With new vehicle advancements being rolled out every year, the current fleet industry is nothing like its predecessors. Telematics, EVs, and a fresh demand for parts has kept the industry moving at an unprecedented pace. To get a better grasp of the current staste of the fleet industry, leaders in the field discuss where fleet was and what we can expect in the future.
Supply Chain Shortages
As the world is working to bounce back from a multi-year pandemic, the fleet industry has noticed a direct hit to the supply chain for not only parts but vehicles. Industry experts have specifically noticed a shortage of a key component for fleets: microchips.
“In the last several years, the amount of electronics used in the vehicles has increased significantly. And with that, the need for microchips has gone up as well,” said Yuri Tello, manager of global fleet & government sales support with General Motors Fleet. “The microchip shortage has had a major impact on production capacity and product availability across the industry.”
According to Tello, the shortage doesn’t just stem from a single instance. Instead, coming out of the pandemic shutdowns, a reduction in vehicle production that was later met with a skyrocketing increase in demand, and that has all led to shortages.
Nate Oscarson, national government sales manager with Ford Motor Company, echoes this sentiment, noting that, in the past, an order could be put in the order bank, the vehicle would be built and the customer would receive it. He explains that now the order banks are opening and shutting in a very compressed time period, making it difficult for fleets to operate when they have to time their purchase decisions to an order bank opening and shutting.
“Most of the time these do not correspond to each other,” Oscarson said. “Everything is completely turned upside down right now.”
Looking at the industry’s supply chain from a management side, Joseph Keefe, director of sales and business development with AssetWorks LLC, said fleets need to plan ahead with purchasing as prices go up and vendors close down.
“They’re starting up, they’re closing down; shipping has been a bear,” he said, adding that simply getting the final product and ensuring it can be manufactured and sent to the U.S. is a hurdle on its own. Someone who has experienced this firsthand is Charlotte Ashcraft, director for the Franklin County Commissioners Fleet Management in Columbus, Ohio. Vehicles that she ordered in December of 2021 have still not arrived, and she has high hopes they will arrive before the end of the year. She doesn’t expect the problems to clear up until 2025. Until those new vehicles arrive, Ashcraft said there is the question of maintaining the current fleet. But even finding the parts to make repairs has proven difficult.
“We’re circling the drain on these kinds of things because we have to keep what we have, we have to keep them on the road. They’re first responders,” Ashcraft said. “I know a lot of the dealership representatives for the government contracts are taking a lot of grief from their customers. But for me, it’s not their fault. They’re not holding on to them. They didn’t do anything wrong. They ordered them and they’re waiting. They’re waiting just like we are.”
Long-term solutions could be coming, though. Change is expected with the recently passed CHIPS bill, which allows for the research, design, and production of semiconductors in the U.S. Other solutions could come in the form of the actual number of microchips needed in each vehicle.
“We’re looking at a variety of ways to attack the problem,” Tello said. “I think the issue is going to continue into next year. It’s improving, but not enough to satisfy the demand that is there in the market right now.”
Telematics and the Expansion of Data
If there is one takeaway from trying to understand the future of vehicles, it’s that telematics will bring the industry into the next century. Able to provide vehicle insight and diagnostics that were previously inaccessible, telematics have created a way to better plan for the next generation of vehicles while better understanding the fleets of today. With the introduction of EVs, telematics have become particularly important for improving range and assist with charging.
And while non-EVs can have embedded modems in them to help gather data off the vehicle, telematics systems are changing the electric vehicle game.
“In order to make EVs work you need to have the infrastructure along with the telematics,” Oscarson said. “Telematics can show how much CO2 the fleet is saving and how many gallons of gasoline they’re saving. I think this is really important when fleet managers have to report up to city councils on their carbon reduction efforts.”
While Oscarson notes that the industry is only just scratching the surface on telematics, he sees a future where a vehicle repair is streamlined because the telematics system is able to find the dealership with the parts in stock and schedule a service appointment on the way, and where the dealer has already read the diagnostic code because it has been sent over the air.
“That’s not here today, but that would be the future that is made possible by the telematics on the vehicle,” Oscarson said.
With respect to telematics, Tello said that GM introduced OnStar 25 years ago. Through OnStar Business Solutions, OnStar offers services that give small business owners and fleet managers meaningful insights, actionable data, and the confidence that they are maximizing their ROI, including their investments in EVs.
Looking back, Keefe remembers a time when telematics were not an everyday part of fleet. He put emphasis on what could have been learned during all those years had that information been available. He points to around 2018 as a turning point when companies like Samsung and Geotab were pushing the envelope and taking advantage of data coming from vehicles.
“It skyrocketed up to the level of what these things can do now,” he said. “My point is that analytics and that data, it’s been a while coming in now. I feel like it’s just going to accelerate like every other piece of technology.”
From knowing how many miles a vehicle has traveled, to knowing the cost of travel and being able to plan repairs, telematics seems to fit with the natural progression of vehicles and a trend toward more electric components.
