Alphabet electric vehicle trial suggest a role for “EV ambassadors” within fleets

Published:  26 September, 2012

Fleets need to create internal electric vehicle “knowledge centres” to aid drivers to understand their benefits and limitations, suggests an in-depth pilot study by Alphabet.

After carrying out an eight-week electric comparison trial with one of its customers, the company believes that there is a role for ‘EV ambassadors' within fleets.

These would be drivers with significant exposure to EV use, who would be able to offer practical advice to colleagues.

“It's not enough just to spend a few hours or a day in an EV,” said Matt Dillon, Principal Service Delivery Manager, and responsible for fleet at Alphabet's partner in the pilot, Amey Group, one of the UK's leading public services providers.

“You have to live with the electric car and become an expert in its strengths and weaknesses,” he said after the two-month comparison test between his diesel company car and a Nissan Leaf. “Using an EV calls for a very different mind-set.”

Severe lack of practical information

Alphabet set up the back-to-back trial after asking its customers how it could help them to get to grips with EVs. Many replied that they lacked impartial, first-hand information about electric vehicles in everyday fleet use—such as operating costs, performance, practicality and the driver's experience.

For the pilot, Alphabet fitted Matt's VW Passat BlueMotion Tech SE and a Nissan Leaf with a state-of-the-art telematics system. As well as logging journeys and vehicle performance, the equipment was able to record differences in the way he drove each car.

Running costs

Measured solely on the cost of fuel used in the trial, the Leaf was a clear winner. The Passat averaged 54.7mpg, at a fuel cost of 14.01 pence per mile while the Leaf worked out at 1.65 pence per mile—nearly ten times cheaper— when charged overnight at 4.6 pence per kWh.

However, electricity is not the only outlay for the driver of an EV. While EVs can be charged from standard 13 amp domestic sockets, it is preferable to install a purpose-made 30 amp home charging station. This means making a one-off payment of around £800, although prices are steadily dropping.

Given the major savings on fuel and BIK (0% on EVs until at least 2015), the company or driver should easily recoup the cost of installing home charging within a year.

From the employer's viewpoint, the cost equation is more finely balanced. The savings on business fuel and employer's NI for the Leaf offset its higher lease rental compared to the Passat as long as half or more of the cars' mileage is business.

But if the percentage of business mileage falls below 40%, the saving from the EV becomes marginal while below 25% business mileage the EV is no longer cheaper for the employer.

Range and mileage

Mileage is central to the EV debate of course. The Leaf's quoted range of 80-100 miles is no match for the 998-mile theoretical range of the Passat used in the pilot. And a standard recharge of the Leaf's battery takes eight hours, rather than the eight minutes required to top up the Passat.

Nevertheless, Matt Dillon ended the trial feeling quite confident about driving the Leaf within its known limitations.

“Only four journeys during the two month period called for the Passat because they were too long for Leaf,” he said. “And on two of them I'd have been happy to take the Leaf if there had been fast charge facilities at my destination.”

The Leaf covered 660 miles during the pilot, while the Passat covered 1,013—partly because Matt made one long return journey of 160 miles during the time he was using it.

‘Serene'

Because EVs have been widely associated with the term ‘range anxiety' many drivers are concerned that using one would be mildly stressful. In fact, Matt described driving the Leaf as “more serene” than the Passat.

The Nissan's ECO driving mode, which causes the accelerator to offer additional resistance, further encouraged a laid back driving style. The telematics equipment installed by Alphabet for the pilot recorded an average speed for the Leaf of 25mph vs. 33.1mph for the Passat—partly due to the absence of motorway mileage in the EV.

The length of Matt's average journey in the Leaf was also shorter at 6.5 miles for the EV compared with 7.8 miles for the Passat. This equated to ten average-length journeys between complete charges for the Leaf.

During the pilot, the Leaf typically averaged around 70 miles on a full charge rather than the officially-claimed 80-plus—partly because bad weather called for almost constant use of the heater and wipers.

Driver experience

By the end of the trial, Matt felt that the Leaf outperformed or equalled his Passat on quietness, eco-friendliness, acceleration, driver and passenger comfort and the control layout and instrumentation.

“My perceptions improved as I became more familiar with the electric car and my confidence in it grew,” he said. “The really positive factor for me was the lack of noise.”

Better charging arrangements would improve the driver experience, though, said Matt. “Manhandling a wet and dirty 10-metre charging cable while wearing a business suit is not the best start to one's day. A self-retracting pull-out arrangement would be more practical and probably take up less space in the car.”

The verdict

Matt's verdict at the end of the trial was that “an EV would definitely work as a second car for many drivers—or as a main car as long as they have ready access to an alternative vehicle for longer trips.”

Although range remains EVs' Achilles heel, the pilot has convinced Matt that barriers to wider EV uptake will fall steadily as the number of charging points in workplaces and public places increases.

His view was supported by reactions from Amey drivers when he presented his findings at the group's recent fleet conference—particularly on the subject of fuel costs. Several drivers were sufficiently convinced by them to think about going electric at their next car change.

Matt is also actively exploring the use of electric vans both on Amey's fleet and on contracts.

Recommendations

Based on his experience during the pilot, Matt's key recommendations to fellow fleet managers are:

¾ Become an expert – live with an EV for a fortnight or more to really understand what it can and can't do

¾ Think ‘infrastructure' – how will EV charging be done? At home or while at work? Are there infrastructure issues that need addressing? Can Procurement strike a deal to secure special tariffs?

¾ Incentivise drivers – can you encourage drivers to adopt EVs via attractive mileage rates?

¾ Get support – make sure your EV project is sanctioned from the top. Make sure the environmental and cost benefits are clearly stated.

Summing up the pilot, Nigel Trotman, head of strategic consultancy at Alphabet, said: "One of the biggest barriers to feeding EVs into the fleet mix is the severe lack of practical experience of them. Our trial has helped to fill that gap but the best way for organisations to move forward is to get their hands on long term test vehicles and to build up their own core of knowledge to spread out to their drivers.

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