General Electric’s first-ever Vehicle Innovation Center, which opened May 31, 2012, is located on the headquarters campus of its GE Capital Fleet Services business unit in Eden Prairie, Minn. The Vehicle Innovation Center is designed to allow GE fleet customers to gain first-hand experience in the operation of electric, natural gas, propane autogas, hydrogen, and other alternative-fuel vehicle types.
“What started out as a simple vision for us to accelerate the adoption of alternative-fuel vehicles has morphed into this building behind us,” said Clarence Nunn, president and CEO of GE Capital Fleet Services, during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the grand opening of the Vehicle Innovation Center in Eden Prairie. “Through our Vehicle Innovation Center, we are committed to sharing alternative-fuel vehicle technologies and solutions with our customers and helping them put more of these vehicles on the road.”
The opening of the Vehicle Innovation Center is part of GE’s ecomagination business strategy to accelerate the development and deployment of clean-energy technology through innovation and R&D investment. GE Capital Fleet Services will run the newly opened center in collaboration with other GE businesses, along with GE Energy and Transportation subject-matter experts around the world.
“We believe businesses, through their company fleets, can lead the way in putting drivers across the country and around the world into cleaner, more productive vehicles,” said Deb Frodl, chief strategy officer for GE Capital Fleet Services and global alternative-fuel leader for GE. “The best way to accelerate the adoption of alternative-fuel cars and trucks is to experience them. Once fleet managers get behind the wheel, they can see that these vehicles are real and ready for action.”
The creation of a Vehicle Innovation Center was the vision of Frodl, who wanted to give fleet managers a first-hand opportunity to see and experience electric cars and trucks from a variety of manufacturers. Frodl noted that the center is a reality because of strong collaboration by the global GE team.
“Many fleet managers need to experience alternative-fuel vehicles firsthand, and the Vehicle Innovation Center will allow them to do so in one location,” Frodl explained.
In addition, the Vehicle Innovation Center will allow fleet managers to analyze vehicle performance, driver experiences, service requirements, and operational efficiencies, as well as showcase GE’s enabling technologies, such as the WattStation, a Level 2 electric vehicle (EV) charging platform developed by GE Energy.
In addition to the Vehicle Innovation Center in Eden Prairie, GE will open a second center at its Global Research Center in Munich, Germany, scheduled to become operational in the fourth quarter of 2012.
Both Vehicle Innovation Centers are designed to provide customers, employees, and researchers first-hand access to EVs and emerging technologies. Both centers will monitor and evaluate vehicle performance, charging behaviors, driver experiences, service requirements, and operational efficiencies, while providing the opportunity to test drive different alternative-fuel models from a variety of OEMs and gain insights about what is involved in deploying the vehicles in commercial fleet operations.
Construction of the Vehicle Innovation Center in Minnesota broke ground in September 2011; however, the genesis of the concept goes back to November 2010 when GE Corp. announced it will purchase 25,000 alternative-fuel vehicles by 2015 for its own fleet and its global fleet customers. The initiative calls for GE to convert at least half of its 30,000-unit global fleet and partner with fleet customers to deploy a total of 25,000 alternative-fuel vehicles by 2015. Since 2011, GE employee drivers have already logged more than 8.5 million miles in electric vehicles in real-world fleet applications.
“This is a global initiative. GE is in a strong position to help deploy the supporting infrastructure to help our 65,000 global fleet customers convert and manage their fleets,” said Frodl, who also heads the strategy team focusing on GE’s alternative-fuel initiative.
The Vehicle Innovation Center is a first-of-its-kind center for GE, which it said reinforces its commitment to the deployment of more efficient vehicles in its fleet and in its customers’ fleets. GE anticipates weekly visits to the center by corporate client groups.
The 6,000-square-foot facility includes:
- An education center featuring classrooms for presentations, training, and discovery workshops, as well as interactive displays.