Jeffrey Tews, CPFP, who is the retired fleet manager for the City of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sees telematics systems as a way to continually learn about the vehicles being driven. It’s with this learning process that he hopes fleets will succeed.
“The whole idea is to try and manage your costs. And it comes down to a very basic thing. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. And that’s what they help you do,” Tews said. “But that’s what fleet managers are doing. That’s what they have to do to survive.”
A New Fleet Standard with EVs
It’s impossible not to talk about the state of the fleet industry and where it’s going without discussing electric vehicles.
On the manufacturing side, EVs aren’t simply limited to the civilian side. A growing number of municipalities are adding hybrids and EVs to their fleets, transforming the fleets of the past.
Oscarson noted he has seen a big push for EVs, with governments leading the transition, adding that it’s not a question of if a fleet goes EV but when. Looking at it from a manufacturing perspective, he notes Ford Pro is trying to make that transition as easy as possible with features like Pro Charging, which works to provide charging solutions to help power EVs. He added that for many departments, fleets spend time idling, so features like exportable power are important and may be used to run lights and other equipment.
“If you have an EV, but you don’t have the charging infrastructure, EVs are useless,” Oscarson said. “We’ve got to make sure we think about charging when we’re thinking about transitioning to EVs.”
Tello notes that at GM the number and variety of fleet-ready EVs is expanding rapidly and GM Fleet has recognized the need to help customers with the transition to EVs and has partnered with charging infrastructure providers. Its Ultium Charge 360 Fleet Solutions program offers turnkey solutions, connecting fleets to charging options at home, at public stations, and in on-site depots fleets build for its officers and staff.
Regarding the implementation of EVs, Keefe sees it as a natural progression along with other fleet advancements such as telematics. With that, this isn’t just a vehicle that is changing the automotive industry, but a whole new way that fleet will have to operate. From charging stations, to infrastructure and the politics that make governments run, a new standard is here.
“We are absolutely neck deep in EVs and that whole industry,” Keefe said.
With these changes, Tews notes the industry will need to look at what this means for the repair floor and the parameters of the work that will be able to be done.
“Are people going to be able to repair the vehicles they’re buying?” he asked. “That’s probably one of the biggest things that we’re looking at right now. Electrification is here.”
Ashcraft said that after seeing the advancements in EVs, and after the first police car with hybrid technology was offered, she doesn’t plan for her fleet to go back to a traditional engine or twin turbo. She notes that the goal is to be able to convert all the vehicles over to hybrids to help reduce the fuel usage. Ashcraft said they’ll even stage a contest for people who drive the plug-in hybrids to see who can get the best miles per gallon.
As with everything, what surrounds new technology has to change as well. And with EVs, there’s a new need for charging stations.
“When I had 20 cars, I had 20 charging stations. Now I’ve got 32 cars and I’ve got 32 charging stations. So that way they can always plug in,” Ashcraft said, adding she would also “like to see a wide range of shops out there with the technology and the abilities to fix these vehicles.”
Growing the Next Generation in Fleet
As with any industry, there will eventually be turnover. But fleet in particular has noticed a shift in the number of individuals seeking out jobs in this field, particularly when it comes to being hired on as mechanics or technicians.
“I’ve seen trends where people were knocking down the doors trying to get a government job because of the long-term security and now it’s crazy because a lot of those securities, the pensions, the net worth, the pride, are starting to go away because of lack of funding,” Tews said. “It’s just the times we live in. And it’s so unfortunate.”
Tews, who worked his way up from technical school to being a mechanic, then a supervisor, then administrator, noted that it’s not just in government, however. He’s seen it in private fleets as well.
But for the city of Milwaukee, Tews said officials have been taking initiative to show them how the industry operates and what a career in fleet looks like. This has consisted of having a large social media presence and recruiting through job fairs, visiting schools and even letting people visit the government facilities to get a better idea of how everything is run.
“We’re trying to change the image of local government and the stigma that some people might have regarding city workers in government in general,” Tews said.
Keefe adds that even vendors are being challenged with finding people, whether that is technicians or in the case of software companies, developers. Keefe notes that because of the complexities of the vehicles today it also means many mechanics have to be software technicians as well.
“I think the industry is accelerating as we speak,” Keefe said. “There’s a lot to adjust to for all of us.”
Ashcraft is currently in the planning phase of putting together an apprenticeship program for Franklin County that would teach interested individuals about working on vehicles. She estimates the program would run about 18 months and pair individuals up with mechanics to learn the trade, hopefully placing them in jobs once completed.
And with that next generation, Ashcraft would also like to see a more diverse pool of people wanting to join the fleet workforce. The director, who has been in the industry for more than 30 years, recalls first starting and seeing few women in the areas she worked. Though she’s seen more women joining fleet over the years, she would still love to see that number grow.
“I have a lot of really talented people, but they’re going to eventually retire,” Ashcraft said. “We have to get them back down to the basics and grow them from the bottom; that’s one of our biggest challenges right now.”