If 2020 provided the shocks that spurred the fleet sector toward electric vehicles, then 2021 brought the follow-on of serious aspirations. It was a year of mandates, goals, and benchmarks for aggressive fleet electrification.
Leading automakers committed to 2030s era sales goals for their electric vehicle models, as corporations and governments put themselves under sustainability mandates. What all these targets share is the room to move. No precise science or accurate projections determines why 2030, 2028, 2035, or 2050 is the ideal year to reach an electrification or zero emissions goal. California’s 2035 deadline for eliminating sales of new internal combustion engine vehicles is 100% arbitrary. Many of the leaders and executives setting these goals today will have moved on, transitioned, or retired when the mandates come due tomorrow.
Will their successors adhere to the aspirational goals or conveniently adjust them to emerging and unforeseen realities?
With possible moving goal posts in mind, the truth about electric vehicles is the deeper you head into electrification, the more complicated and unpredictable it gets. None of those challenges are insurmountable, but they will require more thought, planning, and time. Not to mention advances in technology and data to resolve today’s holdbacks and hesitancies.
Four electrification panels I hosted during the 2021 Fleet Forward Conference, Nov. 10-12, underscored those realities. The speakers from organizations electrifying fleets made it clear you cannot buy EVs and just plug them in.
For starters, you must choose the right infrastructure that matches electrical provision that could require extensive construction and rewiring. Driving and maintaining EVs involves an entire new curriculum of training and education, including for the technicians who specialize in repairing EVs. The safety demands from acquisition to activation require their own team of experts, insurers, regulators, and consultants. Plans shift and change, so stakeholders and authorizers must be informed and persuaded at every step in the process. Once the electrified fleet is ready to roll, duty cycles must accommodate the EV performance and dynamics.
None of this happens without money: Investment, budgeting, and projected returns. As much as cleaner air makes sense, de-carbonization ultimately stems from reliable sources of funding that produce beneficial bottom lines.
Those are just some of the micro-challenges. Now for the macro issues that will bring some reality checks:
Electric Vehicle Costs & Buy-In
EVs overall still cost more than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Rebates and incentives that vary among states can offset some of the added cost. That's one reason most Americans still resist owning one. A new study published by the mobile insurance comparson site Jerry suggests nearly one-third of the representative sample of Americans (1,250 respondents) never foresees buying an electric vehicle (EV) and nearly 60% don’t foresee buying one in the next six years, according to a recent report in Forbes magazine. In 2021, EVs on average cost $11,000 more than full-sized gas-powered vehicles. While the survey reflected retail consumer preferences, fleets face the same ROI challenges.
Electric-vehicle sales are rising, up 88% year-over-year in 2021, but they still only account for about 3.2% of the total U.S. car market, according to research firm Motor Intelligence, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.
Fortunately, those numbers are not static. As battery technology increases in capacity and declines in cost this decade amid growing competition among EV manufactures, vehicle prices are projected to decrease. But that needs to be communicated consistently to present and future buyers.
For now, each fleet operation should perform its own cost-benefit analysis for near-term and long-term electrification and choose its transition and phasing dates accordingly.
EV Charging Access Anxieties
While increased battery capacities are alleviating some of the range anxiety about electric vehicles, charging access fears remain. Timely depot and home-based charging require Level 2 chargers, which take about eight hours for a full charge, and even a Level 3 charge lasts at least 40 minutes on many EVs. Standard 120v outlets require about 24-36 hours to fully charge an EV.
EVs won't fully catch on until owners know they can start driving on a partially “filled” charge and easily access charging points while out and about that take 10 minutes or less. Until charging is readily available like gas fueling, forget about taking long road trips. Owning an EV requires planning to ensure a secure charging regimen to accommodate transportation needs. For now, EVs are largely tethered to depot and home-based chargers.
When The EV Freezes Over
EVs have not caught up to ICE vehicles in handling emergencies. The recent snowed-out pile-up along a 52-mile stretch of I-95 in Virginia revealed how EVs are vulnerable in such situations, according to a KIRO-FM local radio news report. ICE vehicles can charge the battery with gas or diesel engines while EV batteries, which are challenged by cold weather, don't last as long or heat up as well. Repair and maintenance resources on the road so far are not as readily available for EVs as for ICE vehicles. That means a long tow to an EV repair facility or charging station. EVs will need their own roadside assistance networks and resources to build driver confidence.
Electric fleet vehicles stuck in such situations will forfeit more time and efficiency, resulting in larger revenue and duty cycle losses. Fleet managers should factor such risk into their transport and duty cycle calculations.
Grow and Fortify the Power Grid
It’s not being said enough: There is no way the present power grid can handle the anticipated demand for electrification. Solar and wind-driven micro-grids could certainly complement existing resources. Utilities can expand the smart tech-driven data management that regulates power flows to off-peaks. But the power grid still lacks enough core energy sources. Even well before mass vehicle electrification, we have seen massive power failures in Texas and California due to weather and energy supply pressures. Add in fleet electrification to those recurrent disruptions, and you’ll see more failures and brownouts in the future.
The U.S. will need to expand its energy supply and beef up the grid. One of the most promising, firm, and constant sources of cheap electrical energy could be “new nuclear.” Small modular reactors (SMRs) that use thorium instead of uranium as its fissile material generate less waste and cost, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal. The report states SMRs can be deployed regionally and don’t require the heavy mid-20th century era construction and nuclear plant footprints. France, the Netherlands, and China are all doubling down on investment in nuclear facilities. Technically, nuclear energy is green, as carbon-free overall as wind and solar when factoring build-out to production from front to end. In fact, the European Union has proposed classifying nuclear energy as green since it contributes to a renewable energy future. We will need energy from all cleaner sources, especially for those times when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind won’t blow.
While fleet operations must remain focused on the micro-challenges and steps toward EV adoption, an awareness of the macro-environment can certainly inform judgment calls and motivate EV end-users to advocate for a balanced marketplace approach to fleet electrification.
For electric vehicles to evolve and grow out of their “Model T” phase, they will need comprehensive support in energy, financing, and performance.