- An experience center and showroom to help customers evaluate alternative-fuel vehicles in a variety of configurations.
- A nearby solar-powered EV charging center, which can charge up to 11 vehicles simultaneously.
Frodl noted the center will also conduct research and development, collecting data about EVs and other alternative-fuel vehicles.
The center also allows visitors access to a variety of products from GE’s ecomagination portfolio, which includes smart-grid solutions, EV charging stations, a fully integrated compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling system called “CNG in a Box,” fuel-saving mobile applications, and other advanced energy and infrastructure technologies.
The center also features a private half-mile driving course, adjacent to the facility, providing GE’s customers the opportunity to test drive various alternative-fuel vehicles at a single location with assistance from GE’s fleet, transportation, energy, and advanced technology subject-matter experts.
Local and national elected officials attended the May 31 grand opening, including U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and City of Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens, both of whom spoke during the opening ceremony and ribbon-cutting event.
“The City of Eden Prairie is delighted and proud to be the home of GE’s Vehicle Innovation Center,” said Tyra-Lukens. “GE’s desire to reduce carbon emissions is a great match with our City’s commitment to conservation and the greening of our community.” The City of Eden Prairie has a goal to improve fuel efficiency of the City’s fleet by 40 percent by 2015.
Following the ribbon-cutting ceremony, attendees were able to tour the center’s building and test drive more than 20 alternative-fuel vehicles, which included, among others, a Fisker Karma EV, a Kenworth T440 CNG-powered truck, a Navistar all-electric eStar delivery truck, a GMC Savana CNG, a Ford Focus EV, a Chevrolet Volt, a Toyota RAV4 EV, a Mitsubishi i-MiEV, a BMW ActiveE, a Volvo C30 EV, and a Ram 2500 CNG, along with other engine technologies such as the clean diesel powertrains from VW and Mercedes.
“This isn’t an event — it’s a long-term commitment by GE to alternative fuels,” said Frodl. “We want to lead the way and help fleet customers make sustainable choices that are right for their companies.”
Interview: GE’s Long-Term Sustainability Strategy
Deb Frodl, global alternative-fuel vehicle leader for GE, discussed GE's global initiative to expand the use of alt-fuel vehicles with AF Editor Mike Antich during the grand opening of the Vehicle Innovation Center at the GE Capital Fleet Services headquarters in Eden Prairie, Minn.
AF: Why did GE feel it was necessary to build a Vehicle Innovation Center?
Frodl: About three years ago, I drove an electric vehicle (EV) for the first time (the Chevrolet Volt) and realized that EVs are very real. I really felt fleet managers needed to experience innovative products, such as these, by getting behind the wheel and driving them. I thought it would be a great opportunity for the GE Capital Fleet Services business to have a Vehicle Innovation Center on the property, because we have hundreds of customers coming through our facility annually. What a great opportunity to test drive new technologies and innovations, where they can potentially adopt these vehicles into their fleets.
GE has 130 years of electrical experience starting with Thomas Edison, which provides us with tremendous domain expertise. GE touches the whole EV value chain today. Everything from charging stations to the smart grid to vehicle financing and telematics, which allows us to create turnkey solutions to make it easy for our customers to deploy electric vehicles.
GE and Chesapeake are collaborating on a compressed natural gas (CNG) infrastructure called CNG in a Box and we can support CNG deployments as well.
AF: Will the Vehicle Innovation Center in Munich, Germany, be similar to the one in the U.S.?
Frodl: It will be similar, but more robust since it is located at our Global Research Center. The building will be grander and will house more engineers.
The Vehicle Innovation Center in Munich will also include a Customer Innovation Center, where we can bring customers for a broader innovation dialogue, going beyond the vehicles themselves. Before year end, they will complete construction of a carport windmill charging station for EVs at the Munich facility.
AF: Is GE on track to have 25,000 alternative-Fuel Vehicles in operation by 2015?
