A self-described “big fan of EVs,” Matthew Stevens was a co-founder of FleetCarma, is an integral part of the Geotab team and after nearly two decades in clean transportation has some sage advice on fleet electrification
In 18 years, Matthew Stevens has seen a lot on the frontlines of Canada’s transition to electric vehicles. But after years of having to make a hard sell to companies about why and how they should be thinking about their own fleet transitions, he is pleased to see the landscape is changing rapidly.
In 2007, Stevens founded his own EV telematics company, FleetCarma, in Waterloo, Ont., and was one of the early pioneers in offering built-in, real-time fleet monitoring services for electric vehicles. In 2018, FleetCarma was bought by Oakville, Ont.-based Geotab and Stevens, along with Geotab founder, Neil Cawse, began channeling their efforts into becoming the world leader in electric fleet telematics.
Today, Geotab’s software is embedded into some of the largest online shipping and food transport fleets in the world. If you’ve seen a delivery truck or van in your area and you live in North America or Europe, chances are better than not it contains Geotab’s software.
But now Stevens is less often found in the office as he is at his rural southern Ontario home as he is slowly transitioning out of the daily grind. From there he is able to keep his finger on the pulse of several interests close to his heart — advising on research at his alma mater, the University of Waterloo; sitting on the board of advisors at Geotab; and participating in various panels and speaking conferences — while also finding time to explore burgeoning avenues of interest and spend time with his young family.
It is from his home that Stevens, hands still stained from a morning spent shelling black walnuts (more on that later), exclusively shares his views on fleet transition trends, the zero-emission movement and what is the secret to success when it comes to companies trading in gas for batteries with Electric Autonomy Canada.
Starting out in telematics
Electric Autonomy Canada Let’s start with your big break into the clean transportation and fleet space: FleetCarma. How did you get so ahead of the curve?
Matthew Stevens We started FleetCarma back in 2007. It was a group of us that worked on electric vehicles and we had prototyped some during grad school at Waterloo. We thought, ‘Hey, this is great. These things are going to win.’ It’s like the first time you saw flat screen TV you think, ‘These are awesome. They’re way too expensive, but these are definitely what we’re gonna end up with.’ And that was exactly what we felt like with EVs: the range sucks, they’re way too expensive, but, wow, these things are awesome. So we said let’s work on this. We’re not sure how we’re going to pay the bills, but we’ll figure it out.
Electric Autonomy And in terms of your personal interest in EVs, what was it when you were just figuring out what you wanted to do with your life that caught your interest in this space?
Matthew Stevens There was a moment. So, I was working on EVs because I’m a bit of a granola — I’m pretty environmentally driven — so the sustainability argument was why I worked on that. We made this prototype hydrogen-electric vehicle: the Chevy Equinox. We spent two years on it and it was about a million and a half dollar vehicle. We finally got it working and took it into Ring Road (which goes around the Waterloo campus) and we just got past police services and I said, ‘Okay, I’m flooring this.’ I wasn’t going to go too fast, but I floored it and there was a half second of just beautiful launch — this acceleration like I’d never felt in my life. And then I promptly broke the car. We had this super old, used Ford Ranger electric motor and it had way too much torque for the Equinox half shafts — it literally just took metal and just sheared it in half — but in the split second of blissful launch and the fact that our super old electric motor was more than these half shafts could handle I said, ‘Okay, there’s a strong sustainability argument, but people don’t get what this acceleration is like.’ It is not just that launch, it’s how smooth it was. Chris Mendes, FleetCarma’s other co-founder, was in the passenger seat and that’s when we looked at each other and said, ‘Okay, these are it.’ Everyone was looking at EVs for sustainability, but no, they perform better. We realized we didn’t need to pitch on the environmental we have to pitch on choose the better option.
Electric Autonomy So how do you take this passion and that seed of an inspiration for an industry need and turn it into a full-fledged company that ends up having major impact?
Matthew Stevens Our background was in how to design electric vehicles using software and that was a pretty new thing for the auto industry. It’s something aerospace had done for years, but the auto industry was still in the old way of, ‘Hey, we’ll prototype it, we’ll take it out to a track and then we’ll tweak it.’ But with plug-in hybrids and EVs coming there were just too many variables so they had to start using software. We just happened to get trained on it in grad school during this General Motors and U.S. Department of Energy-funded competition with that electric Equinox as the product. After that, and seeing this need, we started selling our services in helping to design EVs.
Electric Autonomy How much of an uphill battle was it to get traction on what you were offering as a service with FleetCarma?
Matthew Stevens A bunch of fleets were going electric at the time. The first one we worked on was Purolator. Back in 2008, they had a full electric delivery vehicle they were running around Toronto and I don’t think I’m speaking out of school to say it was going really poorly. They were told they were going to get a certain range and they weren’t. The problem was it wasn’t enough to complete the day. So it was pretty big deal. We got involved because we weren’t the automaker, but we knew how they designed their vehicle, and we weren’t the fleet so we were this good third party to figure out ‘why the heck is it so bad?’
Electric Autonomy And the reason was?
Matthew Stevens It’s how the vehicle is driven. At the start Purolator said, ‘This is how we drive our vehicles,’ and that’s what the OEM had designed to because it was a custom vehicle. But then when we, FleetCarma, looked at the day cycle it was not at all how they were driving their vehicles and that accounted for almost all the difference. Then we started working with other fleets that were having the same issues and they were saying, ‘I don’t know where to put these, I can’t trust the range, I can’t trust all this kind of stuff.’ And so then we said, ‘Well, the software that we’re using to design the car or truck or van, we can use the exact same tools, flip them on their head, feed in your day cycle, and tell you exactly what you’ll get — within a couple of kilometres — before you buy. And if it works, great, we’d love you to go electric, but if it doesn’t work, cool, don’t go electric.’ We’re big fans of EVs, but we’re not big fans where they’re not going to do the job.
