Electric cars have already begun to take off, and if trials taking place around London are an indicator, electric vans could soon do the same.
Electric vehicles are nothing new – records of battery-powered vehicles go back to the early 19th century – and with around 150,000 electric vehicles registered in the UK since the launch of the Government’s Plug-In Car Grant in 2011 it would be fair to assume that the testing stage is over.
But the commercial vehicle sector is lagging behind somewhat, and plug-in models are only now starting to filter through to market, with manufacturers such as Ford, Mercedes, Nissan, Renault and Volkswagen some of those planning to bring out electrified vehicles in various forms in the coming years. Despite the vast amount of experience in the plug-in market garnered by these brands – all of these have had a battery-powered model of some form in their ranges in recent years – many have embarked upon trials before releasing an EV van.
Volkswagen has sent four electric Crafters out to fleets in the UK, and James Douglas, VW’s head of sales operations explains that there is still plenty to learn from these trials.
“In a nutshell, vans are different from cars in terms of the way they’re used, where they’re used, the requirements of operators, mileage patterns, loading and reloading,” says Douglas. ‘Practical trials of electric vans are the only real way that we can ensure the final production model is absolutely fit for purpose.”
One of these four vehicles is at Gatwick Airport, where it has been put to task on the 250-strong fleet. Gatwick fleet manager John Hole explains that there are already two electric vans in use at the airport, and the plan is to have 50% of the fleet as plug-in vehicles in the next five years. With electric already in the mix, what can the airport hope to learn from taking part in the experiment with VW?
“There have been smaller manufacturers in that market but with VW and one or two others moving into that as mainstream suppliers, we want to see they have the load-carrying capacity and the durability for engineering tasks, which is slightly different from your last-mile delivery,” explains Hole.
As part of this, the e-Crafter at Gatwick is being thoroughly challenged, with work both on and off the airport site. Currently it is land-side, says Hole, with the aim being to give it more extended journeys.
Ford is also looking to challenge the Transit Custom plug-in hybrids that it is sending out on trial. There are 17 out with fleets around the country, largely based around urban areas.
“The Metropolitan Police are going to be an extreme use case for us,” explains Ford’s director of commercial vehicle mobility solutions, Mark Harvey. “They have got two vehicles, one will be used in a fairly conventional way replacing a Transit Custom diesel vehicle for crime scene investigation and then the other one will be used in an environment that is more response-based. It is in a new area, but it is a role that could be fulfilled by a conventional vehicle.”
As well as monitoring the on-board telematics on the vehicles, both Ford and Volkswagen are committed to getting regular feedback, meeting once a week with the drivers and fleet managers. “We want to have regular contact and do ride-alongs with the drivers,” explains Ford’s Harvey. “It is going in with very open eyes, observing everything, not just how the electric propulsion system but how the total van is being used and what are the pain points for the operator. We are looking for any opportunities from that.”
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Hole explains that the day-to-day running of the Gatwick fleet hasn’t been too heavily impacted by the trial, with it being built into the e-Crafter’s operating plan. “We have a set day and time when VW’s technicians turn up, we’ve got some forms the drivers fill out on a daily basis when they have driven it, anything they notice on a normal driving cycle,” he explains.
As well as informing the manufacturer, the trial is also benefiting the fleets taking part, with Hole saying: “It is informing where we want to put our EV infrastructure, but we are doing that progressively because that could change in coming years.” It will also shape the make up of the fleet in years to come because it will give them crucial information on the viability of a large battery-powered van.
The plug-in Fords that are with Transport for London are also providing crucial information to the Capital. Scott Wilding, the principal delivery planner for TfL, says: “We are able to access Ford’s data monthly and tweak it so we can get more information out of it as we go along. We have some information on conventional private cars from the camera data and we have a team that work with EV cars so we have data on that, but we don’t have a lot on vans.
The findings have been useful so far, he says. “There have been some hypotheses that have been confirmed and others that surprise us. TfL holds so little information on vans; 55% in London are unliveried so we don’t know who they belong to.”
With the VW e-Crafter and the plug-in Ford Transit Custom due on full sale later this year and in 2019 respectively, it is quite late on in the day for major specification changes, but it is still possible to make alterations, says Harvey.“Hardware can be challenging depending on which piece of hardware it is and what the lead time is,” he explains. “The main areas of opportunity are in the software and strategy and how we calibrate the engine and the electric powertrain.”
Changes can be made to the power delivery when the van is pulling away, which can impact on tyre wear, but they are also looking to create the best charging plans and ownership models based on how the vehicles are used. He also says that the ability to talk to fleet managers on a regular basis is crucial for working out the best financial options.
The trials came about in very different ways for TfL and Gatwick. While the former was approached by Ford, Gatwick was in regular contact with VW from when the e-Crafter was announced, expressing a desire to sample the technology.
Mark Harvey explains that there is every chance for future fleets to get involved with similar trials in the future, saying: “We have got a mix of existing customers, some newer customers and some who aren’t even customers of us at present. What we have looked at is those fleets where we have relationships we have gone through and looked at how they would use the vehicles, where their operations are – we have talked to them about the pilot and the capabilities of the vehicle.”
As proof of this, Gatwick wasn’t a VW customer before, but as Hole says, this didn’t matter for the manufacturer when the conversation started. “It is keeping abreast of what the market is doing as a fleet manager and obviously Gatwick is in the news as being a well-run business and people like to be associated with that.”
The Crafter trial is the first of its kind that Gatwick has taken part in, but fleet manager John Hole says that the airport is open to more.
“I think we are open minded with all new technologies,” he says. “With Shell about to open a hydrogen filling station outside our north terminal, the route to refuelling is quite easy.
“Obviously we think that may be a few years down the line before we get hydrogen vans unless there are manufacturers working on it that we are not aware of.”
Hole also explained that Gatwick has also had discussion with manufacturers over autonomous technology, saying: “It is undoubtedly in the early stages but such technology would be really interesting. Certain elements of the airside operation could lend itself to autonomous vehicles, but we would make sure the technology is robust before we start taking trials.”