By Donald Dunphy
It’s too late in the game to deny the profound effect electric vehicles will have over transportation very soon. With well-worn concerns regarding vehicle pricing, infrastructure, and the ever-present range anxiety being addressed, resistance is fading.
Fleet Management Weekly spoke to Marc Geller, a director with the Electric Auto Association on the subject. He is a writer in the area of public and corporate policy related to electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, and related source energy, and was a co-founder of the non-profit advocacy group Plug In America.
Electric Auto Association
The Electric Auto Association’s stated mission is to help accelerate the widespread adoption of electric vehicles through education, infrastructure support, and demonstration. “That mission of the Association has been consistent since it was formed in 1967, stemming from the oil crisis of the late 1960s and the 1970s,” Geller said. “It’s about getting people engaged with the concept of using electricity to power mobility, and how this offers solutions to many pressing crises, from pollution to the import of fuel from unstable and undemocratic parts of the world.”
Geller said the goal has remained consistent regardless of the political ideology of whatever party was in power at the time, whether the administrations were interested in electrification or were completely hostile to it. “Support for electrification sometimes happens in unexpected times. George W. Bush had a tremendous impact … he signed the bill that landed us with the tax credits for EV, which the Obama administration inherited.”
To further illustrate the point, Geller said that during the Trump administration – which was steadfastly pro-coal and fossil fuel – the movement toward EV was strengthened, not diminished. “More EVs were sold, I suspect, during Trump’s term than at any previous time,” Geller suggested. “Automakers released more EVs than at any previous time. Despite their rhetoric, the fossil fuel industry continued to retrench, and we didn’t see dramatic increases in coal production or gasoline and diesel usage.”
What precipitated this positive forward movement? Geller said that climate change has been a strong incentive to move more rapidly toward sustainable options. “Pollution, which motivated California’s regulators in the ’90s to develop the zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate, was very important (to reshaping opinions),” he said.
What Was Holding EVs Back?
A handful of persistent knocks have been leveled against electric vehicles over the years. Chief among these has been cost, mainly the cost and efficiency of the battery. The price of having a battery or array of batteries to achieve a reasonable rate of kilowatt-hours was steep, as it is for any emerging technology. Yet, as new findings emerge, efficiencies are discovered, and Moore’s Law takes hold, prices come down.
Geller said, “We’re now at the point where the cost of making a battery-electric vehicle shows no tremendous premium over an internal combustion vehicle, and if you’re looking at the overall cost of ownership, EV and internal combustion vehicles are pretty much at parity already, given the lower cost of electricity compared to gasoline and diesel.”
That leads to the issue most people cite in rejecting EVs, being range-anxiety, the fear that an EV won’t have enough juice to get the driver where they want to go. It is a potent tool for the anti-EV crowd as the worry of being stranded in a strange place is a nearly universal one. “The downsides of EVs have certainly been exploited or over-emphasized. Those who are disinterested in change or moving forward, specifically the industries that have benefited historically from the status quo, are bound to be out front with their concerns.
“Questions about range anxiety go to issues of public perception, the utility, the value for the individual,” Geller said. “Specific to range anxiety, one can get an electric vehicle that more or less rivals the range of a gasoline vehicle. There’s an increased cost because you need to pack more batteries into the vehicle, but it can be done.”
But do people need that degree of kilowatt-hours onboard? Geller suggested that the miles-driven people believe they use versus what they actually use tend to be markedly different. “The average American’s commute is about 38 miles a day. Most people do not drive 100+ miles a day. The initial electric cars went about 100 miles, right around 2010. The range has only expanded, and you have cars that are priced at the point of the average new car that can go to 150 miles before needing a recharge.
“Add to that, most people now have access to charging electricity where they park the car. For most Americans, they can drive their car home, plug it in, whether in a conventional 120-volt outlet or a 240-volt charging station and never face the need to visit a public charging station to suit their requirements.”
Geller mentioned the present winter storm blackouts rolling through Texas. While this has a real negative impact on EV users, it is equally problematic for gasoline- and diesel-fueled vehicles, as most gas stations will also be without electricity to run the pumps. In this instance, Texas’ responsibility to winter-proof its electric grid is where the blame should lie.
