Charging ahead: The case for electrifying commercial fleets to advance green mobility

By ST Engineering

Hoe Yeen Teck, Head of Mobility Road and Services, details the key considerations for bus and van operators to go electric in Singapore.

Electrifying large vehicle fleets can be a game changer for public transport, but can they also present cost-saving and other operational benefits? Image: Canva

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: transitioning to electric vehicles (EVs) not only saves the environment, but can also indirectly save lives.  

A 2023 study found that if the US completely switched to EVs, the nation would see almost 90,000 fewer premature deaths by 2050, not to mention an estimated 2.2 million fewer asthma attacks and public health cost savings of a staggering US$978 billion.  

This is not just a projection but a reality in some cities. The city of Santiago, Chile, for instance, welcomed more than 400 electric buses to its roads in 2019, making it one of the largest electric bus fleets in the Americas of its time. This resulted in cost savings of up to 70 per cent, estimated carbon emissions savings of 20,630 tonnes from 2018 levels, and even a projected mitigation of 1,379 premature deaths by 2030 due to decreased pollution.  

The future is undeniably electric. While electrifying cars has been a significant step forward, transitioning heavier-duty vehicles poses an entirely distinct set of challenges and considerations.  

In April 2023, Singapore’s Land Transport Authority announced an overhaul of its public bus fleet, aiming to put 400 new electric single-deck buses on the roads by the end of 2024. This is the largest procurement contract of its kind, and LTA envisions to have electric buses make up half of the nation’s public bus fleet by 2030.  

Nevertheless, electrifying large vehicle fleets presents a game changer for the environment. In Singapore, the switch to electric buses is projected to save the equivalent of planting 70,000 trees, according to Hoe Yeen Teck, Head of Mobility Road and Services at ST Engineering, a global defence, technology and engineering group. 

As part of its extensive Mobility portfolio, ST Engineering provides consultation services for commercial fleet electrification and offers EV charging management platforms and infrastructure to support the transition. It also supplies electric fleets including buses, trucks and vans, and provides vehicle roadworthiness inspection services.  

“ICE (internal combustion engine) buses generate the most fumes during ‘takeoff’ - and this happens to be exactly at the bus stops where people congregate. It can be quite noisy, smoky and hot, and cause a bit of discomfort for the bussing community,” Hoe says. ICE vehicles run on diesel or petrol, unlike electric vehicles.  

In a candid interview with GovInsider, Hoe delves deeper into the opportunity costs associated with the electrification of buses and other industrial vehicles.  

‘Watts’ the difference in energy consumption?

The first key difference to note is that commercial electric vehicles such as lorries, vans and buses consume a lot more electricity than regular cars.  

“If you are in an industrial area, it’s probably a bit easier to set up a charging station network for your vehicles. But for fleet operators that do not have the luxury of having their fleet return to the same location at the end of the work shift, it becomes a lot trickier,” Hoe says.  

For example, many delivery logistics companies use vans which their drivers drive home at the end of the day. These companies then have to identify charging points near each driver’s residential area, Hoe explains.  

While Singapore’s LTA has set a target of installing 60,000 EV charging points islandwide by 2030, there are only around 3,600 active charging points in Singapore as of February 2023. The first 20,000 EV charging points are currently being installed, which equates to roughly two to three chargers per HDB carpark, according to Hoe.  

“Between now and the time these charging points are installed, it will be up to each individual fleet operator to figure out if they are prepared to make that change; and, if so, how quickly they can do so,” says Hoe.  

Fleet operators who can do so are definitely making more moves to electrify their fleets – namely, bus and heavy-duty vehicle fleets that all return to the station at the end of the day. Smaller commercial operators, such as those with just five to 10 vans to manage, are also making the shift as they are able to plan the logistics within reasonable means.  

From amps to dollars: ‘It all comes down to price’ 

When it comes to making the switch, Hoe says it all boils down to a matter of dollars and cents. Price differentials can essentially be broken down into a few main categories: upfront purchasing costs, operations (fuelling or charging), and maintenance costs.  

When it comes to purchasing an electric vehicle, operators can expect to see at least a 30 per cent price premium, which presents as one of the first key points of inertia for operators to make the switch, according to Hoe.   

Hoe Yeen Teck, Head of Mobility Road and Services at ST Engineering shares the opportunities and risks electric vehicle fleets present. Image: ST Engineering

But operations costs are where savings start to surface – and quickly too. Fuelling a full tank of petrol for an ICE vehicle might cost as much as $100 to $200 in Singapore, while the EV equivalent would only cost about $30 to $40. This equates to 60 to 85 per cent savings per charge or refuel.  

“The total lifetime cost of ownership of the vehicle is in favour of electric vehicles, especially for commercial operators, because they’re always on the road. Upfront purchasing costs are usually more than offset by operational costs in about six to seven years’ time,” Hoe tells GovInsider.  

While passenger vehicles are on the road for about 20,000 kilometres a year, commercial vehicles often hit more than twice this distance (50,000 kilometres).  

Maintenance costs are also much lower for electrified fleets. An EV’s drive train – the essential group of operational parts for the vehicle – contains around only a quarter of the moving parts in an ICE vehicle. Wear and tear thus occurs more slowly as practically no maintenance is required for EV motors, which are completely sealed up, says Hoe.  

However, some operators may not have the luxury to purchase entirely new EVs for their fleet if they have recently incurred upfront purchasing costs for new ICE vehicles. In these cases, retrofitting vehicles might just be the most cost-viable option.  

But these depend very much on the make and model of the vehicles in question, says Hoe.  

Current solutions for future mobility

Between today’s fuel-powered fleets and the near future’s 100 per cent electric fleet, there exists a liminal period which Hoe terms ‘transition inertia’.  

This transition inertia might be even more stretched out considering that commercial vehicles are relatively long-lived, with operational lifespans of anywhere between 10 and 20 years – which is why foresight and vision are key to staying on the EV fast lane.  

“ST Engineering has been an early proponent of vehicle electrification. We were one of the first companies to support LTA in trialling electric buses, including testing new buses as well as exploring converting diesel buses to electric,” says Hoe. “Along the way, we have also worked with bus operators to better understand the differences in fleet management and charging requirements for electric buses, as compared to regular diesel buses.”  

With electric fleets, a whole range of possibilities and cost-saving opportunities ensue. In order to run electric buses, onboard computers, which process subsystems in the vehicle, are needed. This allows for the operators to have unprecedented visibility over the general health of the bus – a huge advantage over ‘analog’ diesel buses.  

“Electric buses don’t necessarily have to be fully filled, because operators can estimate dynamically how much battery is needed to complete their runs for the day. Operators can optimise their charging times according to electricity tariffs, dynamically change routes, and even reduce the number of buses that they keep on reserve,” says Hoe.  

As more fleets around the world embark on their electrification journeys, data on the benefits of switching to EVs, as seen above, will only grow.  

Couple this data with the studies that show how EVs are better for the environment, and can even save human lives indirectly, and more traditional fleet operators will soon have to decide if the value proposition for their own transition is compelling enough