Sonoma County, Calif., has 58 plug-in electric vehicles, 29 of which are battery-electric sedans.  Photo courtesy of City of Sonoma County

Sonoma County, Calif., has 58 plug-in electric vehicles, 29 of which are battery-electric sedans. Photo courtesy of City of Sonoma County

Electric vehicles (EVs) are still relatively new to the fleet scene. But for some early adopters, they’ve been on the roster for a handful of years now. With a few years of EV use under their belts, these fleets have seen how they perform, and they have both the data and anecdotal evidence about that performance. This begs the question: Have these EVs lived up to fleets’ expectations? Are they a viable option for public sector fleets?

At a Glance

Fleets that have added electric vehicles say:

  • Range can vary widely, but battery-electric vehicles can be used in many applications
  • Batteries are still in good condition after five years of use
  • Charging infrastructure costs can be high
  • Range can drop in very low and very high temperatures.

EVs in Practice

Eric Mallia, general manager of FleetCarma, a connected car platform that helps organizations effectively deploy, utilize, monitor, and smart-charge electric vehicles, has seen the evolution of EVs since the beginning. From what he’s witnessed, EVs have been performing well for fleets. “Five years ago, fleets that chose to adopt plug-in electric vehicles* were on the ‘bleeding edge’ of technology adoption,” he said. “Early adopting fleet managers and their colleagues seem pleased with the reliability of EV technology and are looking for more opportunities to implement EVs for a variety of motivations. These include a desire to meet EV adoption or alternative-fuel vehicle mandates, to showcase their leadership position in making clean technology possible, or simply saving on the total cost of operating their fleet.”

Both Sonoma County, Calif., and City of Seattle, Wash., have operated EVs for several years now — and both say the technology has lived up to their expectations.

The Sonoma County fleet operates approximately 1,100 vehicles and pieces of equipment, 58 of which are plug-in electric vehicles. Twenty-nine of these are battery electric vehicles (BEVs).

“We have encountered ‘bumps in the road’ with certain manufacturers or technologies, but overall they have lived up to our expectations in terms of the reasons we justified integrating them in the fleet, like reduced emissions; lower operating, maintenance, and repair costs; and reduced fuel consumption,” said David Worthington, fleet manager for the county.

Plug-in Electric Vehicle (PEVs) Defined

Plug-in electric vehicle refers to any vehicle with a plug, including plug-in hybrids (e.g., Ford C-MAX Energi, Toyota Prius Plug-in), battery-electric vehicles (e.g., Nissan Leaf), extended-range electric vehicles (e.g., Chevrolet Volt), and neighborhood electric vehicles (e.g., GEM electric vehicles). This article focuses on the first three categories of PEVs.

The City of Seattle was another early adopter of EV technology. In 2011, it was one of the first fleets in the nation to deploy all-electric vehicles into a municipal fleet, starting with 26 Nissan Leaf motor pool vehicles and 17 others distributed to various city departments.

“Electric vehicles make a lot of sense,” said Andrea Pratt, green fleet and fuel program manager, Fleet Management Division, City of Seattle. “The current battery range is adequate for the vast majority of city business. Our local utility company, Seattle City Light, offers electricity that is cheap and carbon neutral (mostly hydropower), so the environmental benefits of using locally produced electricity for fuel are significant.” She added that her calculations show that total cost of ownership is less than standard gasoline or hybrid vehicles for the city fleet.

Of the city’s approximately 4,000-unit fleet, 148 are battery-electric vehicles and equipment, including 79 all-electric Nissan Leafs, four on-road scooters, and 65 off-road pieces of equipment such as forklifts, man lifts, and ATVs. The city also operates several plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs), including Ford Fusions, Chevrolet Volts, and Toyota Priuses.

Pratt says EVs have performed well in the fleet, which has yet to experience issues with performance, battery life, or unforeseen maintenance. “I think there was a concern early on with battery life and durability. How long will they last? How much does it cost to replace batteries? After five years of operation — halfway through the 10-year life cycle — we recently had some of our batteries tested by Idaho National Labs; the results confirm the batteries are still in great condition,” she said.

Is Range Anxiety Justified?

One of the long-held concerns about battery-electric vehicles is range. Drivers worry they’ll run out of power and become stranded — or that there won’t be convenient fueling sites available for longer trips. When BEVs first appeared on the market, fleets wondered if they would provide the range they promised. According to Pratt, at first they didn’t — but range has become less of a concern over time.

“The 2011 model-year Leaf did not have the range we anticipated. The actual range we observe for the early vehicles is 70-80 miles instead of 90-100 that we were expecting,” she said. “In the long run, this generally hasn’t been an issue. Occasionally motor pool drivers may push the limits and drive too far and have to get towed back, but that only accounts for about 2-3% of total motor pool trips taken. When that happens we use it as an educational opportunity and make sure employees choose the appropriate vehicle for their next long distance trip.” 

Worthington said Sonoma County’s EV range capabilities have lived up to the fleet’s expectations, but warns that not every vehicle — or every driver — is the same, and that can significantly influence range.

“We have seen a worst-case scenario with our compact sedans getting 46 miles of range on a fully charged battery pack to over 90 miles when driven properly,” he said.

