The outskirts of Rugby was Steve Banner’s destination this month, to meet up with Lawrence Holland, general manager of Aixam Mega.
Why should van buyers take a look at what Aixam Mega has to offer?
Aixam Mega is the European specialist in ultra-light vehicles. Our Mega commercial vehicle range includes a van with a 3.0m3 load area, a pick-up, a dropside, a tipper and a chassis cab and they’re available with either diesel or electric power.
Which diesel do you fit?
A 600cc twin-cylinder Kubota. Our 12v electric vehicles are equipped with either eight or a dozen AGM — Absorbed Glass Mat — batteries (a variation of the valve-regulated lead-acid battery – SB). It’s fairly basic, safe and reliable technology, and you purchase the completely sealed, zero-maintenance, batteries when you purchase the vehicle as opposed to leasing them separately.
Who buys your products?
We don’t really compete with the mainstream manufacturers. We’re niche market players targeting businesses whose employees make short local journeys that involve the movement of lightweight equipment. The users I’ve got in mind are security guards patrolling perimeter fences, or cleaners working in pedestrian precincts where conventional vehicles can’t normally go. What we’re about I suppose is ensuring that people have the right tool for the job in hand. Do you really need to buy a full-sized panel van to move a few documents from one site to another? The answer is that you probably don’t. You could use a Mega instead, as for example Peterborough City Council does. It’s got a number of our vehicles. Our Megas are also used as on-site transport by universities — the University of Warwick, for instance — where items have to be transported from one part of the campus to another. More and more universities are looking at the electric version in particular because it’s environmentally-friendly and the running costs are low.
Approximately 2p to 3p a mile.
What sort of range between battery recharges are we talking about?
It’s up to 60 miles, with a top speed of 30mph.
Is there any danger that you’ll drain the battery pack prematurely if you’re running a tipper or a refrigerated van?
No, because the pack is used primarily to power the vehicle. A separate battery is fitted if there’s a need to power a tipper body or a fridge motor. As a consequence Pret a Manger is but one customer happy to run a refrigerated version of our vehicle.
How long do the batteries last?
It’s variable, but if the electric Mega is used and charged regularly, and the batteries are cycled correctly, then we estimate that they should last for from three-and-a-half to four years. We warrant them for two years.
How long does it take to recharge them fully?
From seven-and-half to eight hours. One of the beauties of the technology we use, however, is that you don’t have to wait for the batteries to be completely discharged before you recharge them. In fact we recommend that you keep your electric Mega plugged in whenever you’re not using it. Nor do you need access to a three-phase supply. You can use single-phase and a standard domestic three-pin-plug socket.
How heavy is the battery pack?
Approximately 200kg, but remember that our vehicles are lightly, albeit strongly, constructed. Even our tipper only weighs 700kg to 800kg or so unladen. As a consequence we can offer a reasonable range and a reasonable payload too, despite the weight of the batteries. A 12-battery van, for example, can carry 335kg.
So what sort of construction do your vehicles use?
They employ a rust-free aluminium chassis, a steel roll frame and polycarbonate and ABS acrylic body parts that are bonded into place.
Mega is classed as a quadricycle. What implications does this have for the Vehicle Excise Duty the owner pays?
Despite the modest size of the diesel engine and the fact that its CO2 emissions are only 97g/km, the way the regulations are framed means that you still pay £120 a year. Electric vehicles are of course zero-rated, but you have to display a tax disc.
Is the electric Mega exempt from the London congestion tax?
Yes, and that’s an advantage. However, if we were banking on the introduction of congestion charges by other big cities in order to boost our sales then I think we’d be heading in the wrong direction. Remember too that in London the western extension of the congestion charge zone is not now going ahead. I believe instead that a lot of our electric sales will be brought about by general environmental concerns and the need to achieve government CO2 targets.
Can I trade in a ten-year-old van against a Mega and qualify for a £2,000 subsidy under the government’s scrappage scheme?
No. We don’t qualify because quadricycles are excluded and we’re really annoyed about it. We’ve objected but no one will listen to us, despite the fact that our products are small, clean, cheap and almost 100 per cent recyclable. Nor are our electric Megas included in the £250m government programme to support the purchase of battery-powered vehicles. Not due for introduction until 2011 — sometime after the next general election — the grants, which will be worth up to £5,000, will be limited to cars only. Vans will not be included.
So how many commercial vehicles did you sell in Britain in 2008?
We sold 270, of which around 70 per cent were electric. We’ll probably sell about the same number this year.
How many dealers do you have?
Around a dozen and we do some direct selling to large fleets from our Rugby head office.
You acquired London specialist electric vehicle retailer NICE Car Company a few months back. What prompted that move?
It had gone into administration and a lot of its customers had purchased the electric city car that we also manufacture. We felt that taking the business over was probably the best way of ensuring that they got a good service; and the NICE Car name is widely recognised in London.
How easy is it to fund the acquisition of an electric van?
Many finance companies say they will help, but unfortunately they often backtrack. There are exceptions, however; Arval, for example, which is owned by major French bank BNP Parisbas. In their case it may help that we’re a French company too. Our majority shareholder is AXA, the French insurance group, and we’re the largest quadricycle manufacturer in Europe. We build some 15,000 vehicles a year — that included approximately 900 electric commercials in 2008 — and the British operation is directly owned by the factory. It offers us strong support and invoices us in sterling; so it was the factory that took the hit when the pound fell against the euro a while back. We had significant price increases last year nevertheless.
Did the currency movement make you less price-competitive?
So far as the diesel vehicles are concerned we’re probably not as competitive as we were. It’s more difficult to judge with the electric models because it depends on what you compare them with. What I can say though is that the price of our electric Megas went up from just under £11,000 to around £13,000. The diesel van costs about £8,000.
So what’s the situation so far as the provision of battery pack charging points by UK local authorities and other interested parties is concerned?
The progress being made is somewhat disappointing. In fact the situation is really frustrating. It’s Catch 22; if there is no charging infrastructure then people won’t buy electric vehicles, but if there are no electric vehicles then nobody seems to want to put in charging points. So far as London is concerned there is money available for the boroughs to install them but they’re not applying for it.
Were you disappointed by the City of London’s decision a while back to go into reverse and actually withdraw its free parking concession for electrics?
We were, but the City doesn’t have all that many parking spaces anyway; so at least it wasn’t a major setback.
So is no positive action being taken?
On the positive side you can park for free in the City of Westminster — it’s probably the council that’s doing most for electric vehicles — and you get free electricity for up to three hours to charge up the batteries in certain NCP car parks. Nor are you subject to the congestion charge of course, which means that you could save £8,000 to £8,500 a year by going electric. Elsewhere, charging points have been installed in the Highcross shopping centre in Leicester, for example. But there’s a lot more still to be done.
One thing we want to see is some sort of London-wide harmonisation of the benefits of running an electric vehicle. Go from Westminster to Camden, for instance, and the advantages aren’t the same. Amidst all this it’s worth noting that London mayor, Boris Johnson, has just launched his Electric Vehicle Delivery Plan. Announced at the recent C40 Climate Change Summit in Seoul, Korea, it promises a range of measures to put at least 100,000 electric vehicles on London’s roads as soon as possible. They include investment in the re-charging infrastructure and financial incentives for buyers. It also guarantees that electric vehicles will remain exempt from the congestion charge. Not surprisingly, we welcome the plan; and we’d like to see work on implementing it begin straight away.