At the start of the year, Ford announced plans to trial 20 plug-in hybrid versions of the Transit Custom in London, and the scheme will get underway in the final quarter of the year.

Using an electric drivetrain and a 1.0-litre Ecoboost petrol engine, itself capable of feeding regenerative power to the battery, the manufacturer claims the vans will be able to cover “in excess” of 31 zero-emissions miles from a full charge, and 310 in total.

In the interests of cleaning up the capital’s air and businesses, the idea is that they’ll spend most of their time running on electric power. They’ll also be kitted out with geofencing equipment, which can automatically modify the vehicle’s settings by location and, for example, switch the hybrid system to electric-only mode when the van enters a low-emission zone.

The year-long project will be run in partnership with Transport for London (TfL) and the Government’s Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC), with the latter providing funding in the form of a £4.7m grant.

Mark Harvey, Ford’s director of urban electric van programmes, explained why the firm chose plug-in hybrid tech, rather than battery-electric: “In the early phase, we had a lot of discussions with potential fleets.  The strong feedback we got was that a number of them were already using battery-electric vehicles – with very mixed experiences. A lot of them were not happy with some of the ranges they were seeing in the real world versus the quoted figures, and they had some acceptance struggles from their employees, given the inconveniences that they created. A lot of them were really looking for the flexibility and the elimination of range anxiety that a plug-in hybrid brings.”

Electric flavour

As well as establishing how the vans will be used day-to-day, the project also intends to give a flavour of what it’s like to live and work with plug-in LCVs.

“It’s really giving [companies] the understanding of how they could make an electrified product work,” said Harvey. “There’s huge pressure on a number of them – as public organisations and as commercials – to be going towards electric vehicles. A lot of tenders are specifying it for future work, for example.

“A number of them are a long way down that journey and have a lot of experience; others less so – they have a lot of preconceived barriers to adopting electric vehicles, and want to use the trial to see if some of those barriers are real, how they can integrate the vehicles into their existing operations and manage some of the challenges they present. We’re supporting that with a telematics system, which will be getting lots of real-time data, to understand how they’re being operated, how they’re being used and what benefit they should bring.”

Ford is hoping to soak up a heap of information, including details on the vans’ environmental and financial performance, along with any golden nuggets about how firms can use plug-ins to their advantage. It recently announced the opening of a smart mobility innovation office in Here East, the former media centre for the 2012 Olympics, where some of the data processing from the trial will take place. 

Harvey explained: “We need to get [the vans] racked and pre-prepped to the requirements of the fleets before getting out on the road and gathering data and real miles of usage, but we will have a huge amount of real-world learnings around the vehicle: potential services that could complement it, vehicle-use cases and how it is operating in the city. As part of the announcement of the trial and the product, we explained our intention to put it into mass production in 2019.

“All those learnings will help us to ensure we understand who the vehicle is best suited to because, clearly, a plug-in hybrid is not the solution for everyone. If you’re running between, say, London and Birmingham or London and Manchester every day, then a [Euro6] diesel is by far and away a better solution. But for an urban environment [a plug-in hybrid] is a very good solution. We’ll hopefully have the data to back that up, and we’ll be using it to educate people as we move towards the mass-production product.”

Friends electric – Organisations involved in the trial

Below is the full list of organisations adopting a Transit PHEV onto their fleet as part of the trial. Each organisation will run one van, with the exception of the Met Police and TfL. TfL will use three for freight duties, while the Met’s pair will be used as a liveried, second-response vehicle at traffic accidents and as an unmarked forensic support unit.

  • Addison Lee
  • Autoglass
  • British Gas
  • BSkyB
  • Clancy Plant
  • DPD
  • Heathrow Airport
  • Kier
  • Mears
  • Metropolitan Police
  • Morrison Utility Services
  • Speedy Services
  • Transport for London