So, electric vans. They’re not from another planet, they won’t, alone, save this one and they may not fit into your current operating methods. The big fleets with bulk-buying power, rapid chargers in their own depots and no cares about battery life on their five-year leases will embrace them now, basking in the glow of eco-PR. However, the sole tradesperson will be forced – more by stick than carrot – into them and possibly even have to change how they work. On the plus side, they drive quite like a diesel van, even better in many respects, should be cheaper to service and – with a number of caveats – be cheaper to fuel.

The vehicle

Let’s start with fuel then and how to save it. Just like the current van, make sure your eLCV is serviced correctly and you keep your tyres all at the recommended pressures. Even a few psi under-inflated and the rolling resistance increases enough to affect consumption and, as we shall see, rolling resistance matters more in the battery electric vehicle (BEV) than it ever did in a diesel. If you are you permanently carrying tools or kit that is used infrequently, leave it behind. Have a good look around the van and be ruthless about weight saving. It might be time consuming to vary the amount of kit you take each day but this time must be balanced against the savings to be had. 

Then let’s look at aerodynamics. If you have a roof rack, there will definitely be improvements to make. Don’t carry the ladders on every job if not required. Also how you carry them makes a difference. If it’s safe to do so without causing a rear overhang or making the load unstable, try not to overhang the front of the roof shape with planks, pipe carriers or ladders. Also don’t stack high. If you have two ladders, carry them side-by-side on the roof rack and not stacked one on the other, which adds drag, and anything with an obvious wind-trap shape should be orientated to minimise its effects.

The driver

How you drive has by far the biggest effect on battery range. Yes, you can just jump in, floor the accelerator at every opportunity and relish the impressive linear acceleration and equally impressive regenerative braking in so-called one-pedal driving mode. That pretty much describes everyone’s first test drive of a BEV, but operating one is a different story.

All the same, economy driving rules from a combustion engine apply here too, and plenty of experience in an automatic transmission crosses over most neatly to BEVs. 

Firstly, don’t get hung up on the issue of regenerative braking. Consider that if it needs a certain amount of energy to drive your van up that hill at this speed, then if descending the same hill at the same speed regenerated the same amount back to the battery you would only need to plug the van in once and it would then run forever! That would be 100% ‘regen’. As it is, from the data we can glean 50% would be the absolute best. Therefore, not using energy in the first place is better than expecting to recoup it, but using ‘regen’ as much as possible is to be embraced also! Various makes of vehicle have different ways of operating the regeneration. Most have a switch (or ‘gearlever’ position) marked ‘B’ for brake, a switch for selecting the regeneration level, or even paddles on the steering wheel to select between multiple levels. At its strongest it provides one-pedal driving, and with practice you can literally drive all day without touching the brake pedal (except in an emergency) even bringing the vehicle to a complete halt. For those readers with HGV experience it feels like the exhaust brake (or two clicks of retarder) has been applied in an empty tractor unit! However, do not aim to drive in this very black-and-white, power-on / regen-brake, kind of way. 

Coasting; you were told it was a no-no from the day you first stuck on L-plates, but coasting is the BEV’s hidden weapon. Most BEVs will indicate it on the instruments – usually a thin gap on the rev-counter style gauge between ‘power’ and ‘recharge’. Get used to keeping the needle in that gap with very careful right-foot dexterity. It’s a more efficient way to approach a roundabout than powering along and then lifting off for full regenerative braking. 

It takes practice and a lot of patience. It’s worth noting one specific vehicle here, not an LCV, but bizarrely the Porsche Taycan. It is one of the very few EVs that does not offer one-pedal driving, nor any aggressive regenerative braking. It offers true foot-off coasting and it’s quite an eye-opener when sampled as to just how far along a level road you can travel using no energy at all. Its regenerative braking actually happens via the brake pedal and, although the driver thinks they are braking, Porsche claims 80% of all braking is actually via regeneration, before the pad ever touches the disc. Porsche’s doctrine is that for a sports car it gives better braking feel between regeneration and actual friction braking, an area where most BEVs are somewhat jerky in response. 

So, how much do you need to change your driving style? In a word; totally.

If you can achieve a better mpg figure when unladen than your diesel van’s handbook states, that’s how you have to drive a BEV to even get 70% of the claimed range. It’s like being on a world-record economy drive all-day, every-day; you must cruise at 56mph with the trucks on the motorway and only accelerate at a rate to stay behind them off all the roundabouts on the ring road. Have the ‘regen’ set to maximum, but ease off very early and try to hit the coasting level from as soon as you see the roundabout or junction ahead.  Forget trying to achieve the official BEV’s range. For a start, the Worldwide Harmonised Light vehicles Test Procedure (WLTP) that creates the figure is carried out in a laboratory at 23ºC (considered optimal for BEVs) and we know that the battery performance declines rapidly as it gets colder. 

Therefore, there are only a few days a year in the UK when you are even on the same page as the test data. Moreover, the acceleration phase of the test is equal to getting from 0-60mph in longer than 20 seconds and the average speed across the whole test is just 46.5kmh (29mph). So when everyone tells you their BEV’s range is poor, it’s understandable. It’s not the drivers’ fault, or the vehicle manufacturers’ – which maker would stick their neck out with a real-world figure? The test cycle is simply not fit for purpose, leaving drivers guessing or stranded.

Perhaps it’s a case of application. When manufacturers first created BEVs – without being forced to by governments – they had a very definite use in mind: city driving. In the early 1900s, the American Baker electric carriage had a range of over 50 miles, the UK’s fleet of milk floats ran fully laden out to 20 miles or more before return. Those operating parameters have now been stretched, without the technology, infrastructure or correct consultation to assume they can work for all. 

If you can operate your van locally at 100 miles per day or less, charge it overnight from 20% to 80%, don’t need to drive much on the motorway, don’t need huge payloads or tow a trailer, then go for it. Increased purchase price aside, it will cost you much less. Half the pence per mile of diesel, and much less in servicing whilst current strong residuals make leasing and PCPs attractive. Learn its characteristics, and it is actually fun to drive, quick off the mark when needed and might even be a good eco-PR exercise for your business.

Outside of those rigid parameters, it seems that you have a lot of thinking and a great deal of maths to do. The clock is ticking and makers are early-abandoning their diesel models – not to mention their loyal customers.

Assault on battery

Battery health is a big issue with EVs. The total number of discharge / recharge cycles determines its working life, but how you charge it has a big effect. Rapid charging the battery is much worse than charging it slowly, but there’s a time issue, of course. Charging at home is much cheaper too; public chargers can be up to twice the cost per unit, albeit much faster. A domestic wallbox charger (budget for £1000+) can supply 7.2kW (32 amps). For a nominal 75kW/h battery in a 3.0-tonne van, that’s over 10 hours. However, most BEVs allow you to limit the input to 16 amps, better for the battery but making 21 hours charging time from zero to 100%. However, the vehicle manufacturers say you should avoid running the battery down below 20% and not charge it to more than 80%. Not only does that mean you are operating with only 60% of the theoretical total range, but are actually increasing the number of charge cycles too. It takes longer to charge in the winter and of course at lower temperatures the battery provides much less range anyhow – as bad as 50% of that claimed. Manufacturers are already working on a solution to this, aiming to install battery change-over bays. Already operating under trial in some European countries with prototype cars, they resemble a carwash. You drive in, the battery is removed from beneath the vehicle, and a fully-charged one installed, all automated and taking a few minutes. You pay a subscription, in effect  leasing the batteries. Cost and timescale for the UK? TBC!