Plug-in vehicles: Take the Low road
11 October 2016
Author: Jack Carfrae
Plug-in vehicles can sometimes seem like old news when they've dominated headlines for so long. Although sales have shifted up a gear - or a plug depending on your viewpoint - ultra-low emissions vehicles are still very much cutting their teeth, and procuring plug-in cars and vans remains a toe in the water for most fleets.
The usual concerns around range, residual values, reliability and general suitability for the job have yet to be alleviated and they're sufficient to ward businesses off. That's where Go Ultra Low comes in: an EV awareness campaign funded jointly by the Government and a series of vehicle manufacturers with a vested interest in ULEVs, the scheme was launched in 2014 with OEMs and has since added a further three, with Kia being the latest addition in January 2016.
"We're hoping to increase that number," says head of Go Ultra Low, Poppy Welch. "Fleets are a major audience for us and I think we've probably upped the amount of business-specific activity we've done, even since I joined just over a year ago.
"Fleets now make up 72% of ULEV sales, so clearly they're spearheading the way. We run a [fleet] advertising campaign, try to attend plenty of events, and now hold our own fleet summit with the SMMT to share best practice and advice. The next one of those is on 7 November."
Beyond the physical presence, the organisation has also set up a LinkedIn group to better inform businesses about plug-in vehicles.
"We do quite a lot of activity on LinkedIn because we can accurately target fleet managers and company car drivers with information about the benefits of electric vehicles.
"On our LinkedIn page, we'll often talk about the basics, like range and combating range anxiety, but some of it's quite specific stuff around whole-life costs, for example, or new models coming out that might be suitable for business use."
In January of this year, Go Ultra Low launched its Cities scheme, that in conjunction with the Office for Low Emission Vehicles saw the Government dish out £40m, chiefly to London, Bristol, Milton Keynes and Nottingham to improve plug-in vehicle infrastructure and foster EV sales, while four other towns received what Welch describes as "seed funding" for the same purposes.
"It was set up almost like a competition for cities around the UK to bid for funding to implement schemes and encourage electric vehicle uptake.
"A lot of it's around improving infrastructure, such as the installation of charge points, some of which are in charging hubs around the edges of cities. Then there are things like allowing EVs to park for free [both in spaces with charging points and those without] and some of the cities are opening up bus lanes to electric vehicles, the idea being they can get across town quicker than people in petrol and diesel vehicles."
Milton Keynes has used a portion of the funding to open a demonstrator shop where businesses and the public can sample plug-in vehicles before they take the plunge.
"It's kind of a try-before-you-buy scheme - like a shop but you don't buy the cars there," says Welch. "It's within one of the shopping centres and there's a whole range of different electric vehicles for people to test, first for a short drive but then maybe for a few days.
"We know that the main way to encourage people to actually buy one is to get them to try it because they seem to really like them when they do. The idea behind [the shop] is just getting people in there and trying them out."
Keeping good company
Arguably the most brazen of shots at the corporate sector is the Go Ultra Low Company scheme, which was launched in May of this year as recognition of a company's efforts to clean up its fleet.
"Essentially, we wanted to give a pat on the back and our encouragement to companies that have decided to take electric vehicles onto their fleet," says Welch. "We are accrediting businesses that either currently have a 5% electric fleet or have a commitment to do so by 2020. We've actually had more take up than we were expecting, with around 70 companies now - and that's just within a few months.
"The range of companies is quite broad: we've got public sector organisations like NHS trusts, universities, city councils, through to small taxi companies, courier companies and even large commercial enterprises like Microsoft and Britvic. It's really a bit of PR for them - they can use our logo and tell people they've been rewarded by us for their efforts in this area, and it helps them with corporate social responsibility."
She added that the organisation is expecting applications to continue and is unofficially aiming for 100 members by the end of the year.
