Canadian fleets are able to transition more vehicles to zero-emission than they think
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EV Fleets
Jan 20, 2023
Emma Jarratt

Fleet operators unsure about switching to zero-emission could be in for a pleasant surprise. According to telematics experts at Geotab, many fleets are now able to transition as much of 30 per cent of their vehicles

Fleets looking to transition to zero-emission vehicles are better positioned than ever before, says Ontario-based telematics company Geotab.

Fleet operators unsure about switching to zero-emission could be in for a pleasant surprise. According to telematics experts at Geotab, many fleets are now able to transition as much of 30 per cent of their vehicles

Fleets looking to transition to zero-emission vehicles are better positioned than ever before, says Ontario-based telematics company Geotab.

While commercial vehicles were slow to come to market, momentum is building with an increasing number of key fleet-friendly models now available. But fleet managers may still be underestimating how many vehicles can be switched to zero-emission.

To understand how fleet electrification potential is evolving in Canada, Electric Autonomy sat down for an exclusive interview with Geotab’s vice-president of data and analytics, Mike Branch, and board advisor, Matt Stevens.

The following interview is edited for length and clarity.

What can fleets do today?

Electric Autonomy: It is over a year since the last time we spoke. What is the temperature for what’s happening in fleet electrification today?

Matt Stevens: The shift in incredulity has moved. A lot of fleets now expect, ‘Okay, there’s probably a significant portion of my fleet that could go electric.’ Where the surprise is now is what portion of the fleet could go electric with equal or better economics.

There’s comfort that EVs, maybe not for the entire fleet, but for a lot of it will do the job. When they realize, ‘Oh, 30 per cent of my fleet could transition today and it saves money,’ that’s where the surprise is.

Thirty per cent is still less than half, but it’s way higher than fleets are currently adopting.

Electric Autonomy: Are there interim steps between full electrification and fossil fuel burning that could get that 30 per cent even higher?

Mike Branch: There’s huge potential for commercial fleets to electrify — more so than we had even thought in the past. It is really promising. We can do this across not just one or two or three fleets, but across a much larger set of fleets.

But each fleet is on a different part of their journey towards decarbonization. We need to be able to understand that some fleets may not be ready to fully electrify just yet. So, what are the other things that we can do to help them do that? Idling reduction, making sure that they are choosing fuel efficient vehicles. There’s no reason to not do a lot of these things.

Electric Autonomy: What type of commercial fleet is the most excited and energized for electrification, currently?

Matt Stevens: When you look at fleet as a whole, it’s not monolithic. There’s different fleet segments and they’re going to electrify at their own paces. If you think of their adoption curves some are halfway up the adoption curve, some are just starting.

Think about electric last mile. Very, very few new vehicle purchases that are doing electric last mile in Europe have a combustion engine. The economics have now transitioned.

Fleets are usually slow to start their S-curve. But within a segment, once they start, they’re usually very fast because it’s just an economic case. The crossover point for European last mile was they were looking ahead and saying, ‘I’m going to be selling the vehicle that I’m buying now in four to five years. And if it has a tailpipe — in most major cities — it will not be allowed in four or five years to go to the city core.’ They know the resale value will be awful. That was the final crossover point where it makes no sense for them to buy a combustion engine.

Last mile is one of the leading sectors and we’re just seeing more of those fleet-specific S-curves start to walk up.

Electric Autonomy: One of the really interesting types of fleets transitioning now are postal fleets. For example, in Europe, Norway is electrifying their postal fleet, including on the Arctic island of Svalbard. Successfully doing this debunks a lot of myths about EVs not being able to operate in cold or remote communities. Is Svalbard an apples-to-apples comparison to Canada that proves EVs can do the job in the extremes of our climate?

Mike Branch: When it comes to the Canadian fleets I think the geography here is much different. We’re just so geographically large and diverse and we’ve got cities with rural areas. It does complicate things a little bit more.

When we help fleets transition, one of the things that’s important for them to look at is the data behind the scenes. So, for example, being very careful about what grades the vehicles drive on, what does the vehicles’ vocation look like in the city or rural areas.

Paying close attention to the data is important in helping fleets figure out what vehicles they can transition — and transition comfortably.

Matt Stevens: Svalbard is such a good case as it follows that last mile.

At the depot level, I think it is pretty close to directly transferable to Canada. From depot-to-depot we might be shipping longer distances in Canada, but postal services use different vehicles for that. From depot-to-house it’s pretty much identical.

When you look at efficiency, we are in a battery-constrained environment. The single most important measure is the individual energy that a battery delivers divided by its nameplate capacity. So, that’s the cheat sheet: kilowatt-hours delivered over a year, divided by the kilowatt-hour nameplate.

The higher that number, the more efficient the EV. That drives the economic and environmental case.

Electric Autonomy: Do you think fleet vehicle electrification is well understood in Canada?

Matt Stevens: At a high level, North America is pulling down the adoption average. In the world, 20 per cent of vehicle sales are electric. North America last year was five per cent in Canada and four per cent in the U.S. We’re not leading in any capacity.

I’m extremely excited about Electric Autonomy‘s fleet project. It’s desperately needed. There’s a huge opportunity to engage. Within Geotab we’re trying to provide data tools for people for telematics, but there’s such a broader education piece.

Mike Branch: There is also the need for understanding of how the grid can further support vehicle use cases — especially when it comes to Class 8, heavy-duty. We’ve done a lot of studies recently on that and have really tried to help inform people about what the art of the possible would look like.

Understanding where vehicles can charge up according to the actual travel patterns of fleets is really important. It’s not just where there’s a gas station. It has to align with high-voltage transmission lines and it has to align nicely with where those vehicles are traveling. It’s that nexus of those two things that is really important.

Electric Autonomy: Could you expand on what you mean by “the art of the possible?” I’ve never heard that term used before with EVs.

Mike Branch: When I talk about “art of the possible,” it’s all this data coming together combined and in a way where you can actually share this data responsibly. It can be a challenge to even get this data in the first place, to be able to make these educated decisions.

People who know — with the right skill sets — have to pull this data together and then it takes access to that data, cooperation and collaboration. The art of the possible is that nexus of all of this coming together.

Electric Autonomy: In terms of the biggest bottleneck to adoption, where are the pain points now?

Matt Stevens: I’d say, number one: vehicle supply, writ large. Whether it’s a commercial vehicle or not, it is still a major issue for fleets just to get vehicles.

Number two, specifically for EVs, is the pickup truck supply. There’s a massive opportunity to electrify fleets in North America and we just need more electric pickups.

And then third, I think, speaks to your prior question: education. Just having fleets be aware of the options and, as Mike says, the art of the possible.

Mike Branch: I double down on the education piece. There’s a lot of education that needs to come into play, but education that is actually meaningful, impactful, to that fleet operator.

Oftentimes fleet owners get wrapped up in the day-to-day operating their fleets. They need further education in terms of what can be done with their fleet. And not just using fictitious data, [but] ‘What tangibly can I do with my own fleet?’

One of the ways that I think we can do that with data is help people understand not just how they are operating in their own microcosm, but according to other fleets too. It gives them a litmus test to benchmark against.

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