An electric vehicle behaves very differently from a diesel vehicle. A diesel-fueled vehicle has consistent operation, mileage that's simple to track, and multiple fueling options at any given area. In contrast, the operation of an EV is affected by various factors, down to who's behind the wheel.
But with sustainability efforts and innovation designed to decrease the transportation industry's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, Stephan Schablinski of DHL said that optimizing diesel operations isn't enough, and to make real strides in GHG reductions, fleets must use data to determine what transportation operations meet the current capabilities of an EV.
Schablinski, DHL's VP of operations excellence, GoGreen, believes the transition to EV fleets cannot happen overnight. Switching from internal combustion engine-powered vehicles to an electrified fleet requires extensive planning—and that's where data plays an important role.
Use data to determine whether to employ an EV
Data can first help businesses decide what ICE vehicles can be replaced with EVs. Because an EV's performance depends on variables such as route, payload, driver, and climate, a fleet must collect data on these variables to determine if electrification is even possible for their operations.
Keith Hawker, managing director of transport at United Kingdom-based Civica, a software company specializing in public service software, said that costs are one of the most critical factors of any organization. Therefore, it's one of the top factors to consider when "going electric." A fleet must fully understand the running costs of both fuel and electric vehicles running costs. And "better data insight allows accurate comparison and forecasting of whole life running costs, allowing fleet managers to confidently determine the most cost-effective option in the future."
For Schablinski and DHL, this means gathering data from a diesel-powered vehicle for 365 days, 24 hours a day, to fully understand its performance in different road conditions and weather conditions with different payloads and different drivers, then taking the "hundreds of thousands of data records" to find a pattern and whether that pattern meets the current capabilities of an EV. "And that's, I feel, almost too much for a human to do this equation on a piece of paper," Schablinski stated.
DHL employs Samsara to help gather and make sense of this data. Samsara's Connected Operations Cloud platform captures fleet data from sensors, cameras, and OEM integrations into one place, helping fleets make data-driven operational decisions. It's this data that DHL has relied on when planning for an EV, or alternative fuel, in the future.
"We have those records of all the routes that have been run over the course of the last year and so on," said Sanjit Biswas, Samsara CEO and co-founder. "And we've built … suitability tools to help with that transition."
Biswas said the accumulated data includes technology that the fleet already uses. For instance, if the fleet employs a diesel-powered vehicle, data collected will include its current miles per gallon, its mileage, and how that relates to asset age. He said that gives the operator an idea of the average and maximum ranges if a fleet deploys an EV on that route. It also explains how much dwell time will be necessary to charge the EV running that route.
These are all the practical factors, and once they're put in an algorithm, Biswas said, they will help businesses make a list of which routes or vehicle applications would be best suited for EVs.
However, deciding which applications and routes meet the current capabilities of EVs isn't the only obstacle to an EV transition. Charging infrastructure is critical, and Schablinski said it's one of the biggest challenges faced in the industry because of the risks involved in the investment.
Building a charging infrastructure
In a blog published by Smart Electric Power Alliance, Charlotte Argue, senior manager of fleet electrification at Geotab, stated that after determining which vehicles could be replaced with EVs, fleet operators must also specify "what charging infrastructure will be needed to support those vehicles."
Argue suggested fleets work with their utility provider to develop a charging solution that is sufficient for their needs—and having accurate vehicle data can help determine how much electrical capacity is necessary. This data also provides other relevant information, such as where a vehicle parks, how long it dwells, and how far it will travel daily to determine how much power each vehicle needs.
Aligning with Argue's suggestion to partner with a utility provider, Schablinski said that fleets looking to build charging infrastructure can't accomplish the task independently.
"We have to work with property managers, to landlords, to facility owners, to EV charging service providers," Schablinski said. "So, I think it's a much more complex stakeholder landscape that we need to coordinate to make electric vehicles work."
See also: Truck charging in the 'real world'
Schablinski said DHL began its foray into the electrification transition back in 2015 in its light-duty applications. This process forced the DHL team to answer questions such as, "How do we need to design our facilities to make them ready for electric vehicles? How do we provide sufficient power to these facilities so that we can charge the vehicles? How do we train our drivers? How do we train our facility manager? How do we train our asset managers?"
This process taught Schablinski and the team what else was needed to smoothly transition to EVs "other than just getting our hands on vehicles." And that process helped determine what a perfect charging ecosystem will look like for DHL.
Schablinski said that DHL needed to provide its own chargers in most cases because public charging isn't sufficient. However, investing in charging infrastructure came with its own risks. "We are where the customer is, so if the customer is deciding to change their supply chain geographically, we would move with the customer," he said. "We don't know if we are using this investment, or this infrastructure, for the time that it takes to depreciate," he said, adding that there's no guarantee DHL would remain in a single facility for 10 to 20 years.
DHL has partnered with "turnkey" EV charging providers in the U.S. to alleviate this risk. Turnkey providers act as a one-stop shop for fleets that desire EV charging solutions, performing site evaluations, engineering and construction services, installation services, and more.
Mike Thompson, senior partner of sustainability in logistics practice lead at McKinsey and Company, said many of his U.S.-based clients also prefer the turnkey approach, but it depends on "their sophistication, how far they're thinking about the charging model."
Thompson said fleet managers are asking how many chargers will be needed and where those charges can be placed. He said it's going to take a combination of telematics, data, or solutions combined with input from EV charging infrastructure providers to find a bespoke solution.
"I think everybody's looking for some kind of partner to help them make that transition because a lot of fleets are stuck at the moment," Thompson said.
Biswas and Thompson agree that fleets will increasingly experiment with EVs and charging infrastructure over the next five years to determine what's right for them based on their vehicle type and workload and "in a data-driven, practical sort of way."
In fleet electrification, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but using data to gather information about a fleet's current operations with its existing technology can put them on the right track to discovering what EV technologies and applications will best suit their business goals and operational needs.