In a market reeling from supply issues and down almost a quarter compared with the same period in 2021, the strong increase in electric light commercial vehicles (eLCVs) is one bright spark. 

Full-electric LCV registrations were up 55.7%, from 5,692 units Jan-July 2021 to 8,865 Jan-July 2022 and while that only represents a market share of 5.4%, with diesel still dominant at 92.3%, the direction of travel is clear. To see what’s changed since our last feature on this topic in mid-2021, we’ve again asked some major players in the game, including a handful of electric van makers, but also several charging suppliers too, given that the path to full-electric is full of pitfalls and problems that aren’t just about the product. 

That said, product availability is key, and when the brand that has topped the UK’s LCV sales market for more than half a century launches its first proper full-electric vans, it suggests 2022 could be a pivotal year. This time in 2021, Ford only had plug-in hybrid (PHEV) vans on offer but from May 2022 that changed. While it’s certainly far from the first to market, the Blue Oval brand did do its homework and tried to understand its customers’ (not unfounded) concerns about going electric. “Ford researched, prior to launching E-Transit, the average daily mileage of a van driver, which turned out to be 69 miles,” its UK spokesperson says. “That means a two-tonne E-Transit (196-mile range) and one-tonne E-Transit Custom (237 miles) have enough range for most drivers’ daily needs.”

Ford’s research and assistance goes well beyond the sale too. “Customers are not refuelling in the same way as with diesel, so it is not realistic to expect to use eLCVs exactly as diesel fleets were deployed,” the Ford spokesperson continues. “Charging options at depot, overnight at employees’ houses, en route or at the destination need deciding and factoring in. Ford Pro, the company’s commercial vehicle support business, provides a ‘one-stop’ service to small to medium enterprises (SMEs) and considers charging as well as finance, reduced service and running costs, to understand the proposition on a longer-term basis.” Ford hasn’t ditched its PHEV offering though, describing such tech as “a good bridging technology while the charging network grows, and providing flexibility and peace of mind.”   

Renault might have been an early adopter of electric vans, offering one of the first in its Kangoo ZE small van more than a decade ago, but in 2022 it has improved its offering again, beyond the Zoe electric city van and larger Master eLCV. “Renault has positioned itself at the forefront in the transition to electrified vehicles,” says Steve Whitcombe, UK head of brand, Pro+ and commercial vehicles. “The all-new Kangoo Van – awarded the International Van of the Year 2022 – is the culmination of more than 10 years’ experience in the field, reinvigorating a model that has won 70,000 customers since 2011. With a 90kW motor and a 45kW lithium-ion battery with a WLTP range of 186 miles – the highest available in the small van sector – it [Kangoo E-Tech] sets the bar even higher in meeting the needs of professional customers.”  

The Stellantis group of brands has definitely stolen a march on many of its rivals in terms of eLCVs too. Last year we spoke to key sales people at Vauxhall and Peugeot and this year we pick the brains of Richard Chamberlain, director of commercial vehicles at Stellantis UK – and about Fiat in particular. “As Fiat Professional’s retailer network is delivered alongside its truck network, it has a better understanding of SMEs and business owners, including longer-opening hours to get customers back on the road quickly, additional and bigger ramps, wider parking areas and specific expertise with LCVs,” he says. “In addition, the Fiat Professional Ducato is a different powertrain to our sister brands at Stellantis and was awarded What Van?’s 2022 Van of the Year. Fiat Professional also offers peace of mind through its products such as five years’ warranty, five years’ roadside assistance and five years’ servicing.”

However, Chamberlain is under no illusion that great eLCV product and service can win in isolation and was refreshingly honest in what he considers the biggest hurdles to UK’s LCV fleet going electric by 2030. “Unfortunately, there is not one clear answer to this,” he begins. “While Stellantis brands Peugeot, Citroen, Fiat Professional and Vauxhall offer a complete range of BEVs, this is not the case for the wider market. In addition, demand remains strong, but the supply of batteries and some of the critical components like semi-conductors remains weak, slowing the speed of adoption. Charging is still a major component that remains a concern, and this is limiting adoption. Most vans are a critical part of a business’s infrastructure so the reliability of charging is critical to ensure the required range to meet their daily tasks. Otherwise, this can negatively affect the reputation of a business.”

To address the lack of charging infrastructure some brands are taking matters into their own hands and/or teaming up with charger networks, to expand the network of chargers more quickly than might otherwise be the case if left entirely to market forces. VW is one player taking this aspect seriously, no doubt because it is already well-advanced with its full-electric ID passenger car range, which this year is joined by the ID Buzz and Buzz Cargo van versions. “I think it’s unrealistic for someone in 2022 to say with certainty what will be required in 2030 let alone 2035,” reasons Volkswagen Group UK managing director Alex Smith. “But not knowing the end game shouldn’t stop anybody from being brave in infrastructure expansion now and building slightly ahead of demand.
There needs to be solutions for those who don’t have off-street parking at home and high-power charging on major arterial routes and motorways, and lots of them.” To that end, VW has a trio of charging partnerships in place. “We have a branded relationship with 500 Tesco stores with a mix of 400 7kW and 100 22kW chargers (as well as a few chargeable 50kW chargers),” Smith continues. “This is the largest free-charging infrastructure, free electricity to anybody with a vehicle of any brand. We also have a partnership with BP, rolling out thousands of high-powered chargers on their forecourts and we’re a shareholder in the Ionity charging network too. Through these three ventures I think it’s fair to say we’re playing our part.” Order books for the Buzz Cargo have not yet opened, but for the ID Buzz passenger car, there are deals to be had and VW is looking at whether they might be attractive to van drivers too. “To simplify customers’ charging experience at home and on the go, those who finance their vehicle through Volkswagen Commercial Vehicle Financial services are eligible for a free 7kW wall box charger worth up to £949 and a free ‘We Charge’ voucher worth £100,” says Kate Thompson, head of marketing at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles. “Customers who already have a wall box are eligible to receive a ‘We Charge’ voucher worth £1,000 as an alternative.” 

