our November 2023 issue, has since begun to subside in line with greater new vehicle availability. 

Wright says it has stuck with short-term leases and is, in part, a victim of its own success in this area: “The position we’re in now is a sort of plateau. The difference is probably that our flexible fleet isn’t as flexible as it normally would’ve been considered in the past. What I mean by that is a lot of customers have taken vehicles on flex thinking, ‘this will see me okay maybe for the next six months,’ and two years down the line, they’re still in those vehicles.  

“That means we’ve got really good customer loyalty and customers who want to engage with us. But if we’re being selfish, from a flexible leasing operator’s standpoint, it’s quite a challenge, because part of the offer is, when a new customer picks the phone up and says, ‘have you got.?’ we want to say yes, rather than, ‘oh no, they’re all tied up out with our customers’. So we have an ongoing challenge to meet immediate requirements, as well as balancing those who are in long-term commitments.”

The flipside to flexible leases – and it is one Business Car has touched on before – is that they are excellent try-before-you-buy initiatives. Far superior to two-day demos, they work especially well for EVs, because they give the fleet enough time to properly get used to the vehicles and get to grips with how they work in practice. 

“You don’t really understand how it’s going to work until you’re managing them, and doing the day-to-day stuff that goes right but also goes wrong,” adds Wright. 

“There are some well-publicised concerns and challenges [with electric vans] that fleet operators talk about. Range is probably the biggest one that everybody fixates on, but with a well-drafted fleet policy and some, I think, open minds to doing things differently, you can still make them work. 

“What you can’t do is just bolt them into what you’ve been doing for the last 30 years with diesel vehicles, because of course there are some different challenges, but it doesn’t mean they don’t work. It just means you have to accept a different way of doing things.” 

The firm has also run a series of trials to establish the efficacy of its software and applications for EVs on real-world fleets, including one with the City of London markets. It looked at how food and restaurant supplies were moved in and out of the area and examined the numbers of vehicles involved as well as the powertrains.  

“That one is interesting because, as much as anything, it’s about consolidation,” explains Andrews, “we were looking at particular markets and thinking, ‘we’ve got 15/20 vehicles doing regular journeys almost to the same places. We’ve tried to put some logic behind that, because it’s not many miles, so can we consolidate these services for their clients into fewer vehicles coming in and out of London?”

“We’ve continued to supply City of London after the pilots,” adds Wright, “it took away a lot of old, smelly rattly diesel vans that the small independent traders were using to move their goods in and out of town and replaced them with a smaller fleet of multi-use, multi-drop vehicles – all-electric or environmentally friendly.”

Another of its trials involved a “large parcel delivery company” and included the provision of electric vans on a flexible lease-style basis. This, according to Andrews, allowed the fleet to send them off on a mixture of routes and roles, to get a handle on where they do and do not work. 

“They put [the vehicles] into different regions and different patterns of driving. They’ve been able to say, ‘we’ve got 10 vehicles here that we can comfortably run with’ but again, it was because it was a vehicle that they didn’t just have for a couple of days. They’ve actually taken it for a couple of months, understood where it can work, and challenged their charging infrastructure. 

“I think this particular customer had a slower charging speed. What they said is, if they had had a rapid charger as well, it would give them a little bit more flexibility to change routes between the morning and the afternoon.”