Chargemaster uses electric vehicles on its own fleet to prove to companies that plug-in cars make good business sense, John Maslen discovers.
The company behind the country’s biggest electric vehicle (EV) recharging network is now using its fleet to prove the significant potential of zero-emission motoring in business.
Chargemaster is used by thousands of private owners, businesses and councils, with more than 50,000 customers across the UK and Europe. In the UK, it operates the Polar network, which has more than 5,000 recharging points.
It is also the official charging partner for most of the leading plug-in vehicle manufacturers, including BMW, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Renault and Toyota, along with a range of other fleet providers, such as leasing giant Alphabet.
For Chargemaster’s founder and chief executive officer, David Martell, the company’s own vehicle choice is a public vote of confidence in the future of electric vehicles within the fleet market.
He says: “We are showing customers through our vehicle choices that we are serious about the potential growth in the market. We are also giving them confidence that plug-in vehicles are a viable fleet choice.”
Chargemaster operates a fleet of around 40 electric cars, including battery electric vehicles (BEV), range-extenders and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).
They are used for everything from management cars to vehicles for sales staff and pool cars, with models including the BMW i3, Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi Outlander, Renault Zoe, Vauxhall Ampera, Volkswagen e-Golf and Tesla Model S.
From its Luton headquarters, the company serves customers throughout the country, so different types of technology are allocated for different types of usage.
For example, drivers who cover higher mileages, such as sales staff, will receive range-extenders or PHEVs, while managers with lower mileages can operate BEVs.
This reflects the limited range BEVs can cover on a single charge, although Martell is keen to be an early-adopter as technology increases the distance they can travel.
Martell, who drives a Tesla, says: “It is interesting how the market is changing and we are not far away from saying we will move to BEVs rather than PHEVs.
“Cars such as the Nissan Leaf will develop significantly longer range, while the Tesla Model 3 also has a battery that will provide substantial range.”
Martell suggests that a range of around 160-200 miles is the tipping point at which BEVs can become the sole fleet choice for most companies.
He adds: “My view is that, for sales guys and support teams, they need a genuine 160-mile range for it to make economic sense. For the sales team, we require range extenders or PHEVs, as the BEV range of around 110 miles is not quite there.
“You have to match the technology to the role. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but with a range of choice, a fleet can run a substantial number of plug-in cars.”
For the first quarter of 2017, the UK was one of the leading markets for plug-in vehicles throughout Europe. With sales of more than 12,000, it was ahead of key
economies such as Germany and France, although demand still only accounts for less than 1.5% of the new car market.
For Martell, who previously launched telematics and congestion monitoring firm Trafficmaster, rising demand for plug-ins will generate more interest in Chargemaster’s services and, in turn, lead to expansion in its fleet as more employees are required.
New staff members, who may not be familiar with electric vehicles, receive an induction that ensures they understand the different driving dynamics.
Martell says: “We provide an induction course when someone joins, covering how to drive an EV and things like regenerative braking and optimum speed.
"The difference between 60mph and 70mph is huge in terms of energy consumption. We also look to ensure they are comfortable with charging and running the vehicle.”
Running a plug-in vehicle requires a change in mindset compared to operating a petrol or diesel, but, with the right approach, it can easily fit into a busy business schedule.
James Jean-Louis, group commercial director for Chargemaster, who has day-to-day management control of the fleet, says: “With a car using an internal combustion engine, you would just set off in the morning without thinking what was in the fuel tank. With an electric vehicle, it requires an adjustment in the way you think.
“Drivers need to plug in the night before to ensure they are starting the day on a full battery. Your behaviour then changes on the road, as you think about opportunities to charge.
"You don’t need to focus on keeping the battery fully charged during the day, you just need to top-up. So, you might charge during a break in your journey or during a meeting. Even an extra 20 miles’ charge makes a difference. You just change your behaviour from ‘fill-up’ to ‘top-up’ and make sure you plan ahead, based on the charging infrastructure.”
The most important element is assessing employee mileage requirements and ensuring the right vehicle is chosen for the right job.
For example, if a staff member typically has a long journey to a particular area, but then several days with little mileage between customers or sites, a PHEV would be ideal.
Jean-Louis says: “The outward journey may require the internal combustion engine, but then once they arrive, they may be driving solely on electric power for several days.