Yet, the power will come back, and the previous considerations will return to the fore. Likewise, so will reliance on vehicles because these enable people to do things they want to do. To gain a greater foothold on the public imagination, Geller stated, an electric car has got to be better than what people have been used to with internal combustion vehicles. And they already are, said Geller.
“The perception is changing, maybe not rapidly enough, but it is happening. People are beginning to see vehicles they actually want to buy.”
Sunsetting the Sedan
One obstacle Geller recognizes in the marketplace is the prominence of electrified sedans. As readers of Fleet Management Weekly know very well, vehicle preferences have shifted toward SUVs and pickup trucks, so much so that many automakers have been slowly moving sedans to the background and out of the spotlight, regardless of what fuels them.
“The U.S. market is less and less interested in buying sedans,” Geller said. “As you can imagine, the automakers weren’t particularly interested in introducing electric pickups in the past, given the high margins for what they already had with internal combustion versions.”
Additionally, fleets were finding greater utility and potential with SUVs, and have been slowly moving away from sedans for some time now. An automaker that has segregated electrics into the sedan vehicle type is likely not capturing the attention of the widest potential marketplace.
This is changing. Just as people are coming around to the benefits of EVs, so too are manufacturers looking to expand the forms in which these arrive. Everything from small vehicles to utility bucket trucks to heavy duty applications are inching toward what electric might offer. In 2021 and 2022 automakers including Ford and GM and new EV startups like Lordstown and Rivian are releasing pickups and SUVs.
There are basic reasons for it. Several countries announced forthcoming internal combustion engine bans. If you want to do business in these countries, you need to have vehicles that comport with the laws of the land, and OEMs need to offer those vehicles. From a wider lens, these regions appear to be in line with innovation, rather than merely sticking with business-as-usual. That’s is a good look to have in a global economy.
What is The Value Proposition for Fleet?
The defining goal for a fleet is to get the products and/or people to where they need to be, and it needs to happen safely and efficiently. However, budgets will always a factor, and the phrase “the bottom line” is ubiquitous for a reason.
Geller stated that, while capital investment is a large consideration from the outset, EV will justify inclusion with potentially significant savings. “You have to get your organization and internal infrastructure ready for it. You have to deal with issues of supplying electricity to the vehicles, depending on the use-case. Is it a fleet that sits overnight without being used, or is it a 24-hour fleet? The charging requirements are different.”
That said, Geller added the saved costs of ownership will help pay back the spend. “The overall basic (value) proposition is that you’ll spend so much less money on traditional fuel and maintenance, you will not need to do oil changes, so that is a savings not just of material costs but labor costs, however you factor in your preventive maintenance. Overall, there is less wear-and-tear on EVs used under normal conditions (leading to reduced repairs and downtime).”
Another consideration for fleet is that some regions of the U.S. are looking into reducing road access to internal combustion engines. In 2020, the state of California made waves with its plan to outright ban them by 2035. Should such plans come to pass, it could be advantageous for fleets to prepare by design now than by necessity later.
“If you’re talking about smart cities, autonomous vehicles, the basics of the ‘mobility revolution,’ then electrification is at the core of all of these,” Geller said. “In terms of autonomous vehicles, whether we’re talking about fully driverless, semi-autonomous/assisted, we know it is coming. We’re not sure to what degree and I suspect that fully driverless is farther away than some suggest. But electrification is key to all of these because of the efficient utilization of resources.”
Further, with a potential resurgence in sustainability, fleets might need to prove how they are achieving levels of pollution reduction as an operational mandate. Electric vehicles can make the biggest dent in the smallest timeframe.
But what will it take for organizations and individuals to finally cross that line? Geller suggested that it could be peer pressure. “Driving an electric car is, for most people at first, a scary proposition. But once you see your neighbors, your customers, and your competitors driving EVs, it takes the pressure off. You are not going to be the test case for viability. You can use their acceptance of the technology as a good indicator it will work for you.”