The relatively recent Company scheme may be designed to applaud firms that have already gone the ULEV route, but Go Ultra Low is still in the business of steering as yet uninitiated fleets toward electric power. Welch claims operators interested in but unfamiliar with EVs could do worse than look at the organisation's website and download or order its fleet guide.
"We have quite an extensive fleet guide. It's accessible on our website but there are printed copies as well, which you can get hold of by emailing us - so I'd suggest managers have a look at that first of all - and at the Go Ultra Low Company scheme.
"They can perhaps talk to other businesses or come to our fleet summit for advice on how to implement EVs to find out why it works and the cost savings, then maybe trial one or two vehicles."
Chevin: 'Embrace' ULEVs
Software specialist Chevin is one of a number of companies operating in the fleet sector to receive Go Ultra Low's Company status, as the firm was already running a number of electric vehicles and has a charging point at its office, itself powered by solar panels.
"We're in a very old building; it's an old school house originally built in the 1800s, but as part of the renovations we fitted a solar roof," explains managing director Ashley Sowerby (pictured left).
"We've got 80 panels on the roof that can generate, at peak production, 20kW of electricity. You've got to account for British weather, but our roof produced around 18,000kW hours last year, which works out at about 4500 electric miles per month. So effectively, we've got 54,000 miles for free and, taking your average fleet mileage into account, you're looking at three cars' worth of free fuel for a year."
Chevin formerly operated a typical diesel-only fleet policy, but a review showed that electric vehicles could stack up.
We were looking at our fleet policy and it was one that was adopted by many, many fleet operators: diesel only, four or five doors and no coupés - pretty much the standard company car policy. We reviewed that and realised the diesel-only policy makes no sense any more, due to the NOx emissions, the particulates and so on."
A firm fan of electric vehicles, Sowerby's advice to fleets considering plug-in vehicles is simply to go for it.
"Embrace it. Do it. We've got a charging point here and if any customers come to us in an EV, they'll be charging up while they're having a meeting. I expect that as there's greater uptake, most companies are going to include EVs and put their own charging points on site as well."
Ogilvie: The savings are at the top end
Leasing company Ogilvie Fleet is another to achieve Go Ultra Low Company status and the firm has been running Teslas as part of its internal fleet for several years. Business support director Andy Stephen says the firm is in the process of upgrading its existing charging infrastructure to handle more EVs, but warns that charging both on and off-site requires a realistic approach.
"We got ourselves a charging infrastructure at our head office in Sterling, which we're now about to heavily upgrade to keep up with demand. It's become an issue because we only had one 22kW fast charger, but that still requires a reasonable infrastructure - breaker circuits etc. - we've already got another in our compound and we now want another two at the front of the building.
"We need to strategically place them so each one can hit four bays, but we might have to try and get people to unplug their vehicles as soon as they've finished charging.
"You want to think carefully about how easily your people can access their charge network and ask if you've got the right charging facilities and infrastructure at your depots and workplaces."
Stephen claims there are big savings to be made from operating plug-in vehicles, particularly at the top end of the market, but he believes there is still an issue with drivers taking plug-in hybrids for the tax breaks and failing to run them on electric power, rendering such models more expensive for the business.
"More and more people are taking EVs and plug-ins, and it seems to be at the top end where the biggest savings are. We've probably got 10 plug-ins across the company. We've had two Teslas for quite a while - we're up to four now - and we've got six Model 3s on order, which will arrive probably in around 18 months' time.
"Something like a Tesla is different - it's got its own perceived brand loyalty and it's broken the mould to an extent, but there are very few of them about."
"What we've said [to employees] is that if you're going to take a plug-in, you have to charge them, so we've got things like Volvo XC90 T8s or the Porsche Cayenne plug-in, which if you don't plug them in, you're not even talking 30mpg.
"In an ideal world you'd need a home charging point and access to free charging, but some places do have that, some don't. What works in Glasgow might not work in Edinburgh, for example. London is different because you're going to get away without paying the Congestion Charge, so there's more of an incentive there."