BY SUE HURST
Colin Marriott, Head of Fleet, British Gas, talks to Utility & Contractor Fleet Manager about his bold move to take on pure EV commercial vehicles and how working with strategic partners adds value to the business
As General Manager of British Gas Fleet, in which key areas do you take the lead?
My role is to head up the whole of the fleet needs for Centrica UK operations. Any mobility requirements that fall under Centrica UK’s umbrella are ultimately under my remit. This covers all aspects of fleet management including acquiring vehicles, organising conversions, compliance, road safety and risk management and finally the disposal of vehicles. In general I keep the wheels turning on a day-to-day basis.
It is well documented that you have conducted the largest ever Electric Vehicle trial and gone on to purchase a number of these. What analysis of your operations did you undertake before placing the first orders and how good is the infrastructure to accommodate charging?
As with any company we have to convince the business, from a financial point of view, that taking Electric Vehicles is the right thing to do.
There are a number of things to consider, aside from the obvious environmental benefits and carbon reduction targets. The overall technology has to be affordable and the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) needs to stand up as it does for any vehicle purchased. We already know what’s required from a fleet vehicle in terms of payload and load volume but operating a fleet of commercial EVs was uncharted territory and we had to make sure that the vehicle performed in all circumstances, for example, adverse weather conditions. The new technology also needed to fit, without changes to operational practices.
The first part of the process started in the lab at CENEX with a rolling road test. Then we had to understand the minimum range requirements and the effect of heavy use during winter.
Nissan provided us with pre-production vehicles for the trial so that they could be tested under difficult conditions. Demand on these vehicles is high from all angles and in winter we receive a much higher volume of customer call-outs.
Engineers that were selected for the trial undertook extensive training on how to get the best from the technology. Initially, this involved two days training at Gateshead College however, now that the vehicles are in place this is now down to a couple of hours. We also had to ensure training was in place for garages, breakdown providers, accident repair centres and our fleet management company etc.
Overall there has been a very positive outcome and we have witnessed how the engineers who drive the vehicles are using their own initiative to get the best from their vehicles – in many cases changing their driving habits for the better. They have re-calibrated their routes to avoid high-speed roads too.
In terms of charging infrastructure, we rely on home charging. The homes of the drivers had to be surveyed for suitability such as off road parking and suitable position for a charge point to be fitted. Public charge point infrastructure can also be used if required but sadly fees are being brought in for rapid charge which has not been accounted for in the TCO.
We have proved that you don’t need to have a depot-style operation with charge point infrastructure to make this work.
What has the driver feedback been like relating to the Electric vehicles?
Driver feedback has been very positive and they love the Nissans. Safety of all our engineers is paramount and they get a really good van that they accept they have to change their driving style for. A fuel efficient driver is ultimately a safer driver.
In terms of the physical drive the engineers love automatic transmission which is much nicer to use in urban areas and busy traffic. The engineers also rate the features on the vehicles such as having a heated seat and steering wheel rather than using the heater fan which eats into the battery range. The e-NV200s can be programmed to preheat while it is still on charge, for example, half an hour before using the vehicle in the morning.
The ultimate testimony is that the drivers want to keep them!
How important is it to undertake driver training initiatives?
All our drivers undertake driver training and FleetMaster is our trusted driver-training provider. Whenever any new vehicle is issued there is a comprehensive hand-over and familiarisation period for the driver and vehicle.
Do you have any other plans in the pipeline for introducing EVs into other areas of the fleet?
I think as time goes on that people will naturally migrate to hybrid and pure electric vehicles on an ad hoc basis. They are certainly not the answer to everything but they are excellent in niche applications. There are significant benefits to be had by identifying groups of drivers that could benefit – for example, in Central London.
What is the top three criteria when choosing a telematics system? What are the benefits and issues of the system?
For me, the key to choosing the right telematics system is to really know what you want from the system. Three years ago when we chose a system it was a double-edged sword – purely from a fleet perspective there was not a good enough return on the initial investment, however from an operational perspective it provided useful information to deploy work more effectively. On that basis my top three criteria are:
SUITABILITY: Does it do everything you’ve been promised by the provider? You must be clear what your overall objectives are and that it is ultimately fit for purpose.
AFFORDABILITY: Don’t sign up for a ludicrous contract for too long with no way out. Do a lot of research with the procurement team and built in flexibility to the arrangement so you can increase or decrease the fleet size without risk.
CONNECTIVITY: Not in terms of data readings but in terms of being able to disconnect it if required – for example, if the vehicle needs to go to a main dealer etc. devices should be able to be unplugged without having to call the specialists.
Overall there have been some exciting developments in telematics and the information that can be obtained in terms of driving behaviour can be extracted carefully and used effectively to reduce accidents.
What other issues and challenges are currently facing your fleet operation?
An ongoing challenge is to minimise the cost running the fleet. We are always looking for innovative ways of reducing costs, whether that’s through service and repair, telematics or re-negotiating major contracts. We also look at ways of re-utilising items such as racking when a vehicle reaches its end of life.
How does outsourcing help your fleet run smoothly?
Running such a large fleet which makes many thousands of customer visits every day means that we cannot afford to be off the road – downtime must be kept to a minimum. Having a professional strategic partner in Hitachi Capital takes away the day-to-day pain and complexities out of running the fleet and increases vehicle uptime. This is so critical for our business, we offer industry leading customer service, and if an engineer is without his van we may have to re-schedule customer appointments, this is just not acceptable for us in British Gas so every effort is made to keep engineers on the road, safe and reliable A great example of this is the efforts made by Hitachi to plan vehicle maintenance on rest days, over 80% is done this way often utilising weekend servicing.
British Gas has also worked with Hitachi Capital on the funding and management of the new fleet of e-NV200 vehicles. The company closely monitored and analysed the vehicles throughout the trial and it has been a successful collaboration.
What is the most rewarding element of your role?
I am an engineer by trade and at heart. It is great seeing the output of our effort and work in terms of developing new innovative solutions for our drivers to use. It is hugely rewarding to invest time leading the team and developing a great culture. British Gas has taught me how to lead and develop a team. Encouraging staff to explore new avenues is very rewarding. I also take that attitude with suppliers and treat everyone fairly and effectively.
On a lighter note…
If money were no object, what would be your ideal car?
Working on the basis that I have already given something back in terms of carbon reduction, it would have to be something really self-indulgent…A Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Coupé Black edition would be perfect (preferably with two or three year’s free fuel!)
If you were stuck in traffic, who would be your ideal passenger?
The politically correct answer is, of course, my wife! However, my unpolitically correct answer would probably be Taylor Swift and her guitar and, if there’s room, Ed Sheeran too (he may struggle to fit in the SLS!).