Frodl: Yes, we are. Today, we have 1,500 Volts on the road in the U.S. and that number is growing. GE’s global commitment, which we made a year-and-a-half ago, to convert half of our own global fleet into alternative-fuel vehicles was to help create a tipping point for the industry to accelerate deployment.
We feel good about where we are today. The industry is just getting started. We are very happy with the progress we have made and we are starting to see some real operational benefits from our own deployment. What we are learning from this deployment we can pass along to all of our customers around the world.
We believe businesses need to lead in this effort. We have the solutions that can help our customers make the transformation to EVs and other alternative fuels.
AF: Does the goal to have 25,000 alternative-fuel vehicles operational by 2015 include plug-in hybrids?
Frodl: Yes, it does. As long as it is a vehicle that plugs into the grid, that is what the goal is all about. We chose the Volt because our employees drive nearly 100 miles per day and we needed a vehicle that would not disrupt their workday. The Volt was just the right application at that time.
Last year, there were about 50,000 EVs sold globally. And, the majority of those EVs went to consumers. Most of the allocations were not for commercial fleets. When you look at the sales statistics this year, there were 25,000 EVs sold in the first quarter, so you see the ramp-up is occurring around the world. I think it is good that we are ramping up slowly to ensure success.
When I look at the adoption of EVs and plug-in hybrid electrics, you need to benchmark it against the hybrid market. It took six years to sell 100,000 hybrid-electrics, and, last year, 50,000 EVs were sold. So, I think the case for EVs is actually quite good. Where there continues to be discussion is between the forecasts versus the actual sales. This is what people tend to focus on.
But, the reality is that the Toyota Prius is now the third bestselling car in the world. Not only that, but last month the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid was the No. 1 seller in April and it has been deployed in only eight states. Likewise, I think it is just a matter of time for EVs.
What really spiked the hybrid sales in the late 1990s was more choice. It wasn’t just one vehicle — all of a sudden there were 10 different vehicles and 10 different choices for consumers and corporate fleets. I think as we see more EVs coming to market, we will see more deployments.
Companies just need to pilot EVs. I know what our drivers are saying and I’m sure other fleet drivers will be saying the same thing. I speak with a lot of corporate fleets that have already deployed these vehicles and the drivers absolutely love them. I hear the same things that our sales and services reps are saying — they love these vehicles and they love the experience.
AF: GM also sells a version of the Volt in Germany known as the Opel Ampera. Is GE purchasing Amperas in Europe?
Frodl: The Ampera was recently released, and GE has 20 Opel Amperas on the road in Germany. Our European businesses are just starting their deployments.
AF: Of the 1,500 Chevrolet Volts that GE is currently operating in North America, to which employees have they been assigned?
Frodl: GE’s global fleet is comprised of about 30,000 vehicles. About 15,000 of those vehicles are sedans. The majority of our fleet vehicles are in North America and Europe. The drivers of those vehicles are sales and service fleet drivers who span across all GE businesses, such as GE Capital, Appliances, Healthcare, and Energy — all of which have corporate fleets. We have Volts deployed in all of those businesses today.
Many of our sales team members operate from a home office. We are installing a GE WattStation charging system at their residence to charge their vehicles, which is part of the process when assigned an EV. When they have those charging stations, their productivity increases as well as their electric miles, too, because it takes less time to recharge their vehicle. It only takes four hours to charge the Volt with a GE WattStation or a Level 2 charging station.
AF: Do all of GE’s Volt drivers have a WattStation?
Frodl: The majority of our EV drivers will have a WattStation.
AF: What has been the initial feedback from GE’s Volt drivers?
Frodl: Feedback has been absolutely tremendous. When we launched the program 15 months ago, we put everyone on Yammer, which is an internal social media site. We wanted to track the feedback from employee drivers and it has been absolutely, hands-down wonderful feedback. They are very proud of what GE is doing. They love the Volt. They love the experience. They try to maximize their electric fueling. They share tips and tools with each other. It has been a very collaborative and positive initiative. They share where they found a charging station that others didn’t know about.