Electric Autonomy So how critical is that first EV experience with fleets in terms of getting it right or having room for growing pains?
Matthew Stevens We saw what happened when you didn’t put EVs in the right spot — it’s sort of a Goldilocks problem. Every electric mile you drive or kilometre you drive you save money. So, you want to drive enough. If you put it on a route that doesn’t drive at all — which you see all the time — you guarantee horrible economics, which is going to look really bad. And if you put it on a route that drives a ton you’ll hit range issues, right? So it’s this Goldilocks window where you’re trying to figure it out. It’s finding that sweet spot. So, if a fleet says, ‘Hey, let’s run a pilot,’ but they don’t put the vehicle on the right route and the vehicle doesn’t perform as expected, all of the sudden you get put on a desert and anyone that wants to go EV thinks, ‘No, remember that example from 2008?’ And you say, ‘But it’s 2021’ and people say, ‘No, no, that was a big failure. Let’s not do that again.’ Getting that first, second, third year right in a fleet transition is so important.
Electric Autonomy When public chargers were scarce I can see why having your delivery vehicle run out of power was an issue, but now the network is more robust. Why doesn’t public charging work for some electric fleet vehicles to alleviate that range anxiety?
Matthew Stevens Unlike a personal vehicle when you’re driving around and you’re like, ‘Hey, I got to go to a supercharger, fast charger or whatever,’ it’s not a big deal. Fundamentally, most fleets that are either take the vehicle home or return to base, the vehicle has to do the entire day. In the fleet environment the idea of using public charging just isn’t a concept. The most expensive part of the vehicle is the driver and having that driver be idle while the vehicle is charging is a non-starter. So, you have to start with the fact that the vehicle must not have to charge throughout the day. When you are talking about electric last mile, these are purpose-built vehicles so they don’t have 500 kilometres of range because it wouldn’t be cost effective. They are designed to have a specific range optimized for the common routes. Since the biggest factor that impacts range is temperature, that has to also be factored in. So, the fleet manager has to worry about the combination of when is the ambient temperature and the longest route day going to overlap? You have to design your fleet to that ‘worst’ day.
Electric Autonomy So, obviously you’ve seen a lot of failures and a lot of successes with fleet transitions. How to navigate the transition is on most company’s minds. What are your five key pieces of advice for how to do it right?
Matthew Stevens Number one is: realize that some of the vehicles in your fleet are not suitable for electric vehicles at this point in time and some of the vehicles in your fleet are perfectly suitable for electric. Both are true. Number two is: do your homework. Mine your telematics system to understand how you use your fleet vehicles; understand your average daily route for economic reasons and your maximum daily route for range reasons. The third is: when you roll out EVs you need to have a system that supports an electric vehicle. You need to have an automated system that makes sure that your vehicles are charged in the morning. Fourth — and, actually, three and four have to happen the same time — is talk to an expert about charging infrastructure. If you start down the wrong path with your charging infrastructure it is way more expensive down the road to fix it. The last one would be: make sure your drivers are comfortable and understand how an EV works. The last thing they want is not be able to do their job well and be in a situation where the fleet guy looks good because of sustainability, but they couldn’t do their job. Make sure you don’t forget about the driver.
Electric Autonomy So how do you see clean transportation companies not only evolving in terms of the services they provide as adoption grows, but also in their role in the bigger picture? What’s the most valuable thing proponents of EVs can do to help with a smooth transition over the next few years?
Matthew Stevens A few years ago, you really had to pump the good of EVs and say, ‘Yes, it’s a limited vehicle, but it works really well in this case.’ Now it’s, ‘Hey, the demand is growing, the supply is growing.’ For those of us that are trying to make this happen, our job is to just have a fire extinguisher ready where we see a scaling issue coming and just take that out as quickly as we can. If the rollout happens the way that I think it can and will happen over the next four or five years, it is a heck of a ride. But the industry’s role is, pun intended, to keep the wheels on and fight those fires. That’s really what I think the next three to four years looks like.
Electric Autonomy And can we expect to see you still involved in helping to transition the world to EVs or is something else on the horizon for you?
Matthew Stevens When I started FleetCarma we were really focussed on making an impact in the four- to six-wheels class of vehicles. In joining Geotab, we had the bandwidth and focus to go from two to 18. I continue to be amazed by the impact that Geotab can have on not only the four wheels, but also in the six- to 18-wheel range. There is a massive opportunity that Geotab can play a key role in. Personally, I’m actually spending more time focused on permaculture right now and that’s why you’ve found me shelling walnuts — I’ve also bought chestnuts and hazelnut trees to go along with the rest of our fruit trees. I got into EVs because of the sustainability angle. I love it, it’s great and when I got a chance to be in it, it was really unclear if EVs were going to happen. I think now they’re going to happen. I love that uncertainty window. My next venture will be related to how we grow our food. There’s a lot of opportunity to make food more sustainable, so I’m spending a bunch of time on that. I love EVs and being able to contribute as I can to Geotab, but it’s time for me to go back to more uncertainty. To try and tackle a problem where it is unclear if it’ll be solved. Sustainable agriculture is exciting and has a lot of unknowns. Interestingly, telematics may be a big part of that.