By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service
Sustainability is an increasing focus for companies across industries and around the globe. When it comes to the ways that changes in field service operations can impact sustainability initiatives, the list is longer than you may think. Planning and scheduling solutions that help minimize necessary travel help, remote capabilities eliminate some travel need altogether, and Servitization has many ties to environmental impact (get a feel for exactly how by checking out stories on Kaer, Baxi, and Koolmill).
Another topic of conversation that comes up when we discuss how to make field service greener are electric vehicles (EVs). EVs have the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions, and a number of countries have pledged (or even passed legislation) to reduce or eliminate gas-powered vehicles over the next several decades. In the U.S., California is leading the charge with plans to ban gas–powered cars by 2035.
I had an interesting conversation at Field Service Connect in Austin last fall with delegates on what exactly this will mean for field service organizations. For those in regions where regulations are looming that will force a shift to EVs, the pressure to purchase new vehicles is more intense. Other companies, though, have considered potentially shifting all or part of their fleet to hybrid or full-electric vehicles as gas prices have soared.
There are examples of EV fleet conversions going on right now – a number of cities have rolled out electric buses and garbage trucks. More significantly, the U.S. Postal Service plans to roll out 66,000 electric vehicles over the next several years. Beyond reducing emissions, there are other benefits to be had from EVs. For one, fuel prices continue to be volatile (and in many areas outside of the U.S., those prices were already much steeper). EVs also have fewer moving parts, do not require regular oil changes, and in some cases can provide businesses with valuable tax breaks.
What came into question during that conversation at Field Service Connect, though, is just how practical this change is in present circumstances. This varies, of course, depending on the type of service business you are running, and the geographic area served.
Practicalities of EV Use in Field Service
First, can you get an electrical vehicle that fits your business? If you primarily rely on cars or pick-up trucks, the number of hybrid and EV options is expanding. But the standard in many industries is a van, often with a fairly hefty load capacity. Currently in the U.S., there are only a few options when it comes to EV vans, and a further complication is that many of them offer a fairly limited mileage range. The Ford E-Transit, for example, offers versions with a range from just 108 to 126 miles between charges.
European firms have a better selection, and more electric vans are coming to global markets that offer longer ranges and a wider variety of sizes. You can read about some of them here and here. The cost of some of these vans is close to their gas-powered counterparts, but the limited range will likely remain a significant challenge for some organizations.
Which brings about the second major question, which is around how advanced the charging infrastructure is in the areas your field service teams operate. While EV charging infrastructure in the U.S. is coming along quickly, some of the participants in that conversation felt it isn’t yet extensive enough to support their operations. While some people envision gas station-like charging hubs, EV charging can happen just about anywhere a vehicle can be parked, so expect to see more of charging ports in parking garages and lots. If you service commercial customers, you may even be able to plug your van in while the technician is working. There are also portable charging units that can add range for vans that do not report back to the depot often.
Fleet operators will likely have to install their own rapid charging infrastructure to use when vehicles are not in service, as well as charging hardware for technicians that take their vehicles home. The logistics of charging multiple vehicles are a little more complicated than just pulling them up to a gas pump one at a time, so that could cause complications, too, particularly if you are trying to take advantage of off-peak charging rates.
You also have to consider how you will manage a mixed or fully EV fleet. For companies that rely on fleet management solutions, EVs can currently pose a challenge. There is, in fact, a whole new ecosystem of fleet management solutions aimed directly at EV fleets. In addition to tracking EV-centric fleet metrics like charging status, these solutions are tailored to gather data from vehicles that do not necessarily conform to the same vehicle standards as gas-powered vehicles.
While the cost of EVs is generally higher than traditional vehicles (for now), there can be some long-term cost savings both in fuel and maintenance, in addition to benefits related to compliance and tax savings. EVs are generally quieter than gas-powered vehicles, and in some cases can serve as a power source to tools and lights. There is also, of course, the impact on your company’s sustainability initiatives.
Cost, range, and overall practicality probably mean that in the U.S., outside of California, EV adoption in field service will remain relatively low in the immediate future – but I expect that will change quite a bit in the next three years. In Europe, where gas-powered vehicles will be banned after 2035, there will be more rapid adoption, but also more support from governments to make that practical.