Jake Tannenbaum

Jake Tannenbaum

Product Consultant @ Fleetsu

Connectivity is Essential for Fleets to Transition to Electric Vehicles

April 28, 2021

Three Big Challenges for Fleet Management

The global transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is picking up speed, with some analysts predicting that the stage will be set for price parity with internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles as soon as 2024. Purchase price parity has long been seen as a psychological barrier for households, but for applications where operating costs outweigh upfront expenditure, there is evidence that a shift to EV is already commercially sensible. Add in government incentives, and a tipping point is quickly reached. In 2020, businesses and fleets in the UK bought almost twice as many electric vehicles as private buyers, with the head of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders noting that the electric vehicle revolution in the UK thus far has been “primarily for fleets, not families.” The question then becomes, if fleets are to be the first domain for rapid EV adoption what does a fleet manager need to do in order to make the shift and achieve the benefits of lower costs and emissions?

There are three main challenges when incorporating EVs into a fleet:

  1. Presenting drivers with coherent information about how to manage this new type of vehicle
  2. Managing reduced range across all the routes and locations serviced
  3. Maximizing the value of each vehicle’s battery

Leveraging over-the-air (OTA) automative data from the EVs themselves is crucial for overcoming each of these challenges.

Presenting Drivers with Useful Information

EV fleets will initially have to struggle against technological limitations

Although new battery chemistries and manufacturing facilities are on the way, the world is fundamentally battery constrained – with batteries representing the single most expensive component of any electric vehicle. This means that while procuring vehicles with the same range as existing assets might be technically possible, realistically most will have lower ranges than the ICE vehicles they replace. With lower tolerances for errors and deviations, EV fleet managers will need to be able to equip their drivers with the tools to proactively deal with unexpected events on the road.

Implementing a ‘rule of thumb’ amount of battery capacity in reserve for emergencies might appear to be a logical approach, but the reality is that most EV fleets will not have the luxury of uniformly reserving an arbitrary portion of each vehicle’s range sufficient to cater for any eventuality while still servicing a commercially viable area. Instead, we are likely to see accelerated adoption of IoT fleet management platforms to synthesize real-time data from the vehicle with fleet-specific data to present a bespoke range, map, and dashboard far more useful than the stock infotainment system can offer.

As an example, consider a fleet vehicle en route to collect some equipment at the end of the operating day when it suddenly begins to snow. Without an additional layer of predictive information, the driver would have no way of knowing the impact that the weather is expected to have on the battery (tests have shown cold weather can reduce range by 18%). The stated range on the standard navigation system won’t be able to factor in the weight of the equipment in its trip-range estimate of kWh/100kms for the second leg of the journey, and the map will not be able to include private charging assets available for an emergency recharge. Even if all of these concerns turn out to be negligible for our hypothetical driver, the range anxiety and associated stress are a very real barrier for them and the organization to overcome. In the context of an ICE vehicle configuration that has remained constant for decades, electric vehicle journeys represent a departure from the comfort-zone, and a single notorious instance of a stranded colleague might be enough to foment internal resistance to an EV transition. Contrast this with a driver that has access to how their efficiency today compares to previous trips along the same route, a customized range estimate that takes into account their full schedule, as well as the locations of all available charging locations with compatibility to that vehicle model. Not only does this approach empower the driver, but it also builds trust in the connected fleet as an essential driving aid.

Managing Reduced Range

EV fleets represent the future of fleet management.

While decentralized problem solving is essential, the main function of EV fleet management will be to enable fleet managers to proactively prevent range from becoming a problem in the first place. Here are the three key aspects of range that every EV fleet manager needs to work with:

1.     The Route
Professional estimations of range for each route require fine-grained logging of the battery’s state of charge and data on the draw from the motor (represented in kWh/100km). Boilerplate EV ranges do not reflect real world driving conditions, and the best predictive data will be based the fleet’s data, taking into account the specific vehicle profile and its planned use for the working day.

