GM's Electric Vehicle Strategy Is All About The Fleet

Getting one person to buy your new electric vehicle is good. It’s even better when that one person is a fleet manager who can buy 12,600 all in one fell swoop — just for starters. That’s the business model General Motors seemed to have in mind when it launched the new BrightDrop electric delivery van venture last month, and it has already hooked up with a 60-year-old fleet management firm that just popped out of stealth mode a few months ago.

Wait, What’s The Big Deal About Electric Vehicle Fleets?

If the name of the game is accelerating electric vehicle adoption, the US has a long way to go. The legacy of relentless EV attacks by high-profile media personalities still lingers in the air like chilly drops of lentil soup, making it all the more difficult to convince millions of car buyers to drop their gasmobiles.

GM aims to undo some of the damage with its new “Everybody In” EV campaign, but meanwhile the fleet market is a much less tough nut to crack for electric vehicle sellers. That’s because fleet managers tend to focus more time on the bottom line than on cultivating tribal identity, and everybody knows that electric vehicles cost less to maintain than their gassy counterparts.

Upfront costs remain high, mainly on account of the battery, but the true cost-of-ownership profile is a bottom line fit for vehicle fleets. In the delivery market, fleet owners also benefit on a good-neighbor basis when they give noisy diesel engines the boot.

Now throw newly minted President Joe Biden into the mix. The Commander-in-Chief launched an ambitious clean vehicle plan back in 2011, in his capacity as Vice-Commander-In-Chief. He’s picking right up where he left off with an eyeball on turning federal government fleets into one gigantic electric vehicle market.

If you’re thinking US Department of Defense, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. Intrigued by the siren call of near-noiseless mobility and a tighter supply chain, DoD has been EV-curious for a number of years. That includes keeping a hand in the fuel cell area and EV battery research, so keep an eye out for a fresh burst of EV activity in the halls of the Pentagon.

Not coincidentally, GM is also a major DoD vehicle supplier and the company’s renewable energy activities support the sprawling agency’s vision of a carbon-negative future, so there’s that.

60-Year-Old Fleet Manager Joins Electric Vehicle Revolution …

Then there’s the U.S. Postal Service fleet, but before heading off in that direction, let’s take a look at the latest development in GM’s new BrightDrop venture.

BrightDrop shot across the CleanTechnica radar last month, when it introduced a whole electric ecosystem for local deliveries, from the EV600 electric van right down to an electric pallet. BrightDrop enjoyed pilot-tested the ecosystem last year with Federal Express, and FedEx is already on board to buy 500 vans this year.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg and GM did not let the grass grow under its feet. On February 2, GM announced that BrightDrop has hooked up with the leading fleet management firm Merchants Fleet. If you never heard of Merchants Fleet before, join the club. It launched in 1962 as a single auto dealership in New Hampshire, which became the seed of a dynamic family business covering all aspects of fleet management.

In recent years, Merchants has been eyeballing the electric vehicle and connectivity trend, and the new deal with GM will put it front and center. Merchants Fleet has signed on for 12,600 EV600 vans, which it expects to have up and rolling for its clients within the next two years or so.

… And Vaults Into The Lead

That order of EV600 vans is just a hint of what’s in store. Merchants has created a whole electric vehicle initiative called Electrify Fleet to shepherd its clients into the EV market.

“In addition to increasing EV availability, the initiative is also focused on educating clients about the advantages, applications, and options available to them and providing tools and insights to help them make a seamless and cost-effective entry into EV,” explains the company.

If all goes according to plan, Merchants will transition its clients to 50% electric by 2030.

The plan is already taking shape with the BrightDrop hookup, but wait, there’s more. A partnership with Lordstown Motors is also part of the plan.

“The partnership will introduce the Lordstown Endurance™, the first all-electric commercial pickup truck, to Merchants Fleet clients across North America,” Merchants explains. “Lordstown Motors remains on track to begin production of the Endurance in September with deliveries beginning before the end of the year and full production ramping up throughout 2022.”

The Lordstown deal circles back around to GM, which announced plans to invest $75 million in the company last fall. Interesting!

The Electric Vehicle, The US Military, & Workforce Development, Too

If you’re still not convinced that the fleet management business is popping and sizzling, take a look at two recent hires, whom Merchants is leaning on to shepherd its business into the zero emission future.

One is Hari Nayar, who takes on the role of Director of Electrification and Sustainability. Merchants cites the US Army Land Warrior program, GM OnStar program, Harris Falcon radio battery & charger development, UK Ministry of Defense, and CERDEC integrated fuel cell systems development programs among the development teams headed up by Nayar, in addition to other electrification and connectivity projects.

The other is Lisa Bonacci, in the role of Director of Innovation. Her previous experience with Southern New Hampshire University puts her in the vanguard of the education innovation field. Dig a little deeper and that SNHU connection brings up a rather interesting workforce development network through the school’s work with Guild Education, which specializes in employee tuition benefits.

“She has extensive experience in facilitating innovation sessions to help companies think about the future and solve pressing problems,” enthuses Merchants. “SNHU has repeatedly been named the Most Innovative University in the North by U.S. News & World Report, and it was named one of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies by Fast Company in 2012.”

Merchants  has much more to say on that topic. “In her role, Bonacci will oversee and support a wide range of efforts taking place at Merchants Fleet to collect and nurture ideas, test and prototype, establish norms of collaboration, and educate on creative problem-solving,” the company adds.

Do tell! Just a wild guess, but keep an eye out for activity in the area of utility fleet electrification.

Circling all the way back around to that thing about stealth mode, it looks like the electric vehicle revolution has finally shined the media spotlight on Merchants Fleet. The company caused nary a stir when it made the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private businesses for the first time last August. Now all of a sudden it’s practically a household name thanks to the BrightDrop deal, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Photo: GM’s BrightDrop electric vehicle venture gets off to roaring start with Merchants Fleet hookup for thousands of electric delivery vans (courtesy of GM).



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