If you pay attention to car advertisements, the transition to electric vehicles will involve large numbers of people trading their gas-powered sedans, pickups and hatchbacks for battery-powered companions. That’s all well and good. But in the fight against climate change, the most effective electric vehicles will not necessarily be those bought by everyday consumers, but rather the vehicles that move in fleets, such as rental cars, buses and vans.
The case for fleet electrification is simple. Fleets of vehicles are purchased in bulk by institutions, corporations, public school systems, and the government. They can make far more trips in a week than a typical passenger car in a single day, meaning that replacing one of these vehicles with an electric vehicle can have an outsized impact on reducing CO2 emissions. Also, since these vehicles often travel on fixed routes, it may be easier to set up a network of EV chargers to power them. The basic idea is that by converting a number of vehicles at once, fleets can reduce overall costs and lay the groundwork for large-scale electrification of transport.
“Having electric vehicles on the road with these fleets creates that familiarity,” said Katie Robinson, vice president of programs and operations at the Electrification Coalition. “It shows the commitment of the municipalities, the state governments and these private companies.”
Rental car companies like Avis and Enterprise are already at least partially committed to this transition, which will effectively give more people the opportunity to drive electric vehicles before they buy them. Since these companies often sell their vehicles on the secondary market after only a few years, this transition could also increase the number of used electric vehicles available to consumers in the coming decade. Hertz in particular has already committed to buying 100,000 Teslas, 65,000 EVs from Polestar and up to 175,000 EVs from General Motors. These vehicles are an important part of the company’s plans not only to electrify its fleet, but also to establish new business models for the electric age. This includes everything from lending EVs directly to Uber drivers to renting EVs to business travelers whose employers are trying to reduce emissions and meet ESG goals.
“We’re really starting to see significant impact on the ICE [internal combustion engine] miles,” said Steve Shur, vice president for government relations for electric vehicle strategy at Hertz. “Uber drivers who work full-time in this role spend a lot of time on the road.”
The electrification of delivery vehicles could also have a disproportionate benefit. These medium- and heavy-duty vehicles accounted for less than 10 percent of vehicles registered in 2020, but accounted for 26 percent of the transport sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. Last mile delivery tends to take place throughout the day, so replacing these vans and ICE trucks with other vehicles will reduce tailpipe emissions in communities and potentially reduce noise pollution in those areas. (Since EVs don’t have internal combustion engines, they’re noticeably quieter).
FedEx, for example, is aiming to move to an all-electric fleet by 2040, and UPS has invested in and committed to buying vans from Arrival, a British electric vehicle company. Amazon, meanwhile, has poured hundreds of millions into EV startup Rivian, eventually planning to buy 100,000 electric vans from the company. This transition could become even more promising as companies take advantage of new federal loans for medium- and heavy-duty electric vehicles and larger electric delivery vehicles enter the market. PepsiCo is expected to receive the first Tesla Semis, the electric vehicle maker’s yet-to-be-released Class 8 trucks, later this year. The German company Daimler Truck, which makes Freightliner and Mercedes-Benz trucks, is testing its own hydrogen-powered trucks.
“Our conclusion is battery first. Small trucks, then bigger trucks. We will see how battery technology develops,” says Mike Roeth, Trucking Lead at RMI. “Then we will know where the mix will be between heavy-duty trucks with hydrogen fuel cells and electric heavy-duty trucks.”
A big bright spot was the electrification of state-owned vehicles. The electrification of public transport creates huge carbon savings as it allows people to travel without even having to buy a car. The electrification of public transport and school buses can also drastically reduce people’s exposure to air pollution. The Biden administration will spend about $1 billion to expand the nation’s fleet of electric and low-emission school buses, and has also committed to ensuring that all new light-duty vehicles purchased for the government’s fleet are fully operational by 2027 are electric, the US Postal Service said earlier this summer that 40 percent of its new vehicles would be electric.
There are still challenges. The companies and governments buying EVs for fleets are not immune to the supply chain issues that have made purchasing all types of EVs more difficult and expensive during the pandemic. These vehicles may also require expanded new network capacity, requiring new infrastructure. Add to this the huge cost of buying new vehicles and securing access to chargers, and fleet operators’ belief that the fuel savings are ultimately worth the switch.
“Fleet buyers are really driven by economics. They use their vehicles a lot and they are a great tool. They’re not a status symbol,” said Brett Smith, director of technology at the Center for Automotive Research. “You had a whole fleet of vehicles that your mechanics, your drivers, know and understand your entire system. … That’s a big hurdle.”
At the same time, it is crucial to think about how electric vehicles can be used in the most efficient way, especially if car manufacturers are still ramping up production. While EVs offer clear environmental advantages over internal combustion engine vehicles, they also have disadvantages. Electric vehicles depend on a pernicious supply chain for raw materials that can create “neo-colonial” relationships between countries like the United States and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Bolivia. Continuing to rely on cars instead of other forms of transport also means continuing the extraordinarily high number of road deaths – a problem that could get worse as cars get bigger and heavier. Prioritizing infrastructure that primarily serves these vehicles means leaving behind people who cannot or do not want to use them.
Fleets are a little reminder that some of the biggest benefits of electric vehicles can be at the community level rather than the individual. A Tesla bought as a status symbol by a higher-income family that already owns two other cars does not do as much good as a Tesla used all day by an active Uber driver. Collective electrification could be much more effective, signaling that the transition to electric vehicles should likely involve more than just swapping motors for batteries.
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