One employee drove 2,000 miles using only 7.8 gallons of gasoline. The overall performance will vary depending on how focused they are on using electric and whether they are diligent about charging at night. So, there are some variables, but there is a segment of our driver population who is steadfast in charging and optimizing electric use. Their performance is unbelievable. A number of drivers have written saying this is the best company car they’ve ever had.
AF: Do you drive a Volt?
Frodl: I do, as do others here in Eden Prairie. We have charging stations under a solar-powered carport at our headquarters, which has the capacity to charge 11 EVs.
AF: Do the officers of GE also drive EVs?
Frodl: Yes, a number of our executives have EVs, and they’re impressed with the vehicles they’re driving.
AF: Who, among your clients, are purchasing EVs? Who are the early adopters?
Frodl: The majority are mid-size to large fleets. In our portfolio today, we have deployed the Ford Transit Connect Electric, Nissan Leaf, and Mitsubishi i-MiEV. In the GE fleet, we also have the Transit Connect Electric and a few Nissan Leafs deployed.
A few major companies, including AT&T, Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, and ourselves, have committed to purchasing tens of thousands of EVs for their fleets, and many other blue chip companies are launching pilot programs. Hertz is introducing some EVs into its rental fleet, while Coca-Cola, Google, Pacific Gas & Electric, PepsiCo/Frito-Lay, and UPS are all purchasing some vehicles and experimenting with new ways of doing business.
Our customers have a variety of vehicles deployed, including those previously mentioned, as well as Smith Electric trucks that have been deployed for the delivery fleets. We are starting to see some adoption and reorder and larger deployments coming.
Meanwhile, other GE customers are considering EVs to reduce noise pollution and thereby extend their working hours for service and deliveries in residential neighborhoods in the evenings, for instance, when louder conventional vehicles are barred from operating.
AF: What are GE’s sustainability goals? Are you focused strictly on EVs or do you operate other types of alternative-fuel vehicles within your fleet?
Frodl: Our public commitment is for alternative-fuel vehicles, focusing on EV and CNG. But, we also embrace other alternative-fuel technologies. For instance, we have an oil and gas company under GE Energy. Today, we are in the process of launching a new product called “CNG in a Box.” It is an individual CNG-fueling station that GE will manufacture. We also have in our product pipeline an upcoming home CNG-refilling station. We are committed to other clean energies. The Vehicle Innovation Center is designed to showcase all alternative-fuel technologies, not just electric vehicles.
We do not want, and it is certainly not our objective, to be just known as an EV provider. The solution must be based on what the fleet manager really wants and needs. For example, if there are opportunities for efficiency savings and emissions reductions in CNG, then a fleet might not need an EV. If you’re perceived as just supporting one fuel, what value are you providing the customer?
We are trying to match the right technology to the right application for the customer, which means there can be multiple technologies to consider. Our customers operate everything from cars all the way up to Class 8 trucks, and there are a lot of variable assets in that mix. EVs might be perfect on the sedan side, CNG in the mid-range of the fleet, and LNG on the heavy-duty side. We just want to be sure we have the right solution for the application.
AF: What is the current state of the “EV ecosystem,” namely the EV infrastructure and supply chain, and where do you see it evolving in the next decade?
Frodl: For EVs to work, you need an ecosystem. The EV ecosystem is growing in the U.S. Today’s energy grid can power EVs via at-home and commercial charging stations, which are cropping up around the county. There are over 500 charging stations in California alone, and that figure is growing quickly. Moreover, the lightweight materials used in automotive designs have made EVs more powerful and efficient, and better batteries allow for longer ranges and decreased charging times, typically four to eight hours.
The supply chain of that ecosystem includes the utilities, OEMs, corporations, and municipalities. We are starting to see more public charging stations deployed. The utilities have been tremendous partners in that area as well.