Weather is another concern when it comes to range. As temperatures drop, so does vehicle range. These dips in range are more dramatic for cold weather climates, but can also occur in higher temperatures. Just how much on either end depends on the model and how the driver operates that model. According to FleetCarma research, drivers see the best electric ranges between 60 and 75°F.

Mallia said public fleets operating BEVs in cold weather climates use real-time battery state of charge monitoring so they know exactly how much juice vehicles have left. Fleets can also precondition batteries on cold days and park vehicles indoors to reduce the impacts of range loss, he added.

Determining Utilization

If drivers are concerned about range, they’re often reluctant to use EVs. It only makes sense, then, that a common fear for fleets considering EVs is whether they’ll be fully utilized.

“We collectively learned a variety of lessons in the early days,” Mallia said. “One of the biggest was the balancing act between getting enough utilization to see a reasonable payback period versus too much utilization that would create range issues.” 

Pratt said Seattle’s EVs are fully utilized, but it has taken some work. “The data show that nearly every EV travels the same annual distance as non-EVs in the light-­duty fleet,” she said. “With that said, I think range anxiety continues to be an issue with some drivers. Luckily, we can monitor vehicle mileage in real time and use that information for ongoing outreach and education for fleet drivers with lower utilization.”

Sonoma County’s EV utilization has been what the fleet expected it to be, but it has also used monitoring to prove to drivers EVs fit their needs. Through telematics, the county collects data about how vehicles are being utilized to determine what alternative-­fuel technologies may work in a particular application. “I recommend fleet managers take advantage of this technology to help justify vehicles being replaced with EVs,” Worthington said. “Being told by a customer that their drive cycle requires a minimum range of 150 miles on any given day only to find through telematics that a vast majority of the time a particular vehicle only travels a maximum total of 45 miles in a single day helps in justifying the transition to EVs.”

Mallia said fleets that use ­FleetCarma to monitor their vehicles often realize they could be getting more use out of their all-electrics. For those with PHEVs, they learn how to leverage electric power better. “In the case with plug-in hybrids, we typically see fleets utilizing the system to ensure drivers are plugging in the vehicle often and getting as much electric range as possible, rather than driving too much on petroleum-­powered miles,” he said.

Cost Considerations

Determining return on investment (ROI) can be difficult. Do you include the initial cost of charging infrastructure? When fuel costs fluctuate significantly, how does it affect your estimates? Are you getting rebates or grants that aren’t available later? How do you estimate resale value for a new type of vehicle?

The way fleets approach these factors can determine their ROI calculations. Pratt said the City of Seattle chose to include infrastructure as a facility capital investment rather than applying the cost to the vehicles.

“Although initial costs can be high, the electric infrastructure itself will last 50-100 years once installed. The vehicles simply plug in after that,” Pratt said. “Compared to managing a typical fuel station, there are few operating and maintenance costs aside from the electricity.”

Sonoma County has yet to retire its EVs, so a complete look at ROI is yet to come. The county has projected resale values for EVs in 2023 using historical data from its hybrid vehicle auction values. However, these projections may end up being too optimistic.

“In the greater Bay Area, a three-year-old Nissan Leaf with less than 30,000 in total miles sells for between $9,000 and $12,000. Toyota Prius models of the same age and relative mileage have a resale value of between $13,000 and $16,000,” Worthington said. If the trend continues when the vehicles reach their eight-year lifecycle, he’ll consider keeping the EVs longer to benefit from lower maintenance costs.

Vincentric’s projections for EV vehicle resale values aren’t optimistic. For MY-2015 vehicles, the company projects much higher depreciation for EVs after three years than gasoline and hybrid sedans, which raises total cost of ownership for the vehicles. (See Total Cost of Ownership Comparison above.)

Resale value might put a ding in total cost of ownership, but fleets invested in EVs say operating costs are significantly lower.

Sonoma County found that operating cost per mile is lowest for electric vehicles. (See Sonoma County Operating Costs table on page 17.)

Seattle’s data showing fuel cost savings is promising. A comparison of three vehicles showed that fuel costs for the gasoline vehicle are more than four times the cost of the EV over the life span of the vehicle. (See Seattle Fuel Costs table above.)

“You can see the fuel savings over the life of the vehicle is significant. When you couple that with maintenance savings and possible tax breaks/purchasing incentives, EVs are the cheapest option in most cases,” Pratt said.

And of course, ROI isn’t the only reason fleets choose electric vehicles. Oftentimes, environmental and political reasons outweigh any additional costs.

Keep the EVs Coming

Although challenges have existed with EVs, both Seattle and Sonoma County agree: More EVs are in their fleets’ futures.

“We plan on adding more as the range of travel increases in newer model EVs, and the growth of charging infrastructure continues throughout the county,” Worthington said.

Pratt said the many benefits of EVs make growing the program the obvious choice. “We will definitely add more,” she said. “Once there is a 200-300 mile range EV for an affordable price, I can’t imagine why all of our light-duty passenger sedans couldn’t be EVs.”

“Fleets we work with almost always get more EVs over time,” Mallia added. 

Originally posted on Government Fleet