Back in 2010, General Electric promised it would replace over half its fleet with electric and plug-in vehicles.

With planned orders for 25,000 plug-ins, it was quite some commitment--particularly at a time when only a handful of cars was available, and selling in very small numbers.

Three years on, and it appears that GE has started to include natural gas and propane-powered vehicles to its green tally.

But is it, as Bloomberg and other outlets are suggesting, a "detour"? Is GE backing down on its huge plug-in commitment? We're not so sure.

Since making the commitment back in 2010, GE has added around 11,000 vehicles from General Motors and Ford to its fleet--most of which are plug-in vehicles.

It isn't clear just how many vehicles "most" refers to, but GE's employee fleet totals 30,000 vehicles, and another 65,000 go to fleet customers. Electric vehicles may only make up a small proportion of those, but the market is growing all the time--and GE still has a couple more years to meet its 25,000 target.

Variety is the spice of life

Then, there's GE's explanation for introducing natural gas vehicles.

“It’s the demand of our customers,” explains Deb Frodl, GE's corporate fleet services strategy officer.

“There are so many technologies out there and our customers need a variety of technologies in their fleet today, not just one. We’re not picking winners and losers."

Some customers require large pickups and other vehicles. Naturally, then, the current small selection of plug-in vehicles isn't going to cover all bases.

A Chevy Volt or Ford C-Max Energi may not be suitable for every job, so it's unrealistic to suggest that GE's current test fleet of 300 natural gas-fueled Ford F-250 pickups is somehow a replacement for plug-ins.

Pike Research's Dave Hurst suggests it's a price issue. Plug-in hybrid and gasoline-electric hybrids made up around 26,500 of a 2.7 million vehicle fleet market in 2012. Less than a third of that number were plug-ins.

"We’re seeing the same thing on the fleet side as we’re seeing with retail. When you start looking at the total cost of ownership, the plug-in hybrids are still more expensive than a battery- electric vehicle or one with a small gasoline engine," said Hurst.

For GE, it appears variety is still the larger issue.

Relatively slow plug-in sales mean automakers are releasing electric vehicles with some caution--and a big fleet buyer like GE does have to seek alternatives if the desired option isn't available.

To us, that suggests that GE's 25,000 plug-in car target is still on track--even if it's diversifying into other alternative fuels in the meantime.


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