Recently we had the chance to visit Iveco’s Altra alternative fuel development and testing facility in Italy to find out what it’s up to, so Steve Banner donned his Gucci loafers and headed for the airport.
If the government seriously wants businesses to switch to environmentally-friendly low-emission light commercials then it’s got to be prepared to put its money where its mouth is. So says Martin Flach, UK product director at Iveco. “As things stand the price of these vehicles is high so sales are limited and the price won’t come down until sales go up,” he observes. “It’s a classic chicken-and-egg situation.”
He believes the way to break this logjam may be for the government to pay grants to operators that would cover the price gap between a standard diesel van and one equipped with, say, diesel-electric hybrid technology. “Initially it could do so for a limited number of vehicles on a trial basis,” he suggests.
If the government chose the subsidy route then it wouldn’t be the first time. It made such grants available through the Energy Saving Trust’s PowerShift programme, but they were scrapped; a reminder, if one were needed, that what the authorities give can also be taken away, often at short notice.
Flach made his remarks at Iveco’s Altra operation. Based in Genoa, Italy, it specialises in developing and testing alternative fuel technologies applicable to models as diverse as the Daily van and the Europolis city bus. Set up in 1991, it has made significant progress over the past few years.
It has, for example, come up with electric and parallel hybrid versions of Daily; a hybrid is a vehicle that uses a diesel engine plus a battery pack and an electric motor to get from A to B.
Ten hybrid Dailys with NiMH (nickel metal hydride) batteries are on trial with global parcels giant FedEx Express in northern Italy. An electric Daily with NaNiC12 sodium batteries has been developed too and an electric Daily with a lithium ion battery pack has been designed for use by Chinese operators. Iveco has a joint venture with Nanjing Automotive Corporation under the Naveco banner under which a version of the Daily is built in China. Electric Dailys are planned for Brazil too.
Now under development for Europe is a hybrid Daily with a lithium ion battery pack, a 114hp 2.3-litre diesel engine and a 32kW electric motor.
Further up the weight scale, TNT has put a 7.5-tonne parallel hybrid Eurocargo designed by Altra through its paces in Italy and a 12-tonne-gross parallel hybrid Eurocargo is on trial with Coca Cola in Belgium. “Coca Cola already runs approximately 100 hybrids in the USA,” points out Flach.
The hybrid Eurocargo is equipped with a 44kW electric motor, a 160hp Tector Euro 5 diesel engine and a 1.9kWh capacity lithium ion battery pack. Designed for local stop/start delivery work, it’s fitted with a six-speed semi-automatic Eaton gearbox. The truck starts in electric mode, with the diesel cutting in as the driver accelerates. Regenerative braking helps recharge the batteries and when the driver decelerates, the engine brake engages automatically.
Every day hybrid Eurocargo tackles a 20km route around Brussels city centre, delivering goods to a variety of customers. The trial will last for four months, finishing at the end of July.
So what about the UK? “If I can interest an operator sufficiently then we could see a hybrid Eurocargo in action here this year,” Flach states. Longer-term Altra is working on a 4x4 hybrid Eurocargo that could interest construction companies and utilities.
One of the difficulties with electrics and, to a degree, hybrids is that the weight of the batteries imposes a payload penalty. “With Eurocargo, however, it’s only about 200kg and the battery pack should last for around 200,000kms to 300,000kms; perhaps five or six years usage with that type of vehicle,” Flach observes.
As indicated earlier, no matter whether it’s a Eurocargo or a Daily, price remains an issue if you want to cut emissions and save the planet. “A hybrid Daily costs two to three times the price of a diesel model while an electric Daily costs considerably more; possibly as much as £100,000,” he observes.
“That includes the batteries, however, and taking them into consideration is like including the price of all the diesel you’re going to buy during the time it is with you in the upfront price of a standard Daily,” Flach adds. “Remember that it costs very little to charge up an electric van’s batteries.”
Very little can mean as low as 1.5p to 2p a mile, and with no diesel engine, servicing costs are significantly reduced. Battery packs are of course often leased rather than purchased outright.