Toyota is also offering free wall boxes and EV intel to van users, as Gareth Matthews, Toyota GB’s LCV manager explains: “We offer a complimentary wall box that enables customers to charge at home as well as access to a multitude of public charging points through the Toyota Charging Network. We also work with customers to understand their usage patterns, charging availability and capability during daily usage.”

Speaking to those operating the charging networks, the emphasis is slightly different, but recognition of the need for a bigger and easier to access EV network is still shared. For Osprey – recently chosen as the first official charging provider for the British Gas fleet – there are a few factors to resolve, firstly in planning. “There are relatively straightforward things the government could do to help, which don’t need any valuable public money to be spent,” an Osprey spokesperson says. “Mandate live charger availability data helps to drive improvements in the reliability of networks with legacy chargers and grants way-leave powers for charge point operators to install more easily. They can also implement planning guidelines that facilitate public charging, the ability to install lighting and mandate space for charging.”

The other key factor for Osprey is ease of payment, as its spokesperson adds: “Roaming cards for fleets and LCV drivers are essential to making public charging as easy and affordable as possible. Lots of these exist already, such as the Allstar One Electric Card and apps including Bonnet that give access to multiple charging networks through the same account. Osprey has always had an open-access policy and accepts all the main fleet and fuel cards and roaming services.” Osprey does see the early EV charging hardware compatibility issues starting to ease at least. “The rapid charging connector is now standardised (CCS). Hardware varies based on speed and functionality, but certainly we support a standardised process, for example. plug in, tap card, press start.” 

Gridserve, with a reputation as something of a poster boy for purpose-built EV charging forecourts started by its Braintree site with super-fast 350kW chargers, is also making huge strides to bring older EV networks up to speed. Its spokesperson says: “The number of charging sessions on the UK’s biggest motorway electric vehicle charging network, the Gridserve Electric Highway, has tripled since June 2021, with a quadrupling of energy supplied, one year since Gridserve acquired the network from Ecotricity and began its sweeping reforms to dramatically improve standards.” As part of that process, it is developing different site styles, and its Electric Forecourts and Electric Super Hubs include at least one extra-wide accessible charging bay for every six charging spaces, to aid access for larger vehicles like vans. By the end of August, Gridserve will also have a small fleet of EV vans to ensure the smooth maintenance of its sites and boost reliability – one of the biggest bugbears of users. As VW Group’s Smith sagely says: “I don’t think range anxiety really exists to the extent it did two or three years ago. What we’ve got now is ‘charging reliability anxiety’ or availability.”

Lastly, Stellantis’ Chamberlain believes the LCV leasing firms and residual value forecasters could help with the uptake of eLCVs if more information on their whole-life costs was generated and shared more readily. “One area that requires further exploration that significantly affects the cost of running EVs is the depreciation curve,” he says. “We have rafts of data plotting the value of used ICE vehicles and their depreciation, but little to no data on EVs. The lifecycle of an EV is longer, has less moving parts and therefore less wear and tear and manufacturers are providing eight to ten year battery warranties. So why aren’t we seeing the future used values predicted by the big leasing and forecasting companies increase? This is delaying adoption and artificially increasing the cost for customers.”

Still lots to do then, but clear progress made since 2021. Hopefully we’ll be able to report more in 2023.

Battery-electric vs. hydrogen

It’s not news that Toyota was late to the battery-electric party and still holds strong opinions about hydrogen. “Toyota believes the goal of zero emissions transport can be achieved using a multi-technology approach,” says Gareth Matthews, Toyota GB’s LCV manager. “LCVs are used for a purpose and no matter how good the infrastructure there will be some usages for which EVs are not suitable. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) offer a better solution for heavier vehicles and vehicles for which range needs to be higher. FCEVs also allow for much faster re-fuelling. Many of our customers have indicated that if there were hydrogen products and infrastructure available today, they would be using them. In the absence of a full infrastructure and EV-only solutions which might not suit all payload, usage and towing requirements, there is the potential that certain companies for which these things are not optional, are likely to buy close to the [UK government ban on ICE] cut-off and keep vehicles for five to ten years in the hope alternatives materialise.” 

Richard Chamberlain, director of commercial vehicles at Stellantis UK, also sees hydrogen playing an important part of the future LCV UK powertrain mix. “Fuels like hydrogen certainly have a place but we must ensure the hydrogen is produced responsibly,” he reasons. “The UK government must start to develop and invest in the infrastructure requirements. We’ll see HGVs move in this direction and we need to manage equally for LCVs. France and Germany are seeing the development and roll-out of a hydrogen infrastructure and therefore we’ll see earlier adoption in left-hand drive markets.”  Renault has developed a hydrogen-powered version of its Master through its Hyvia start-up (pictured).