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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Arval LCV leader Simon Cook

Cook also reckons there’s a demand for plug-in hybrid panel vans from the delivery sector and elsewhere.

Currently, there are no such models on sale in the UK, but Ford is trialling a petrol-electric plug-in hybrid Transit Custom in London and in Valencia in Spain, prior to the production version’s proposed on-sale date in 2019.  

“That would absolutely answer the question about electric operation but also with the ability to switch to petrol when you need to.

“I think the only challenge there is payload, which, if you’re adding an engine to an already heavy vehicle with batteries etc, you could end up with a compromise. But if you could get the technology lighter, with a longer range, and have a hybrid or even a diesel-electric hybrid that’s light enough, then I think we could start to really make changes in this industry.”

An increase in the payloads of battery-powered LCVs could also broaden the remit for manufacturers and bolster UK sales. In May, the government concluded a consultation that, among other areas – such as addressing a proposed change to the existing van VED structure – proposed to raise the payload for electric vans from the current 3.5t to 4.25t to account for the additional weight of batteries – an increase which has now been introduced.

“That will help payload,” insists Cook, who adds: “When they increase the gross vehicle weight to 4.25t it will better allow for the battery technology in those specific vehicles. Just by increasing the vehicle weight from 3.5t to 4.25t you end up effectively negating the problem with heavy batteries.

“It won’t help with range or any of the other issues typically associated with electric LCVs, but it will help with payload.

“There are challenges there, but I guess what manufacturers will do is use some of that additional payload weight to give the battery more power for a longer range.”

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Renault launched its Master Z.E. at the CV Show

Plugging the gap: charging infrastructure and large vans

Although a welcome prospect for many LCV operators, large electric vans bring their own set of problems, namely that they may be too big to access a lot of public charging points, often housed in parking spaces. Granted, charging for most vehicles used in a fleet capacity typically takes place at the depot, but a potential inability to top up at public charge points adds an extra layer of complication, especially for smaller outfits potentially more reliant on them.

“Large electric vans could be trickier to get into the standard roadside bays depending on where you charge on the vehicle,” says David Martell, chief executive of EV charging firm Chargemaster. “If they charge where the fuel port normally is – behind the cab, down low – that’s not where most cars are charging, because they’re typically right at the front or right at the back. If you’ve got a cable, it’s fine, but if you’re rapid charging, the ideal place is pretty much right on the nose.

“We tend to put rapid chargers [the highest voltage types that top up the battery in the shortest time] in bays, so our typical layout would be in a dual parking bay, nose-on. With a 3.5-tonner – a large Transit van or Crafter-type vehicle – as long as the charging port is within reach of a rapid charger, you should still be able to reach it. If it’s a standard parking bay for on-street post or something like that, then it is more of a challenge.  

“Manufacturers need to put charging ports in a sensible location. If you park nose-in at a depot, you’re probably going to want it at the front. You might have different chassis cabs, but the bit of the vehicle at the front is always going to stay the same. The good thing about the charging port is that you don’t have to run quite complex fuel lines through to it from a tank; it’s fairly flexible in terms of where you can locate it on the vehicle.”