The high cost of acquisition also has to be balanced against the fiscal concessions that are available. Electric vans are zero-rated so far as Vehicle Excise Duty is concerned and anybody who delivers goods regularly into central London is likely to find that they will be excused the iniquitous congestion tax if they opt for an electric Daily. Nor will anybody who runs a hybrid Eurocargo have to worry about the equally-iniquitous levies imposed on truck owners by the London Low Emission Zone.
Then there are the running cost savings to be borne in mind. A hybrid can improve your fuel economy and cut your CO2 emissions by up to 30 per cent.
Flach believes that the ability of a hybrid to tackle longer runs means that it has more sales potential in Britain than does a purely electric vehicle with its restricted range. “A lot of firms that run vans use them on short local delivery runs most days, but want the flexibility to send them on longer, high-speed trips occasionally should they need to,” he observes. “However, the electric Daily is limited to roughly 75 to 80 miles between recharges.”
The more batteries fitted, the longer the range, but the lower the payload capacity and the higher the front-end cost; and batteries have to be disposed of in an environmentally-friendly manner.
As well as engaging in research and development, Altra builds electric and hybrid vehicles in small volumes. “If we got an order for, say, 10 or 20 hybrids then we could produce them in Genoa, but if it was more like 100 then we’d have to build them at one of our big assembly plants,” says Flach.
Altra is also working on a hybrid version of the Light Multirole Vehicle (LMV) produced by Iveco Defence Vehicles; Iveco is a major defence contractor. Better-known to the British army as the Panther, it’s a 4x4 grossing at 7.0 tonnes designed to resist blasts from mines and roadside bombs. Hybrid technology gives it the ability to move almost silently says Iveco; a potentially valuable attribute in places such as Afghanistan.
Is the recession resulting in a decline in interest in eco-friendly vehicles as businesses concentrate on fighting for survival? Not at all says Iveco’s Martin Flach. “What we are seeing, though, is less interest in biodiesel,” he says. That’s perhaps not surprising given recent claims that even a modest percentage of biodiesel in standard fuel can have an adverse affect on engines.
What Van? braved the busy streets of Genoa and their unpredictable drivers in a hybrid Daily and came away impressed. You move away in electric mode, quietly and producing zero exhaust emissions. Accelerate and the diesel cuts in smoothly, cutting out again with minimum fuss as you trickle up to the traffic lights on battery power alone. Move briskly away from the lights and the diesel kicks seamlessly into life again. It couldn’t be simpler and there’s certainly no lack of performance.
We sampled an electric Daily too and had no complaints about its ability to accelerate away from rest and keep up with traffic. Its main drawback from the driving viewpoint, however, is that it is almost too quiet.
Pedestrians and cyclists use their ears as much as their eyes, it would appear, and remain blissfully unaware of your presence until you’re almost on top of them. Silent running is a boon, however, if you’re making lots of early morning deliveries and don’t want to annoy slumbering householders.
As Iveco and other manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz have demonstrated the technology to produce more eco-friendly light commercials already exists, but at a price. All that now remains is for our Government to put its (our) money where its mouth is. Don’t hold your breath.
While we were in France and Italy with Iveco we sampled a cross-section of diesel-powered Dailys. Our experience served to confirm our view that Daily — a former What Van? Van of the Year — is a worthy winner of our most recent Large Panel Van of the Year award and highly competent as a chassis cab too.
We took to the highways in a 35C15 3.0-litre diesel tipper with 146hp on tap and fitted with an Agile semi-automatic gearbox. It’s an ideal combination. Quiet and smooth, the engine offers ample performance and there is no denying that the user-friendly Agile is one of the best semi-auto ’boxes on the market.
Our Daily rode and handled well and we had no quarrels whatsoever with the build quality. We were equally impressed with the other Dailies we sampled.
We disliked the legally-required speed-limiter on the 50C18 5.0-tonne-gross 15.6m3 van we tried, however, because it can at times make it impossible for the driver to accelerate out of danger. That can be an urgent requirement if a heavy truck starts to move across into the lane you’re in and looks set to smash into you if you don’t get out of its way sharpish. The limiter’s presence was a particular pity because the van’s 176hp 3.0-litre diesel offers stupendous performance.
There will be more on our extensive Daily Drive from the south of France and through northern Italy in a selection of four different UK-spec Dailys later in the year.