2.    Charging
EV batteries do not accumulate range from chargers in a linear fashion, and the charging curve of an EV means that the speed and efficiency of a charging session vary according to the initial state of charge. Generally, an EV with a warmed battery will charge fastest at a DC charging station when filling to below 80%. This means that, depending on the assignment, the best strategy for a vehicle that requires intra-day charging may be multiple quick top-ups that all need to be coordinated and optimized to the route, rather than a single multi-hour session. Furthermore, if the battery itself is too hot or too cold, the Battery Management System (BMS) will restrict the draw from a charger to safeguard the system, regardless of how fast the charger is theoretically capable of adding range. To monitor for these contingencies, EV fleets will need live feeds of each vehicle’s charging status, its DC efficiency and battery temperature.

3.    The Battery
One of the first fleets to employ Tesla electric vehicles was a shuttle service called Tesloop, ferrying passengers between Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and San Diego in California exclusively with Tesla vehicles and its proprietary Supercharger network. The high utilization rates of vehicles on this route mean that they can provide insight into the kinds of issues EVs face after several years of continuous service. To illustrate, a Model S sedan in their service has already surpassed 400,000 miles travelled, and needed its entire battery pack replaced twice during that time as the rigours of commercial work degraded key components. Fleet managers need to be able to pre-empt battery degradation with constant monitoring, as well as scheduling maintenance before a failure event is reached.

With visibility of these metrics, a fleet manager can safely allocate range-appropriate vehicles for every assignment as well as ensuring that cost-effective charging infrastructure is available at key locations within the serviceable area.

Maximizing Battery Value

electric vehicle battery - Chevrolet bolt battery pack. A cargo-only model has been rolled out for fleet usage.

When incorporating electric vehicles into a fleet it may be tempting to think of batteries as a kind of fuel tank, and electricity as just another alternative fuel type, analogous to LPG or biodiesel. Such an approach however ignores the enormous potential for employing IoT fleet management platforms to unite those batteries into a virtual power plant (VPP). A VPP is a distributed electrical asset that is able to exhibit the characteristics of a powerplant from the perspective of the grid.

These characteristics can be as simple as reversing the flow of electricity when multiple vehicles are plugged-in (perhaps rental cars not due for pickup) such that they begin to sell stored energy in their batteries back to the grid, quickly taking advantage of premium pricing. Additionally, a delivery fleet that primarily operates at night might be able to negotiate a power-purchase agreement (PPA) with a solar farm to buy electricity very cheaply during the middle of the day while the vehicles are recharging, only for the fleet manager to click a button to sell any excess back into the grid in the evening for a profit. A third source of revenue is currently being trialled by ActewAGL in Australia, where 51 Nissan LEAFs EV s coordinated by a wireless fleet management platform will perform Frequency Control Ancillary Services (FCAS) by charging and discharging in unison to help stabilize the electrical grid. While contemporary examples are small, Modelling by McKinsey and Company found that fleets of electric vehicles using their batteries for electricity price arbitrage and participation in FCAS markets could be worth USD$1.6 billion annually by 2030. Even today, the combined battery capacity of the roughly 17,000 busses operating in the ShenZhen Bus Group could be conservatively estimated at 4,947 MWh – eclipsing the capacity of the largest stationary battery installation in the world, located in Moss Landing, California with a mere 1,200 MWh. Given the relatively low barriers to entry (many newer charging formats like CHAdeMO already support bidirectional charging) it is likely that fleets not participating in electricity markets will find themselves at a disadvantage.

Operating as an electrical utility, monitoring battery temperature, and live-feeding drivers dashboard information not present in their instrument clusters are certainly not activities that contemporary fleet managers are likely to have experience in, but navigating this unfamiliar territory will be key to competing successfully among electrified fleets. Fortunately, electric vehicles have arrived on the same wave as ubiquitous internet access and the advances in computing necessary to manage these challenges with IoT fleet platform systems. The degree to which solutions to these problems will become standardized solutions championed by OEMs or governments remains to be seen, but it’s clear that any business that ignores the opportunities of a connected, electric fleet will be left behind as the rest of the industry charges silently ahead.

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