ELECTRIC VEHICLES: Is the sector growing up?

Date: Friday, August 24, 2018

Arval LCV boss Simon Cook explains how existing electric vans can work within fleets and why larger models are crucial to the success of the plug-in scene. Jack Carfrae reports.

Manufacturers have begun introducing larger plug-in models

The courier industry naturally lends itself to the current crop of electric vans.

Small light commercial vehicles such as the Renault Kangoo Z.E. and the Nissan e-NV200 are about as appropriate as it gets for ferrying packages around towns and cities in traffic, producing zero tailpipe emissions and dodging any air quality or congestion-related charges.

That’s why heavy-hitting delivery companies such as UPS have electrified their urban fleets (the firm’s Kentish Town depot in London is home to more than 70 plug-in vehicles), while independent specialists, such as Gnewt, ply their trade with urban centre deliveries performed solely by plug-in LCVs.

To date, mass-market electric vans have typically comprised smaller, lighter models, which are flourishing in both the aforementioned courier capacities and in off-highway applications, as Simon Cook, LCV leader at leasing giant Arval, explains: “We’ve got an established small van electric range and manufacturers have been doing those for a while now. They suit two sectors. One is last-mile deliveries – typically urban areas where they’re delivering from their hub to the customer, with a diminishing load.

“The other industry that I’m seeing electric vans going into is the service industry – canteen or café catering facilities on site for clients. They’re providing perhaps a workshop service or, when you’ve got a client who’s got a large centre – for example, Airbus have big sites in Ellesmere Port and Bristol, where they build the aircraft – on that site you have electric vans operating for the canteen facilities. They’re literally running between the canteens on a specific location, and operators are very, very pleased with them because there’s little or no maintenance and they’re extremely easy to operate.”

It’s a case of the larger the site, the greater the benefits, according to Cook: “Another good example would be the Alliance Healthcare Boots operation in Nottingham, where they have a 55-acre site; almost a small town in itself. Those vehicles don’t go off site, so it’s an ideal location for an electric operation to either deliver post or a service on site. People running power stations are looking at electric vehicles as a go-to option because a) they want to be environmentally friendly and b) they have a huge site that they want to get around and plug in whenever they need to.”

To add to the success of small electric vans, manufacturers have recently begun introducing larger plug-in models, which Cook believes are critical to the wider uptake of plug-in LCVs in what he describes as the “essential” delivery sector. He believes bigger vehicles with more spacious loadbays and greater payloads have the capacity to accelerate the number of electric models adopted by delivery companies, which typically favour big vans.  

“We are now moving into long-wheelbase, high-roof electric vans. Renault launched theirs at the CV Show – the Master – we have the Iveco 35 panel van, and we have Mercedes and Volkswagen with their Sprinter and Crafter electric vans, although they’re not available in the UK as we speak. They’re 3.5t, or in the case of the Renault, 3.1t, and those vans are new on the market. I believe there are – and have been for a few months now – seed vehicles that are in the DHLs, DPDs, Royal Mails, the UPSs of this world.  

“The current limitations of electric commercial vehicles – which surround range and weight of payload – do not really apply to parcel delivery fleets operating in urban environments because it’s typically last-mile, therefore it’s postcoded and the range is doable. Also, the payload is less critical for these vehicles. We’ve seen, in the parcel industry particularly, they have a diminishing load – they start light because the parcels are not particularly heavy, they’re just bulky – and that is again conducive to electric vehicles.”

The snag is that it’s early days for the current crop of large plug-in vans as, at present, their size and weight limits the range.

“The danger, I think, is that the numbers we’re being given by the manufacturers are somewhere in the region of 50 and 80 miles of range, depending on whether it’s winter or summer,” says Cook. “They say that’s loaded, but I don’t think that’s fully loaded – I think that’s with a load – and that is going to become the limitation. If the range is only, let’s say, best case 80 miles, then most parcel delivery vans are going to be pushing the limit of that range. I think battery technology will improve – we’ve seen that in the small vans but the difference, for me, is when you’re at 3.5t you’re generally fully freighted, or at least pretty well fully freighted, and I think the small electric vans are not; they often just have a few bits inside and they potter about. They’re not the workhorse that is the long-wheelbase, high-roof panel van that is the staple of every parcel delivery company in the UK.”


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