Fleet telematics: Balancing commercial and environmental concerns

Fleet telematics: Balancing commercial and environmental concerns

A Department of Energy initiative that began in 1993, Clean Cities operates as a network of regional coalitions that work with public and private fleets to help ease the transition to alternative fuels.

Clean Cities also helps fleets that aren’t ready to make the switch to alternative fuels by offering up-to-date information on emerging products and technologies, on petroleum reduction strategies—such as route optimization and Feedback Display Systems—and on legislative compliance.

“If we weren’t working with you, you’ve probably never heard of us before,” says Don Francis, coordinator of Clean Cities Atlanta, which is the program’s longest running coalition. “But that’s beginning to change.” (For more on fleets, see The future of fleet telematics, part I and The future of fleet telematics, part II.)

Alternative fuels

Spurred by tax incentives, market pressure, and potential fuel savings, smaller to mid-sized fleets are exploring petroleum reduction strategies and alternative fuels solutions previously considered out of reach to all but the biggest fleet operators. Enterprise solutions companies are helping steer some fleets toward route optimization and driver behavior programs.

And with natural gas holding at around $2 for the power equivalent of one gallon of diesel, some operators are taking another look at steering away from petroleum entirely.

To help, Clean Cities is leveraging Federal dollars to create the infrastructure necessary to lower entry barriers and make the widespread adoption of alternative fuels a reality. “What we’re doing with Clean Cities and other initiatives is seeding the market,” says Francis, “creating it. Once we create demand, then the private operators will come into the market.”

This strategy has guided Clean Cities from the start. With the passing of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which contained provisions to move Federal and state fleets, as well as the fleets of dual providers like utility companies, to alternative fuels, Clean Cities architects envisioned a public-private partnership.

With the immediate goal of reducing the government’s carbon emissions, Clean Cities proponents foresaw a secondary benefit for the private sector. As government fleets began to transition, competition among manufacturers to produce alternative fuels vehicles would increase, along with demand for alternative fuels refueling stations. High costs, the longstanding barrier to entry for smaller private fleets, would go down.

Natural gas-powered vehicles

That’s an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to luring businesses to alternative fuels. Currently, for example, there’s a $30,000-$50,000 premium for natural gas-powered vehicles over comparably sized petroleum powered-vehicles. And natural gas refueling stations are only just coming online in major metro areas.

At Clean Cities Atlanta, Francis and his team saw an urgent need to expand coverage of natural gas refueling stations; only one currently operates in the Atlanta metro area. Clean Cities Atlanta procured Federal grant money to build six new natural gas stations. Atlanta Gas Light Resources, a local utility, joined the effort by pledging to build nine more.

“By the end of 2013, we think we’ll have gone from one natural gas station to 16 or 17 stations,” says Francis. “I’m already having discussions with an operator of C-Stores here in the metro area who has seen the potential and is talking about adding natural gas to his convenience stores so that light duty vehicles, like the Honda Civic, and delivery vehicles could refuel there. Once we get that critical mass, others will look at it and they’ll adopt it. The unit cost of the vehicles will go down. So the market is going to grow.” (For other growth areas in fleet telematics, see Fleet telematics: Where the growth is, part I and Fleet telematics: Where the growth is, part II.)

Petroleum reductions strategies

Local coalitions also directly reach out to stakeholders—both private and public fleets—by hosting workshops and providing counseling and guidance sessions for operators looking to lower their fuel consumption. The Department of Energy maintains the Alternative Fuels Data Center for Clean Cities coalitions and stakeholders, which provides up-to-date industry information and helpful tools, like refueling station locators and cost calculators. They also offer robust information on strategies such as idle reduction, driver behavior, and Feedback Display Systems.

“Telematics is an area where we haven’t spent a lot of time yet,” Francis says. “But the shift that’s happening is called petroleum reductions strategies, and that includes telematics. It’s an area we’re increasingly involved with.”

Private fleet operators are encouraged to take advantage of local Clean Cities services and resources as well occasional grant opportunities.

“We can actually sit down with a fleet,” says Francis, “and plug in numbers and say, What kind of vehicle do you have? What kind of fuel economy are you getting? What are you paying for fuel? Here’s the kind of fuel economy you could get with propane or natural gas, or here’s what you should be doing to reduce fuel consumption.”

Greg Nichols is a regular contributor to TU.

For more on fleets, see Special report: Fleet telematics.

For the latest on fleets, visit Telematics for Fleet Management USA 2012 on November 13-14 in Atlanta.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Telematics Japan 2012 on October 9-11 in Tokyo, Telematics Munich 2012 on October 29-30, and Content and Apps for Automotive USA 2012 on December 4-5 in San Diego.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Report, Human Machine Interface Technologies and Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics.

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