Commercial vehicle contract hire and rental business Enterprise Flex-E-Rent is growing its electric van fleet and looking at bringing in its first electric trucks. Steve Hobson went to its site in Ashville Road, Gloucester, to hear about its plans to repair and maintain these vehicles.
Ashville Road is a former SHB Hire depot (see panel) and is the largest in Enterprise Flex-E-Rent’s network. It is located on a large industrial estate and does not offer daily rental – that is handled by a smaller site nearby on Bristol Road. It has become a major repair and maintenance hub for Enterprise Flex-E-Rent in the South West and also carries out third party R&M for a range of clients.
In contrast with many hire and rental firms, Enterprise Flex-E-Rent still carries out inhouse R&M at almost all of its 28 UK locations. These have 200 fixed bays and employ 270 qualified technicians. The company is a strong supporter of apprenticeships and employs over 40 HGV apprentices on bespoke three-year training programmes.
James Walker is group service maintenance and repair manager at Enterprise Flex-E-Rent. He has been in the role since June 2020 after a long career with Fraikin and Ryder.
“In the last two years we have delivered 16,500 training hours,” he says. “Just about every company in the UK has a shortage of technicians and we have had success moving LCV technicians up to HGV as part of their career path.
“We have found that the training and career path has helped with our recruitment. A lot of technicians also like the variety of work we can offer. Just under 60% of Enterprise Flex-E-Rent maintenance is done inhouse and the only thing we don’t do is re-gassing fridges.”
Danny Glynn, Enterprise Flex-E-Rent vice president and managing director, pictured, explains why the company likes to do R&M inhouse.
“It gives us credibility and an opportunity to differentiate ourselves in that we are not just supplying the finance and managing a third party,” he says. “As the vehicle parc has grown older, and the capacity to maintain that parc hasn’t grown at the same speed as the need, we have the surety that 60% of the time we have priority.
“We value our third-party maintenance providers but we are competing with everybody else to be their priority. We are able to move things around and that flexibility has become more important not less.
“We track how long vehicles are off the road in our own and our third-party networks and there is a benefit. We will never do 100% ourselves and 60% is probably about the right number. But for it to still be 60% in two years’ time we will need to expand our network and we are working on five new sites at the moment.”
Walker says that having its own direct relationships with the vehicle OEMs ensures Enterprise Flex-E-Rent has good access to spares while other VMUs can struggle.
“Because of our buying power we probably have the same or better access to parts than some dealers,” he says.
The company has agreements in place with Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Vauxhall in Scotland to carry out maintenance during the warranty period using technicians trained by the OEMs.
Working on electric vans and trucks with high power DC batteries operating at up to 700V also requires special equipment and training.
Enterprise Flex-E-Rent recently opened its first standalone EV workshop bay at Ashville Road, and the first obvious difference from the other repair bays is that it is fully enclosed. This is because if an EV catches fire the safest way to deal with it is to isolate it from the rest of the workshop and let the fire burn out.
“Our fire risk assessment for the site says we have to be able to contain a fire for at least an hour, so all future EV bays will have this structure around them,” says Walker. “All our lifts are already earthed so we then just need to add the insulated floor mats, first aid kits and extra PPE.”
The next EV bay will be in a new site opening soon in Edinburgh, but depots around the M25 will be high priorities as it is expected delivery firms serving the capital will lead the switch to zero emissions vehicles. While TfL has not announced plans to introduce a zero emissions zone (ZEZ), the controversial extension of the ULEZ to cover the whole of Greater London from August 2023 means many in the industry see a ZEZ in central London as inevitable.
“One of our hotspots to open a new site will be south of London near the M25,” says Glynn. “The labour market around Gatwick is however very tight.”
As more EVs come on to the Enterprise Flex-E-Rent fleet, the company is steadily training more of its technicians to work on them.
“We don’t do EV awareness training,” states Walker. “Our technicians are either qualified to work on EVs or they are not. As part of our inhouse warranty programme, all the technicians that went on that training had EV courses added. So whether it is a Mercedes or a Ford EV, our technicians are trained exactly the same as the dealer technicians.
“We don’t do generic training – it is all manufacturer specific. We have 200 technicians on the pathway with Mercedes and Ford and we are putting 15 through the Vauxhall programme.”
