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Is 2015 the Year of the Electric Municipal Fleet?

There are reasons to believe America is at a turning point for changing the cars that cops and other public employees drive.

The LAPD's new Tesla and BMW
(Flickr/Eric Garcetti)
The Los Angeles Police Department has a Tesla now. It also has a new BMW i3. While those two electric cars are enough to make most people green with envy, it’s just the beginning for the City of Angels. This September, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that 160 electric vehicles (EVs) and 128 plug-in hybrids would be leased to the city’s fleet as part of a larger effort to become “the most sustainable city in America.” 

While the cars won’t all be Teslas and BMWs, they’ll at least be green, according to Garcetti. In addition to helping keep the city’s infamous smog at bay, the EVs will also save taxpayers about 40 percent in operating costs. “When we laid out our sustainable city plan … we promised that 50 percent of the new city fleet vehicles purchased each year would be EV by 2017,” Garcetti told The Los Angeles Times. “We’re fulfilling that promise ahead of schedule.”

The 288 vehicles make up half the city’s fleet, but Los Angeles has a longer-term goal of making its fleet 80 percent electric by 2025. Of course, Los Angeles is not the only big city this year to announce plans to lease electric vehicles. In August, Atlanta got approval for part of its fleet to go electric under a pilot project. It will lease 15 EVs and 35 plug-in hybrids. The two cities join a handful of others in the last few years that have announced plans to add EVs to their fleets, including Houston, Indianapolis and New York City. With so many cities launching EV programs, will 2015 turn out to be the tipping point for municipal electric fleets?

“The technology has certainly matured and prices are coming down,” says Robbie Diamond, president and CEO of the Electrification Coalition, an advocacy group for the adoption of electric vehicles. “The public and fleet managers are really just in the first phases of trying EVs out. But it’s a good question, and to me it’s really the pivotal question: Are these just pilot projects or are they true transformative changes?”

It may be too early to answer that question, but several factors seem to indicate that 2015 may be the turning point for EV adoption by municipal fleets. For one thing, lots of cities have made carbon-reduction commitments, and EVs are one way to help meet those goals. Another factor is cost. Indianapolis, for example, is expecting to save $8.7 million, compared to current expenses, by going electric. 

It’s true that EVs cost more upfront, but they have a fraction of the moving parts that gasoline vehicles have, which means no oil changes and other maintenance requirements. As a result, they only need to be serviced once or twice a year. EVs also guard against rising fuel prices.

But moving to an all-electric fleet isn’t easy. Despite falling prices, the higher initial costs of EVs can be prohibitive. Some municipal fleets have made them more affordable by taking advantage of a $7,500 federal tax credit available for electric cars. Atlanta and Indianapolis, for instance, are working with a company called Vision Fleet, which monetizes the tax credit by buying the cars and then leasing them to the city.

Further, if fleets are decentralized, it’s even harder to change over vehicles, as a city would have to go department by department or centralize operations. And finally, temperament is an issue. “You’re really changing things up when you bring an electric vehicle into a fleet,” says Diamond. “You are talking about a new type of vehicle with a new type of propulsion system. It’s about educating the workforce -- the maintenance workers and users.”

Despite these barriers, more cities will undoubtedly be incorporating EVs in the years to come. “Fleet managers want to manage their fleets in the most cost-effective ways for their cities,” says Diamond. “They’re looking to be leaders in innovation and to build a profile of being attractive to young people and businesses. EVs provide a lot of these things.”  

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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