We have a project going on right now that is a true demonstration of the EV ecosystem in the borough of Manhattan in New York City where GE, FedEx, ConEdison, and Columbia University are working together. We have been deployed now for 120 days (as of August) with 11 Navistar eStar trucks that are being driven in the Manhattan metro area. The data collection has been absolutely tremendous and the learning that we have and the feedback that is going back to the utility is incredible.
We feel very strongly at GE that demonstration projects help us understand real-world applications, which is where we will learn to make our products better. We will share those lessons with our EV ecosystem partners.
AF: In GE demonstration project studies, one of the benefits cited for the use of alternative-fuel vehicles has been increases in driver productivity, such as the driver being able to use an HOV lane. besides this, Are there other examples of productivity gains?
Frodl: If you don’t have to go to the gasoline station, if you don’t have to have maintenance work done, there is less downtime for drivers, making them more productive. Yes, HOV lanes are definitely a game changer for drivers in large urban areas or big cities where there are corridors. Plus, they are happier drivers; they don’t have to smell diesel or gasoline fumes.
AF: Fleet managers say it is difficult to get EVs to pencil out in terms of total cost of ownership (TCO). Many times, it requires tax credits to bring down acquisition costs. How can fleet managers reduce TCO to justify getting an EV?
Frodl: We believe corporate fleets are very good candidates because they do look at TCO, versus a consumer, who only looks at the up-front costs of the vehicle. We work with our customers. We find what the right vehicle is, then determine the right application. Vehicles that are driven high mileage are perfect candidates for EVs or plug-in hybrid electrics. We can pencil out the math, especially with today’s high-fuel costs. Rising fuel costs help make the economics work. There are some real savings to be had on both the fuel and maintenance side of the equation, but we are still learning from a residual value side. We are watching EVs go through auction and are learning more about the residual value side.
For the most part, with today’s prices for EVs and batteries, oftentimes you need incentives in order for them to pencil out the TCO. In the interim, we have the federal incentives and there are some state incentives to assist in lowering TCO.
AF: What has been GE’s maintenance experience in operating EVs?
Frodl: We have not had any maintenance issues, concerns, or extraordinary expenses. Plus, you don’t have the same maintenance wear and tear that you would for a combustion engine. So, having the amortization take longer is not a bad thing. EVs are intended to last longer than vehicles with a traditional internal combustion engine. Also, the manufacturers have been terrific about the batteries and the warranties. That all has been working quite well.
In our experience so far, we have seen, on average, 500 gallons of gasoline fuel savings per driver. We are seeing at least $1,500 annual savings, net electricity expense, from the deployment. Some of our pioneer drivers now have been in the Volt around 15 months. And, overall our drivers are reducing carbon emissions by 30 percent.
There are different segments of drivers. For drivers who charge regularly and like to optimize the use of electric drive, with some of the fuel savings they are generating, we see payback on those vehicles in three years. To get back to your question about fleet managers sometimes having trouble penciling out the math: From our experience, we are seeing (not for every driver, but for a good sweet spot of our own drivers), it makes a lot of sense and you can cycle the vehicles like you would consider cycling a regular vehicle on a three- or four-year replacement cycle.
For the GE fleet, what we are seeing depends on gasoline prices, because that goes into the whole equation. However, on average, it adds about one year or more on amortization. So, for a cycle that is typically three years, it might be four years at $4.50 or $5 for a gallon of gasoline.
AF: While EVs are great for some applications, most drivers are not homeowners and live in multi-unit apartment buildings. How will these employees charge their vehicles?
Frodl: There are a few things that are happening. There are more and more public charging stations that are being deployed, not just by GE, but competitors as well. Plus, you also have various demonstration projects that are happening. For instance, in Los Angeles, 50 percent of the people live in some type of multi-housing structure, so you don’t always know if there is electricity in the underground garage. More and more public deployment of charging stations is what is required. However, this is a common situation among drivers, and, maybe the best solution is to build a central depot of charging stations at the office.
