Adoption of electric vehicles requires an evolution in culture as well as technology.
By Mark Stevens
As California’s capital city, Sacramento wants to set an example for the state by transitioning its fleet to electric vehicles. Governments need to act now to meet ambitious goals to stop climate change.
In my role overseeing the purchase and maintenance of all of Sacramento’s vehicles, I’ve learned that these goals alone are not enough. To actually achieve your goals, you need to do several important things.
First, you need to change the culture in your organization to one that embraces this move to energy efficiency. That means getting your bosses and your customers — the people driving the vehicles — to buy in.
This culture change is critical to making sure leaders establish policies that mandate cleaner and greener vehicles, and that employees are empowered to spark change from below by championing these vehicles as something that helps them do their jobs better.
Second, you have to do your homework. When you look at the data, you’ll find that a city can actually save money while converting its fleet to alternative fuels.
Finally, there is one more critical element: technology. Innovative companies are creating energy-efficient pickup trucks and fire engines that will cut down on carbon emissions in the future. Sophisticated software programs show how energy efficiency saves cities both money and energy. By demanding these solutions, cities can help carmakers and tech companies move the technology forward.
As fleet manager for a city of more than half a million people, I deal with all sorts of vehicles — cars for agencies handling public works, police, fire, solid waste, parks and recreation, code enforcement, and parking, as well as all the big trucks for these agencies. Our fire department even has two Jet Skis. I also oversee an infrastructure for fueling, including in-ground gasoline tanks, liquid natural gas, compressed natural gas, propane, electric charging — every fuel known to man.
My mandate is to get us off fossil fuels as much as possible and onto renewable energy. I’ve updated Sacramento’s already robust sustainability policy to require 50 percent alternative fuel procurement for all replacement vehicles and 75 percent zero-emissions vehicle procurement for all replacement light-duty vehicles.
Fifty-three percent of the light-duty vehicles and 52 percent of all vehicles that we’ve purchased over the past three years have been electric or use some other alternative fuel. That’s a little short of our goal, partly because the technology and our culture are not ready for more.
In 2018, I met with department heads and told them the next 35 cars we purchased would all be electric. Chevrolet had just come out with the Bolt, an electric vehicle with a range of 230 miles — a real game-changer. The first thing out of everybody’s mouth was, “That’s not going to work for me. I drive 150 miles a day.”
I showed them the data. Their actual average was 32 miles per day. I said, “Let’s try the vehicle.”
Six months later, one guy who had been adamantly opposed shook my hand. “That’s the best vehicle the city has ever purchased,” he said. “You’re not going to get me out of that car until I retire.” That’s culture change.
Get Executive Support for EV Adoption
Many fleet managers tell me their bosses — whether it’s a city manager or a city council — hesitate when they see the higher upfront costs for electric vehicles.
Sure, EVs cost more. However, because the cars are simpler, with no transmissions and no internal combustion engines, they don’t need oil changes, smog tests or other repairs. They’re on the road more instead of in the shop. We see that extra cost paid back in two to three years, which is nothing when you own the vehicle for eight to 10 years.
I suggest that fleet managers tell upper management, “You may not be into green, but I can save you $100,000 over the next five to 10 years.” Don’t you think management will be happy when they find they don’t have to raise taxes?
Once they buy in, they have the power to institute policies that will help you transform the entire fleet — and get the drivers to buy in as well.
Technology Drives Change in Government Operations
Technology is sometimes beyond your control. You can’t just convert your city’s fire engines to electric when electric fire engines don’t yet exist.
Sometimes, though, you can help push the technology forward by showing companies a market exists if they build the right product. For instance, our current garbage trucks average 2 to 3 miles per gallon. Their dedicated routes make them perfect candidates for electric vehicles.
That’s why we’ve decided to test out an electric garbage truck next year in partnership with Lion Electric. To truly affect change, you need to work with stakeholders inside and outside your company. Some of these companies need beta testers, and if we don’t step up, they may not be able to build the next generation of vehicles that we need.
As another example, we’ve partnered with Samsara, whose technology helps us monitor our mileage and maintenance costs so that we can compare our EVs’ cost per mile with that of our legacy vehicles. It also tells us when the off-peak electrical rates are, so we can save money while we charge our EVs. With one consolidated dashboard, we can see where our vehicles are, quickly catch maintenance issues and gain insight into fuel metrics.
Samsara also helps us see vehicle idling times so we can optimize routes. We’re about to establish a five-minute limit for idling, which will be a powerful way to cut back on unnecessary emissions. If we can meet our goal of reducing fossil fuels by 5 percent this way, we should save as much as $300,000 per year.
Of course, once we get those drivers in electric vehicles, they can run their air conditioning on a 100-degree day and it won’t be burning gasoline.
Saving money, saving time and saving the climate. That’s a culture change everyone can get behind.