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Electric Cars Bought By Fleets: Cost Still An Impediment


Nissan Leaf at eVgo Freedom Station Daly City, California

Nissan Leaf at eVgo Freedom Station Daly City, California

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You may not have thought much about it, but fleet managers could play a huge role in electric-car adoption.

They're the people whose job it is to buy and manage the huge fleets of vehicles operated by companies, government agencies, and other organizations.

A recent study of fleet managers found that they  initially bought a small number of plug-in electric cars to test what is, to them, still a new and unfamiliar technology.

Park ranger charges a Chevrolet Volt at Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Park ranger charges a Chevrolet Volt at Golden Gate National Recreation Area

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After that, they increased the number of electric cars in their fleets for firm-specific reasons: first-mover advantage, specialized capabilities in operation...or a compelling business model based on lower operational costs.

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But so far, media coverage of electric vehicles has tended to focus on households, which admittedly are more numerous.

Such stories fail to recognize the importance of public and private fleets--which, according to a study from Frost and Sullivan, accounted for more than 50 percent of global plug-in vehicle sales through 2012.

Good candidates

Researchers cite several reasons that make organizations good candidates to adopt electric cars. These include their high vehicle purchase rates, intense usage, use of centralized refueling stations (in some cases), and limited number of decision makers.

ALSO SEE: 2016 Chevy Volt Coming: A Look Back At GM's Range-Extended Electric Car (News Video)

However, this research is problematic: It is either dated (from the 1990s) or relies on surveys of organizations that didn't actually purchase an electric car. Due to a phenomenon called the value-action gap, such surveys may not be reliable.

2014 Ford Fusion Energi charging in driveway [image provided by owner Brandt Buffham]

2014 Ford Fusion Energi charging in driveway [image provided by owner Brandt Buffham]

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To address this shortcoming, I analyzed 14 fleet manager interviews and pilot project reports from organizations in the U.S. and the Netherlands that had actually purchased one or more electric cars. My goal was to identify the underlying factors that affected their purchase decisions.

The four reasons most commonly cited by fleet managers for purchasing a plug-in vehicle were: testing new technologies, lowering their environmental impact, improving the organization’s public image, and government grants.

Testing is key

More than any other factor, interviewees emphasized testing new technologies as influential in their decisions. While many fleet managers were not willing to invest heavily in electric cas, they did want "to gain practical information about the performance and usability of electric cars."

In addition, while most fleet managers seemed genuinely focused on reducing emissions, a small number of organizations adopted electric cars specifically to "say that they did"--a practice that could be termed greenwashing.

In those situations, organizations didn't say they planned to adopt a large number of electric cars, but rather used them to emphasize that the firm was green and eco-friendly.


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