The SAE standards are not completed yet for DC charging. DC charging is 440V, so you can charge a Leaf in 18 minutes, versus 20 hours using a 120V connection. That is an absolute game changer. They will be coming to market in the next 35 to 40 days with DC charging. GE currently has about 4,000 charging stations deployed — some are residential and others are public.
AF: GE allows personal use of these vehicles. How do you track personal use for EV drivers?
Frodl: What we have done is looked across the country at the various utility rates. Some regions pay more than others. We have said we are going to reimburse for “X” dollars per month and the drivers can process that through the company’s standard expense reporting. It is an automated process. We have done the analytics; but, we need to do more analytics as to when they charge. We will do more analysis around it; however, right now, we have built a nice automated process through analytics and we work with our customers on that to determine what they charge employees and we offer this to clients.
AF: Can you explain GE’s new 2.0 version interactive eco micro-website?
Frodl: We launched it on Earth Day last year. We will release a 2.0 version in the third quarter of 2012 with much more content. We will start sharing data from our own vehicles and the Vehicle Innovation Center. It is two-pronged: It will provide an education to the drivers, as well as the fleet managers. We have white paper research reports out there and various content to continue to educate. I think that is the biggest challenge. We have to wait for some of the vehicles to be deployed to commercial fleets, but there is still such a need for education, awareness, thought leadership, and innovations, such as our Vehicle Innovation Center, where they can touch and feel the technology. People still don’t fully understand EV technology. We have been used to 100 years of internal combustion engines — that’s what we know. It just takes time. The Vehicle Innovation Center and the micro-website is all in an effort to educate.
AF: One of the interesting aspects of your job is that you are exposed to emerging technologies coming down the pike. What is most exciting to you?
Frodl: I am still excited to see progress of EVs and plug-in hybrid electrics. There is so much interest now in natural gas. There is so much discussion and dialogue and a lot of it is driven by the price of CNG and the discoveries and the ability to extract the gas. We made a public announcement a couple of months ago with Chesapeake Energy to work together on “CNG in a Box.” Chesapeake Energy is one of those partners who has all this natural gas and they just need demand. So, they need partners, such as GE, fleet partners, and beyond, to help them with the demand. But, that seems to be a big area of interest from many right now.
What is interesting about CNG versus EVs are the range considerations. The bigger challenge, however, is the infrastructure. It is one thing to start an EV at home and plug it in right away, but, at the moment, you don’t have many options for CNG refueling in your home and there are currently not many public stations. GE is working on a home refueling solution for natural gas vehicles, and I think we will see significant advancements in the next couple of years. There is a lot of money and effort that is being spent on it. You can make the math work when you have some public infrastructure. It is much harder to put in what we call “behind the fence,” building a station on a fleet company’s property. Right now CNG has been a big area of interest for many of customers. Plus, GM and Chrysler’s commitment is helping to drive this, and it is customer driven.
GE’s Electrification Commitment
GE owns one of the world’s largest fleets, in addition to operating a global fleet management business. It also offers a portfolio of EV-related products, including charging stations, circuit protection equipment, and transformers, which are integral parts of EV infrastructure development.
“This enables GE to lead wide-scale electric vehicle adoption and generate growth for its businesses,” said Deb Frodl, global alternative-fuel vehicle leader for GE.
GE’s electrification commitment was spearheaded by Jeff Immelt, GE chairman and CEO. Immelt is also a member of the board of directors for the Electrification Coalition, which is dedicated to reducing U.S. dependence on oil through vehicle electrification. The Electrification Coalition is comprised of 21 CEOs from a variety of businesses.
Also, GE maintains an electric vehicle readiness toolkit at www.ecomagination.com to help municipalities, commercial customers, and individuals prepare for wide-scale electric vehicle deployment.