The frontiers of fleet

From the June 2024 print edition

One of the main themes of the NAFA Fleet Management Association’s I&E 2024 conference was “new frontiers, big possibilities,” and the organization sought to explore those frontiers during the three-day fleet management conference in April.

Panel participants from left: Libby Bittman, Irina Filippova, Robert Kelly, Maria Neve, and Cecile Post.

The annual event, held this year in San Antonio Texas, saw over 2,000 fleet professionals attend – the largest attendance since NAFA held the event in Anaheim, California in 2018. This year saw attendees from the US, six Canadian provinces, along with several other countries, at the conference.
The event included over 35 hours of educational sessions, a trade show floor, and an inaugural Ride & Drive with the chance to interact with the latest models, electric vehicles, and alternative fuel vehicles. NAFA also announced the 100 Best Fleets in the America’s for 2024, which aims to boost industry pride, enhance visibility within the fleet community, and inspire people to pursue fleet careers.

“The 100 Best Fleets contest plays such an integral role in the NAFA community,” Mike Camnetar, CAFM, NAFA board president, said in a press release. “These awards showcase the outstanding achievements and leadership within our industry. We commend these fleets and individuals for their dedication to excellence and innovation, and we look forward to seeing what they accomplish in 2024.”

The 2024 winners are:

  • Best Public Fleet: Dakota County Fleet Management, MN
  • Best Commercial Fleet: Essential Utilities
  • Fleet Professional of the Year Award: Kenny Stimson, Carvana
  • Fleet Technician of the Year Award: Curtis Mullins, City of Round Rock, TX

During the opening day, Camnetar addressed attendees to discuss NAFA’s 2024-25 strategic plan. The organization is looking to position itself as a thought leader and go-to resource for fleet industry insights.

“If you think of the things we’re doing, it’s things we never thought were possible several years ago,” Camnetar said. The industry is evolving, he added, and so is the organization. “NAFA is here to elevate everyone in the fleet industry.”

Keynote speaker Richard Hadden, author of Contended Cows Still Give Better Milk, discussed recruiting and retention in the new world of work. Satisfied, engaged employees do better work, Hadden told the audience, while organizations that have a strategy around employee engagement perform better. As well, working to make people more productive is one of the best things a company can do for its bottom line. Those workers have increased engagement, lower turnover, and are easier to recruit.

“It’s the right thing to do, but more to the point, it’s the profitable thing to do,” Hadden said. While some refer to the “post-pandemic workplace,”
Hadden prefers the term “workplace next” to describe employment. One trend of this new situation is that employees are often in the driver’s seat. Flexibility is here to stay, while many see professional development as the new pay raise. Organizations must adapt in order to succeed.

As for companies looking for new workers, the best recruiting tool is a reputation as an employer, Hadden said. “You can go around and say you’re a great place to work, but if you say that, people are going to be looking for the evidence,” he told the audience. “Reputation recruits, reality retains.”
Flexibility is important to today’s workers, Hadden said. Remote work isn’t going away yet working remotely isn’t the only aspect of employment flexibility. Autonomy over schedules, fluid hours, and more paid vacation are all ways that employers can offer flexible.

“Whether you offer flexibility of not, you live in a world where this is a mainstream option,” Hadden said.

Emerging technology
Along with keynotes, this year’s I&E offered several education sessions highlighting various fleet management topics. One panel session, entitled Navigating Emerging Technologies, covered autonomous vehicles, electric fleets, fleet connectivity and other areas.

When it comes to incorporating sustainable fleet technologies, many organizations focus first on regulatory compliance. But they should think beyond that to include larger ESG goals, said panelist Irina Filippova, COO at Electrada. For many fleet operators, thinking about what parts of their operations contribute to greenhouse gas emissions at scale is a new process, she told the audience. It’s important that ESG goals don’t sit only with a sustainability manager, but that they’re owned by people at various levels within the organization.

“This is not going away. This is only going to continue to grow in terms of exposure and risk and profile,” Filippova said. “So how do we correctly incorporate the metrics that would be meaningful on each organization’s roadmap to continue meeting those ESG goals?”

Companies often view fleet organizations as cost centres rather than profit centres, said fellow panelist Maria Neve, VP, eFMC services, at Inspiration Mobility. That perspective needs to be reversed, she stressed. Fleets also enable free movement of people and goods while allowing things to happen.
At the same time, there’s an ROI to green technology with data to back up that claim, Neve said.

The industry must view the situation from the fleet manager’s perspective – for example in terms of costs, she added. Switching to an electric fleet is expensive at the outset, but it’s going to save money in the long term. Fleet managers must convey that message to senior management within their companies.

“We need to take that story and translate it so that the rest of the organization understands it,” she said.

In discussing the benefits of transitioning to green technology, panelist Robert Kelly, senior VP, business development, at Forum Mobility, cited the ports in California as having the worst air quality in that state. For example, the Ports of LA and Long Beach, known as the San Pedro Bay Port Complex, sees 33,000 heavy-duty trucks operating daily when it’s busy. By 2036, all those vehicles are expected to be zero-emission, Kelly said.

“It’s going to be a monumental shift in air quality for these folks that live in these communities that have been adversely affected by the air,” he said.

OEM insights
As in previous years, the I&E featured the ever-popular OEM panel discussion, with several vehicle manufacturing representatives there to offer insights. Regarding supply chains, Tom DeLuise of Toyota noted that many of the current challenges are from tier 2 and tier 3 suppliers. The world has changed in some ways, DeLuise said, forcing automotive OEMs to adapt. For example, the company is using land-bridging – shipping by ocean then carrying goods across land – to transport goods made in Japan destined for the US East Coast. Getting goods through the Panama Canal is another challenge due to low water levels and increased rates; a situation that DeLuise hopes will improve soon.

Fellow panelist Eric Swanson of Stellantis noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted various challenges that were already there but then forced companies to alter how they operated. “It forced us to make some changes for the future that will benefit all of us,” he told the audience.

Meanwhile, adding more chips and software to vehicles has made them more complex, said Robert Wheeler of GM Evolve. Purchasers are now buying an ecosystem, not just a vehicle. The company is looking to reduce some of its available options without sacrificing much. By 2030, between 25 to 50 per cent of all vehicles will be electric, Wheeler noted. Electrification is inevitable, but a lack of charging infrastructure is the “elephant in the room.” But that process doesn’t happen quickly and not every company will transition their fleets overnight.

“But whether you’re crawling, you’re walking, or you’re running, we’re here to help you,” he said.

The automotive industry is in a transformational period, noted Ford Pro’s Greg Wood. But that evolution will take some time for businesses and the public to digest, he added. Going forward, customers may need a mix of vehicles. For example, EVs might work in urban environments but not in rural ones where another option may be more suitable.

Education is important to that process, he said, as some organizations aren’t aware of the level of change within the industry. Wood compared electrification with seatbelts beginning in the 1970s. While it took some time for full adoption to set in, everyone now wears a seatbelt. Electric vehicles will eventually see similar acceptance.

Overall, NAFA’s I&E 2024 provided ample opportunities for educational content, networking, and professional development. The 2025 event will be held in Long Beach, California, April 28-30, 2025.