Smith Electric Transit Edison — August 2007
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Electric vans have always been hampered by three factors; their short range, the weight of their batteries and the time it takes to recharge those batteries once they're exhausted. Add to that the fact that some, though not all, of them have had little or no styling flair and not much in terms of creature comforts, and it's scarcely surprising that their appeal has been limited.
Attitudes may be changing, however, and it's all down to concern over the environment.
Electric vans emit zero exhaust emissions and that makes them good news so far as big city air quality is concerned. Opt for battery power and there is every chance that you'll be excused the London congestion tax, not to mention the congestion taxes that are likely to be inflicted on other big UK cities soon.
There's always the argument that the power used to charge up those batteries still has to be generated and that may mean that some pollution is still occurring somewhere. But it's not occurring in your local high street.
It was with these thoughts in mind that we took to the streets of London in an electric Edison van made by Smith Electric Vehicles and newly in service with the Royal Mail. Based on a Ford Transit long-wheelbase high-roof 3.5-tonner, it's fitted with a 90kW Enova electric motor instead of a diesel engine, with power coming courtesy of a pair of sodium nickel chloride batteries.
OK, they're heavy, but remember that the Edison doesn't have a heavy diesel engine married to a conventional manual gearbox and isn't lugging around a tank full of fuel. As a consequence its gross payload is a, pretty respectable, 1,200kg; more than enough if you're hauling around parcels.
The problem with the batteries is less their weight than their bulk. They steal a fair amount of space and the box they're housed in is likely to be constantly knocked as cargo is loaded through the van's nearside side door.
There's no complicated starting procedure with an Edison. All you do is turn on the ignition, slip it into 'drive', put your foot on the accelerator and you're away.
Expecting our low-speed progress to be jerky, we were agreeably surprised by the smooth way in which power is delivered. The Edison accelerates strongly away from rest and can more than hold its own in the cut-and-thrust of urban traffic.
What's more, it does so in almost complete silence. All you hear is the faint whine of the electric motor plus a bit of noise from the tyres and the wind.
Unfortunately other road users don't hear anything either, so pedestrians have a nasty habit of stepping out in front of you without realising you're there. You can be practically touching a cyclist's rear wheel before they become aware of your presence.
Silent running can be a boon if you're making early morning deliveries, though, when you don't want to disturb slumbering householders. All those electric milk floats can't be wrong.
Edison retains virtually all of Transit's cab interior and that should make it perfectly acceptable to the vast majority of drivers. It rides and handles like Transit too.
The top speed is 50mph says Smith, but congestion during our short test drive meant we got nowhere near that figure. And yes we were inside the congestion tax zone.
We also sampled an Edison in Sainsbury colours fitted with a Solomons fridge body and based on a medium-wheelbase Transit chassis cab.
Smith said that it had been de-tuned, so as a consequence it offered less performance than the Royal Mail's vehicle. In our view the latter was much the better bet.
Depending on how gently it's driven, and how heavily it is laden, Edison should be good for anywhere from 60 miles to 100 miles before its batteries need recharging. You won't be able to get from London to Birmingham, but you'll have more than enough range to spend the day making multi-drop deliveries to West End shops or City offices.
Recharging will take eight hours if the batteries are completely flat, but Smith now has a battery available that allows you to put in 50 per cent of the power it needs in just 45 minutes.
One bit of bad news is that the Edison costs three times more than a conventional diesel van of equivalent size, and there's no government subsidy to bridge the gap. The batteries will eventually need replacing and it's hard to calculate how much the vehicle will be worth when you come to sell it second-hand.
However, you have to balance all that against the low price of electricity per mile compared with the price of diesel, the fact that you pay zero vehicle excise duty and modest maintenance bills thanks to the comparative lack of moving parts. You can enjoy free parking in certain areas of London too.
Remember as well that many customers expect their suppliers to strive towards a low carbon footprint and acquiring an Edison is evidence that that is what you're doing.
So is it worth opting for an Edison? If you're on short-range city delivery work — especially in London — then it could be worth considering; if you can stand the sound of silence.