“The key thing is putting the right person in the right vehicle for the work they are doing. There is just no point putting someone in a pure EV if they are doing 300 miles a day.”
All drivers have a Polar access card, so they can charge when required and the experience has meant that some staff have started using electric vehicles for private motoring, including taking on ex-fleet cars.
Fleet funding is mixed, with some cars provided by manufacturers on short replacement cycles, although the majority are outright purchased.
Defleet mileages can vary from a few thousand to more than 60,000, so there isn’t a fixed replacement cycle.
Martell is confident in his decision to buy vehicles outright, including their batteries, because they have been problem-free.
The company’s use of a wide-range of models over substantial mileage has shown that batteries are robust and reliable, with little degradation in range, while SMR costs for items such as brake pads are low, because regenerative braking systems mean there is little wear and tear.
Disposal routes include manufacturer returns, sales to staff or retailing to dealers and the public through online platforms.
Running costs are consistently about £2 per 100 miles, compared with around £14 for diesel or petrol.
Jean-Louis says: “Employees are often excited about the prospect of using new technology. Generally they love it, particularly the experience of instant acceleration.
“As we travel the country meeting customers and servicing charge points, we provide a lot of advice about operating electric vehicles to other fleets.”
This advice doesn’t yet extend to commercial vehicles, as the 35-strong fleet of vans is currently diesel-only, but Martell is keen to introduce a switch to zero-emission capability when plug-in hybrid models become available (see panel below left).
He says: “There is not a PHEV van that is available, but as soon as there is we would move into one. You have EV vans that have an extended range, but currently that is not enough for our requirements.
“However, we are on the cusp of a move away from diesel.”
The essential element in driving the next stage of fleet growth in the market will be a long-term commitment from the Government to supporting EVs.
Martell says: “We are going in the right direction, but it will require consistent policy towards the expansion of the physical network and the use of plug-in cars.
“We really need at least five years of clarity from the Government. Benefit-in-kind tax still represents a significant benefit, but the policy needs to be very clear in the long term in order to generate consistent demand.”
Innovative ideas to reduce risk
A driver training programme at Chargemaster has been developed to manage both on and off-road risks.
While many companies focus their risk management policies on minimising on-road incidents, companies also have to ensure vehicles are kept safe when they are parked, particularly when it comes to commercial vehicles.
James Jean-Louis, group commercial director for Chargemaster, says: “It is an annual driver training programme and it is not just based on safe driving. It is also focused on preventing break-ins as we have had several vehicles targeted in the past.”
Chargemaster is considering expanding the scheme to its car fleet in future.
The company operates 35 commercial vehicles and has around 60 operated by GB Electrical, an electrical contractor that was acquired in 2014.
Other initiatives include the potential introduction of ‘no tools left in this van overnight’ stickers, though this may draw more attention to vehicles than if they were left blank.
Stickers asking ‘how is my driving?’ could also be added to encourage safe driving.
The company is carrying out trials of telematics, although the focus behind its use is the efficient allocation of resources during installation and maintenance of the charging network, by booking drivers who are closest to the customers’ premises.
Driver risk management is more of a hands-on approach, with regular licence checks and assessments for car and van drivers.
Employees provide Chargemaster with a DVLA code so the company can electronically check their licences, while if drivers are involved in an incident, there is an internal debrief to identify what went wrong and if the employee could have done anything differently.
Chargemaster awaits era of plug-in vans
If a manufacturer started doing a plug-in hybrid van, Chargemaster would be first in line, the company says.
James Jean-Louis, Chargemaster group commercial director, says: “Our vans do mileage of around 100-150 miles each day and diesel is currently the only option.
“If a manufacturer could provide a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle then we would take it tomorrow.”
Chargemaster’s vans have to adapt to a variety of journeys, from short to long distances with multiple client stops of varying lengths, in order to install and maintain charging points.
This means journeys are often too unpredictable to rely on battery-electric vans, where range may also be affected by the payload that has to be carried.
Currently, the range offered by a pure EV solution doesn’t meet the company’s requirements, but a combination of a fossil fuel engine and electric power would provide a perfect balance of flexibility and low emissions, it says.
Ford is currently developing a PHEV, but trials to develop a final model have only just started with a few fleets in London.
Pictured: Chargemasters' founder and chief executive David Martell (front) with commercial director James Jean-Louis.