A Simple Guide to Conducting a Fleet Electric Vehicle Pilot Program

 In Greening Your Fleet

Over the last five years or so, dozens of major organizations have announced small plug-in vehicle pilot programs. To some, these announcements may seem like a half-measure or even “greenwashing.” But electric vehicle pilot programs serve three main purposes beyond generating positive PR:

  1. Learning about new technologies and how best to implement them for a company’s specific purposes.
  2. Investing in the basic equipment, data management and infrastructure that will one day help support broader adoption.
  3. Educating employees about plug-in vehicles and preparing systems to manage them.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at what each of the 3 elements entail in running a fleet EV pilot project.

P.S. We put together a PDF version of this blog post that you can take with you or share with a colleague. You can download the PDF here.

1) Learning the Technology

 According to a 2014 survey of companies that had recently purchased plug-in vehicles:

“Fleet managers identified testing new technologies as being the overarching driver of their initial adoption of EVs.”

This finding is supported by the relatively paltry initial acquisitions most large fleets tend to make. There is a consensus among those who study the issue that plug-ins—which have a higher up-front cost than conventional vehicles—will show increasing financial returns for fleets in the future.

Vehicle costs will go down, oil prices will likely rise again and as public awareness of plug-ins increases, so too will the value of a brand being associated with them.

As such, most companies choose to study plug-in adoption with a small number of vehicles before moving forward with more ambitious plans to replace their conventional cars. For most fleets, there are numerous areas that need to be evaluated in order to ensure that plug-ins meet their needs, and to tailor their acquisition strategies for maximum benefit.

Fleets Need to Know:

How They Can Learn:

1. Do plug-ins meet vehicle needs? Monitor time, distance, location and energy use of existing vehicles
2. What models, powertrain configurations and battery sizes are the best fits? Study data and evaluate it alongside model characteristics like price, charge capabilities and range.
3. What kinds of charging stations should be installed? How many? Model duty cycles and evaluate them alongside attributes of charge stations.
4. Where should chargers be installed? Evaluate property ownership, permitting, access to electrical infrastructure, costs of installation and vehicle usage patterns.
5. What is the ROI of plug-ins compared to conventional vehicles in the fleet? Track energy use, charging, gas/utility rates and other ownership costs.
6. What areas should be emphasized in training employees to optimize their use of plug-ins? Closely monitor how employees use vehicles and where they struggle most.
7. How should duty cycles be structured to ensure vehicles are charged and ready at all times? Use telematics to track charging and usage patterns.

These are just some of the considerations fleet managers must grapple with as they plan for an electrified future. There are a number of sophisticated calculations that can help determine how many vehicles of each type are best for a fleet. Making these calculations requires data collection.

In many cases, fleets can divert some of the initial cost of pilot programs by implementing telematics monitoring in existing conventional vehicles. Much of the data necessary to understand duty cycles, fuel costs, fleet optimization and even charging schedules can be collected just by studying the cars you have. In other words, you don’t have to buy a Nissan LEAF to learn whether or not its range or charging speed will meet your fleet’s needs.

By installing a fleet-wide telematics system and implementing software analysis solutions, managers can reduce initial up-front costs and improve the performance of existing conventional vehicles.

This doesn’t mean that pilot programs are without their value of course—particularly when it comes to creating policies and education plans for users. But purchasing a range of vehicles and chargers and testing them for each need shouldn’t be necessary with the right data collection and management support.

Sample electric vehicle suitability report

Fleets can use telematics to understand where electric vehicles might make the most sense.

2) Investing in Equipment, Data Management, and Infrastructure

Pilot program investments can often provide lasting returns for a fleet beyond the initial ROI of early plug-in vehicle deployment. This is particularly true of smaller fleets, for whom major charge infrastructure investments won’t be necessary over the long term. Adding electrical wiring in charge areas may require a large up-front investment, but as the number of plug-ins in a fleet grows from, say, two to six, these costs will be amortized across the fleet.

Some fleets may choose to install more expensive fast-charging stations or solar energy infrastructure as well. Evaluation, permitting, construction and equipment costs of these first investments will be disproportionally high in the early stages and decrease over time as more vehicles and solar panels are added.

The same is also true for data management. The up-front investment required to replace or update fleet management software for a plug-in pilot program will represent a majority of the total investment needed for long-term implementation. The incremental cost of expanding your data collection system will decrease with each plug-in added to the fleet.

Don’t go overboard when making early infrastructure investments. A good pilot program doesn’t need to demonstrate all the needs of your conventional fleet or take advantage of the best, most-expensive vehicles and charge equipment. At the same time, it’s important to get a real sense for how a plug-in would function under day-to-day operation.

Sample electric vehicle suitability report

Telematics can also help fleets understand what EV charging infrastructure is needed.

3) Educating Employees and Stakeholders

Right now, electric vehicles represent less than 1 percent of the total vehicle market. Most drivers have yet to sit behind the wheel of one. Pilot programs are a great opportunity to get your staff comfortable with the finer points of plug-in driving now—before your fleet makes any major moves toward electrification.

Education is also crucial to getting the most from the test program itself, by teaching drivers to use plug-ins normally, as though they were fully integrated into the fleet. Non-familiarity with range-limited, fully-electric vehicles might tempt drivers to avoid them whenever possible. If pilot-program EVs sit parked most of the time and not in regular use, much of the value of your early investment will be wasted.

Another key stumbling block for some test fleets is the importance of charging gas-electric plug-in hybrids when they’re not in use. Employees may find it a hassle to park in designated charging spaces or forget to plug their cars in when they’re in a hurry. If a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt is rarely charged, it may as well not have a plug at all.

There are numerous resources available to guide fleet managers in training their staff to use electric vehicles. Your local city or state may even have programs in place to coordinate directly with your fleet.

Beyond initial training sessions, it’s important for fleets to closely monitor driver behaviors so that they can reinforce best practices. This is another reason why telematics and data analysis software are essential to any pilot program. Services like FleetCarma can log charging and driving patterns so managers can figure out which vehicles are and aren’t being plugged in and used correctly. With that information, managers can target feedback to the right drivers to ensure that the program gets back on track.

A Simple Guide to Conducting a Fleet Electric Vehicle Pilot Program Download

Zach McDonald
Zach McDonald has covered alternative fuel vehicles and energy policy for the last eight years, after moving from his native New York City to California. He has resolved that if we must drive we should at least be intelligent about it.
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