Electric light commercials – Sparking the revolution

 

The government is consulting on a change to licensing laws that could be of benefit to electric van owners, but is it enough to jump start the world of commercial plug-in vehicle sales?

 

Reading into the small print shows that the UK won’t be a totally petrol-/diesel-free zone by 2020, 2032 or even 2040, despite the newspaper headlines. However, the punitive and encouraging legislation is set to continue, with some specifically aimed at van operators. To that end, the Department for Transport is carrying out a consultation that could change laws to encourage a greater take up of alternatively fuelled plug-in light commercial vehicles.

The extra bulk of a battery can push the weight of a larger electric van up over 3,500kg, and upgrading a licence to allow an employee to drive a larger vehicle can cost as much as £1,200. The change would allow car-licence (category B) holders to drive a vehicle weighing up to 4.25-tonnes as long as it is powered by an alternative powertrain – electric or plug-in hybrid. Currently there are not any mainstream vehicles on the market that will be affected by this, but several are due to arrive in the coming years.

Low emissions have been back on the front pages again in recent months, with various manufacturers, countries and organisations setting dates for the point at which they intend to end sales of all conventionally powered cars.

Electric vehicles: Now and soon

Renault Kangoo ZE 33

The Kangoo offers the longest range of any electric van right now, claiming an official 170 miles between charges. In the real world, 124 miles is more realistic, but this is still better than other options out there.

 

Nissan e-NV200

Nissan has borrowed tech from its electric Leaf passenger car to create the e-NV200 small van. It uses a 24kWh battery that comes with an official range of 106 miles.

 

Peugeot Partner/Citroen Berlingo

The electric medium-sized Citroen Berlingo and Peugeot Partner are essentially the same van. They come in standard and longer L2 forms and offer the bonus of three seats across the front – made possible by the lack of the gearlever and parking brake on the floor.

 

What’s on the way

Renault Master ZE

Renault has announced plans to sell an electric version of its large Master van by the end of the year. It will come in L1H1, L2H2 and L3H2 sizes and offer a flatbed cab version. It is set to offer a range of around 124 miles.

 

Volkswagen e-Crafter

A 43kWh battery means that the electric VW Crafter should offer a range of 129 miles when it goes on sale. No date has been confirmed yet, but the e-Crafter is set to head out to selected fleets for trials by the end of this year.

 

Arrival

The Royal Mail is testing a fleet of nine large vans, made by British firm Arrival. Weighing 3.5, 6 and 7.5 tonnes, the vans will all be based at the Mount Pleasant depot in London, and are due to arrive this December.

Necessary training

This could bring extra concerns about drivers getting into a vehicle that is heavier than that they are used to.

“We are not seeing any implications for the size, it is just the weight,” says Mark Cartwright, head of vans at the Freight Transport Association. “It puts the onus on operators not considering competency front and centre, and we have to make them aware of what they are doing.”

However he says that this extra training could all be carried out in-house, saying: “It is an extension of the same principle. There is no greater responsibility than to ensure that the driver is up to the task.”

The Royal Mail is starting trials in which it will run a fleet of nine alternative-powered vehicles from its Mount Pleasant depot in London. Nine vans made by British company Arrival, weighing 3.5 tonnes, 6 tonnes and 7.5 tonnes, will join the fleet from this coming December. As well as these models, Arrival is also planning a 4-tonne truck, which would certainly benefit from the proposed changes.

Grahame Bennett, the Royal Mail’s head of fleet engineering, feels that the company’s existing training is comprehensive enough to prepare its drivers for the change.

“On any vehicle up to 3.5 tonnes, if a driver moves from a car-derived van to, say, a Transit we would do changeover training so they get used to the new size of vehicle,” he says.

The extra weight allowance would be something that would be welcomed by the Royal Mail, says Bennett. “I can’t see anything, considering the weight, that makes an awful lot of a difference, I expect we would want to exploit [the proposed change.] It is not about the size of the vehicle, it is about what you carry, and our dynamic is changing.”

As Cartwright points out, the biggest benefit will be in allowing firms to carry more in one single vehicle, reducing the number of light commercials that need to be sent to a single job. “We would sense that there is an interest among many operators, the payload has in our experience been the first hurdle that operators have fallen over.”

The Royal Mail is certainly keen to embrace electric and alternative powertrains, having recently ordered 100 electric Peugeot Partners to join its delivery fleet. The benefits go beyond just the lower running costs for Bennett. “We do our own maintenance so we will be looking into that,” he says. “There are potentially big savings there.”

 

Remaining barriers

The larger vans would allow more of urban routes to be covered by electric vehicles, with Bennett saying that they could be suitable for “a fair proportion” of rounds.

However, it isn’t simply a case of switching over to electric, even if you are a company like the Royal Mail that can get its own charging points installed and never have to visit a public point.

Infrastructure means a lot more to a company with a fleet the size of the Royal Mail (it runs around 46,000 vehicles) than just public charging.

“At our offices, it is not just the supply into our buildings, it is the surrounding ones – if a bakery next door turns on their ovens overnight there won’t be enough power to charge our vans,” says Bennett.

“We have 1,800 sites across the UK, and it is understanding what supply looks like into those sites. What does the surrounding vicinity look like?”

Many operators are also concerned about the future, with Bennett saying that longer battery warranties – many are now covered for five years – is one element that has provided greater reassurance to fleet operators.

However, the concerns about future values come resale time remain. Andy Picton, chief commercial vehicle editor at residual value expert Glass’s says: “There is no real demand for the few used examples we see at auction. You will see used Kangoo ZEs with not a mark on them but you will see either no bids at all or silly bids. The early versions are not doing particularly well.”

He points out that the battery leasing issue is one thing that is putting some buyers off. “The used traders are very set in their ways – when they see the hammer drop they think they have bought that vehicle. The last thing they want is to hear that they have to pay for a battery lease.”

There isn’t one simple solution for this, though. Picton suggests a dedicated sale, or manufacturer support would help strengthen values.

“At the moment there are no dedicated electric vehicle sales, so maybe that needs to be looked at by the vendors, or the manufacturers need to enter some sort of buyback to get them back into their own network and to show they have been checked and make them more of a proposition,” he says.

Increasing the payload of larger electric vans through this consultation might remove the initial barrier for many operators, but there are more that need to be knocked down yet to provide the greater reassurance and incentive required by fleets large and small.