Five years ago, fleet electrification was an evolving concept. And so was the Fleet Forward Conference, essentially. In 2018, we convened FFC in a hipster event space in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco. We had about 160 in the room. That initial attendee group has helped us grow and many were present for this year’s event in Santa Clara — where we surpassed 600 registrants.
In 2018, the du jour acronym was ACES: autonomous, connected, electric, and shared. The seminars ran the gamut of ACES, with titles such as “Blueprints for EV Fleet Adoption,” “The Great Mobility Debate,” “Corporate Fleets & The Carsharing Potential,” and “Your Autonomous Strategy Begins Now” to name a few.
The pillars of ACES have evolved in unequal measure. We wouldn’t hold a seminar with the title “Your Autonomous Strategy Begins Now” in the present environment. We also haven’t seen substantial growth in commercial and corporate fleets when it comes to sharing.
The other parts of the acronym, electric and connected, have evolved rapidly and in tandem. In 2018, I wouldn’t have forecasted the explosion of the electrification market in the commercial vehicle space. Electric pickups are now a reality. In addition to the incumbent manufacturers, the Class 2 to 6 market is now abounding with independent OEMs offering electric “sleds” that will take numerous bodies.
FFC22 reflected this new environment with seminars such as “Calculating TCO for EV Fleets,” “Scaling Charging Infrastructure for Electric Trucks,” and “Building a Connected Data Ecosystem for Electric Fleets.” Many new OEMs were present at FFC22 and had vehicles in the ride and drive.
True, we’re still premarket in the commercial EV space, even as passenger EVs have blown away sales expectations. But make no mistake, the electric horse has left the barn. It’s happening, it’s real.
Ed Peper, who heads GM fleet and delivered the opening keynote, mentioned prognostications that pegged EV penetration of 25% by 2030. “We think it's going to be significantly higher than that,” he said. “We think it’s going to be at least 50% EV adoption by 2030.”
“We are building an electric future now,” Peper said. “The urgency is there. Don’t wait to start if you haven't already, and I know many of you already have.”
So yes, FFC has evolved with this evolving market, and the majority focus was on electrification. And as electrification moves from concept to reality, new sets of challenges that weren’t envisioned five years ago sink in.
Bobit Editors Weigh In
In addition to myself, three more editors from Bobit’s fleet publications attended FFC. Their collective takeaway was that fleet electrification is a bigger undertaking than previously expected, and it will take a village of fleet people to get it done.
“This year’s Fleet Forward Conference delved more into the realities and challenges facing fleets as they electrify,” said Martin Romjue, who runs Charged Fleet. “It’s a longer, more phased process than anticipated, as the early adopters are discovering.”
Relaying intelligence gathered from the seminars he sat in on, Romjue noted the new responsibilities that will affect the day-to-day operation of fleets, including managing mixed EV and ICE vehicles and coordinating the different systems that track them.
Fleet operations must also make the vehicle work for the driver to overcome range anxiety and which charging network to use. Roles and responsibilities will change, which may even include a new position, “electrification manager,” Romjue noted.
Vesna Brajkovic of Heavy Duty Trucking delivered her big takeaway: “The demands of a transition from traditional internal combustion engines to electric and other alternatives don’t stop at equipment procurement and installation of charging or fueling stations.”
“Fleet executives now must be educators, even advocates, for the next generation of vehicles and technology,” Brajkovic said. “Managers not only have to get logistics in order, but also get their drivers, dispatchers, support staff, and even customers, on board with the shift.”
Louis Prejean, editor for Work Truck and Automotive Fleet focused on the shared learning experience at the conference: “The person-to-person connection and the ability to communicate progress, concerns, or even just general updates about their fleets were just as important as the session themselves,” he said. “Throughout the discussion of vehicle types, new programs, technologies, and reducing emissions, the human side was not lost.”
Getting back to FFC’s inception and those two ACES pillars that haven’t developed as much for fleets —they’re developing in ways that hadn’t been expected.
Autonomous technology is making progress, albeit more slowly than thought, with Level 2 and 3 ADAS systems. They’re gaining in sophistication in passenger cars and are moving into commercial vehicles. These new systems are, first and foremost, to enhance safety.
(And this gives us a lot to talk about on the Fleet Safety Conference side, which was collocated with the Fleet Safety Conference.)
The action with Level 4 autonomy is shifting to delivery bots, middle-mile logistics, and over-the-road trucking. The development of the robotaxi market is continuing too. The OnStar team went up to San Francisco for dinner and made a point to jump in a self-driving car from Cruise, GM’s autonomous subsidiary. The service runs without a human safety driver behind the wheel.
“Autonomous driving is real,” Peper said in his opening remarks. “And commercial and fleet are very much a natural for autonomous mobility.”
“We never had to ask our customers which diesel pump they’d use when they bought our trucks,” jokes Alex Cervenka, @KenworthTruckCo #ZEV sales manager in a panel on electric truck charging at #FleetForwardCon pic.twitter.com/aj8vd585xW— Heavy Duty Trucking (@HDTrucking) November 10, 2022
As for sharing, a new form is coming into play relating to electrification. With the high initial expense of electric commercial vehicles, new Fleet Electrification as a Service (FEaaS?) schemes are allowing fleets to access an electric truck and charging as needed on a pay-as-you-go basis.
FFC will continue to evolve; it won’t get stuck in one market niche. It will never be the autonomous, connected, or electric fleet conference. Of course, it will be all those things.
FFC’s mandate is to assess the evolution of new transportation modes, new technologies, new tools, and new systems that make sense for fleets. Its goal will always be to find ways to move goods and people more efficiently, more safely, and more sustainably.