As electric powertrain technologies move into the mainstream market, fleet electrification is increasingly on the radar for many government, commercial and non-profit fleets, due to state or local mandates, environmental sustainability goals and customer demand. Here we look at some of the many facets of electrification, to help fleet managers to know what to look for when selecting a vendor of commercial EVs.
Differences between Electric and Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles
An electric commercial vehicle may look different from a traditional vehicle – or it may not, depending on whether it is purpose-built or a conversion. From a driver, passenger or cargo perspective an EV should behave very like its internal combustion engine (ICE) counterpart. However, there are some significant distinctions. On the positive side:
- Zero emissions: Emissions on the road are zero, but the true carbon and air quality footprint of operating the vehicle depends on the electricity generation mix in your locality.
- Low fuel costs: Electricity for an EV costs 10-35% of gasoline per mile, depending on gasoline and electricity costs. For a vehicle covering 25,000 miles per year, this amounts to $5,000 to $8,000 saved in annual fuel costs, per vehicle.
- Quiet: Electric vehicles are notoriously quiet – so much so, that some countries are requiring EVs to make an artificial sound as a safety feature to alert pedestrians.
- Driver experience: As long as the EV integration is of high quality, the driver’s experience is always strongly positive. The vehicle usually accelerates faster than its ICE equivalent, and is smoother and quieter to operate.
- Maintenance: Electric vehicles have far fewer moving parts and require less maintenance than ICE vehicles and multi-speed transmissions. EV operators will enjoy not having to perform frequent oil changes, air filter changes, DPF purges, etc. Regenerative braking (where the vehicle is slowed by using the motor as a generator) dramatically reduces brake wear.
However, electric vehicles do present some operational challenges not experienced with ICE vehicles:
- Range: Battery-electric vehicles have significantly shorter on-road ranges than ICE vehicles. However, there are many applications where the vehicle’s daily route falls within that range. For example, many urban delivery routes are 50 miles or less per day.
- Charging time: Unlike ICE vehicles which can be refueled in a few minutes, EVs take longer to charge. Suitable charging infrastructure can reduce charging times to as little as one or two hours, but four hours may be typical, depending on the GVWR of the vehicle.
- Payload / passenger capacity: Battery packs are heavy, which impacts payload or passenger capacity for a given GVWR limit. This needs to be factored into the operational planning for the vehicle.
- Weather: Battery-electric vehicles are more affected by ambient temperature than ICE vehicles. The batteries themselves operate best in a relatively narrow temperature range. Look for vehicles which have actively thermally managed batteries. In addition, the weather affects the need to heat or cool the passenger cabin for comfort, which requires energy and will reduce the on-road range.
Battery Quality: Performance, Longevity and Safety
The basic building block of an EV battery pack is the cell. Look for commercial EV vendors who use the same premium cells as are used by major passenger EV OEMs. Many vendors use cells sourced from China, which may exhibit higher failure rates and shorter lifetimes.
A key feature of high quality EV implementations is active thermal management for the batteries. The cells operate best within a particular temperature range, delivering the best performance, range and efficiency, and lifetime. Batteries that are not thermally managed typically last as little as one or two years before they stop taking enough charge to be usable on the road. With thermal management, this lifetime extends to between seven and ten years.
Battery safety is an important consideration. Look for implementations that include safety features at the cell level, the module level and at the battery pack level. These include fire and explosion risk reduction to safe levels and reducing the risk of personnel electrocution during servicing or accident situations.
Range Estimates and Realities
The range of a commercial electric vehicle depends primarily on its weight, drive cycle and battery capacity. This is down to physics, and one would expect similar vehicles to have similar ranges. However, the ranges claimed by some of the vendors in the industry make one wonder if they’re somehow in a parallel universe where physics is different! Therefore, if a commercial electric vehicle manufacturer advertises a range or efficiency more than 10% different from the theoretical line in the chart below, which plots EV vendors’ range claims, you should ask for their dyno and track results and their test criteria.
In one recent case, a vendor advertised 50% higher range/efficiency than the industry average. In fact, they had run the test with zero payload and at a steady 28 mph, which is unrepresentative of real-world use.
Commercial EV vendors must make many engineering decisions when designing a vehicle conversion, which affect the quality of the integration, including the driver experience, the on-road performance, and reliability.
Look for high quality integration features:
- All components throughout the EV kit should be selected for high quality and high reliability, and are proven in similar automotive applications.
- Drivetrain components should use existing engine and transmission mounts for easy installation and mechanical robustness.
- Controls should be integrated with the vehicle’s CAN bus for deep integration with vehicle functions, but should not use the OBD-II port, which remains available for service use.
- There should be no unfamiliar switches, pedals or buttons. Operating an electric bus, van or truck should be entirely intuitive for drivers.
- Regenerative braking, creep and hill-hold should be implemented.
Because commercial vehicles have higher battery capacities than passenger vehicles, the charging infrastructure at a fleet depot will likely require substantial planning and investment. Additionally, operational planning will be required to ensure that all EVs in your fleet can access charging stations when they need them, which will depend on the number of vehicles, the daily distances driven, the capacity of the batteries, the time taken to charge, and the number of stations.
Charging stations for commercial EVs fall into two categories: Level 2 AC charging and DC Fast Charge.
- Level 2 AC charging: AC power is delivered to the vehicle, where it is converted to DC power for charging the batteries. This class of charger is lower cost and easier to connect to your building’s existing electrical infrastructure. However, charging times for a commercial EV will be long due to the high capacity of the batteries.
- DC Fast Charge: The charging station converts AC electricity to DC power which is delivered to the vehicle and is used to charge the batteries. Although more expensive, DC Fast Charge is much faster than Level 2. The high current levels needed for DC Fast Charge may require additional planning and permitting for installation.
Look for EV vendors whose vehicles support DC Fast Charging.
Implementing electric vehicle charging, especially at fleet scale, is a complex and potentially expensive undertaking. A project like this requires committed project management. This can be provided within the fleet’s management team; or it can be outsourced to companies which specialize in designing and deploying charging services for fleets. Look for a commercial EV vendor who can manage the project or connect you with a company that can.
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