The additional training doesn’t just cover the technical side – extra first aid training has to be given covering what to do if a technician gets an electric shock, for example.
The challenge for Enterprise – as with all maintenance providers – is managing the transition from diesel to electric and having enough people with the right skills at the right time in the right places.
“At some point, smaller independent workshops won’t be able to work on both,” says Glynn. “A lot of customers looking to make the switch are coming to us because they know we have the scale.”
While an EV’s electric motors and batteries should need less routine maintenance than an internal combustion engine and gearbox, the vehicle’s running gear will still require regular inspection and maintenance.
There is also a lot of complex electronics and software on an EV that will need ‘servicing’ to keep the vehicle running sweetly and Flex-E-Rent is making a heavy investment in the OE diagnostics equipment required to power down EVs to make them safe to work on and read powertrain fault codes.
“That is why the diagnostics are so important,” says Walker, pictured. “Otherwise you can bring in an EV with a fault code and you can’t fix it. A lot of issues won’t be mechanical but software and sensor related.
“We are working with the OEMs on over-the-air recalls and maintenance that won’t need the customer to bring the vehicle in to us.”
The power-down procedure means that the vehicle batteries will not need to be fully discharged before the vehicle is worked on, so it will leave the workshop with the same level of charge that it arrives with.
This means that the workshops – unlike rental depots – will not need upgrades to the power supply to recharge large numbers of EVs.
“Some car rental customers might expect a full charge when they collect an EV,” says Glynn. “In our world customers at the moment do not want a full tank of diesel because they will have their own fuel cards. But a quarter charge is very different from a quarter tank where you can go and fill up round the corner in 10 minutes.
“As we grow the commercial EV fleet we will need to understand what that looks like, as we are a long way from having 10 electric HGVs fully charged and ready to go. Lots of people will struggle with that.”
Bigger EVs are on the way for Enterprise Flex-E-Rent
Danny Glynn has been with Enterprise since 2002 and in 2010 he established Enterprise Flex-E-Rent, the company’s commercial vehicle rental division. By 2014 this had grown to a fleet of 11,500 vans and in that year Glynn led the acquisition of Burnt Tree, adding its 15,000 vans and 1,500 trucks to the fleet.
In 2019 Enterprise acquired Romsey-based SHB Hire, adding a further 18,500 commercial vehicles to make a combined fleet of over 45,000 vehicles. The fleet is now over 70,000.
In July 2021 Enterprise Flex-E-Rent acquired 100 new plug-in electric vans available for rent in 14 depots in the South of England and the Midlands. These included Mercedes-Benz 55/44kWh eSprinter vans, 35kWh Mercedes-Benz eVito panel vans and Renault Kangoo E-Tech car-derived vans. Enterprise now has around 500 electric vans and Glynn expects to “more than double that” by the middle of 2024.
“For anything smaller than a CF, supply of most electric vehicles is no longer a huge challenge,” he says. “Whether they have the range and you can operate them is a separate question, and people are becoming very aware of the lack of charging infrastructure.”
At present the largest EV a customer can hire from Flex-E-Rent is a 3.5 tonne van – but Glynn says larger EVs will be on the fleet “imminently”.
“We are working with manufacturers on demos of different types of alternatively fuelled HGVs,” he says. “We are speaking to some of the non-traditional manufacturers as well to understand their products. They will be quite specialised in what they are able to do but for the people who want that type of kit they will get some traction.
“We will buy what we think the market needs rather than just for a specific customer. We are comfortable with our understanding of the market and if things change we will adapt. At the moment that speed of need is quite important.
“Waiting times for HGVs for example have gone from four to six months to 14 to 16 months and that is never going to work for customers.”
The price differential on an EV started out at two or three times the cost of a diesel vehicle but Glynn says this is now starting to reduce – partly as a result of the rising price of diesels.
“The gap has closed significantly because of all the issues with vehicle supplies since Covid,” he says. “The cost difference is nowhere as significant as it was and on LCVs it is no longer double. That makes conversations with customers a lot easier and the potential savings from lower running costs are realised a lot earlier than before.”
The big unknown when it comes to setting hire rates for EVs is the life of the battery but, as experience with electric cars grows, fears over the longevity of batteries are receding, and OEMs are giving Enterprise warranties of between five and eight years on the batteries. This helps improve confidence in residual values and so reduce the hire cost for customers.