Electric revolution? 08 July 2013

There will soon be even more all-electric commercial vehicles on the market, which means more decisions for operators. John Challen looks at some of the vehicles and their pros and cons

Once restricted to fleets concerned with getting milk to people's doors, electric vehicles are now evolving and proving increasingly popular with operators delivering a whole lot more. April's CV Show offered visitors their first chance to find out more about several new electric vehicles and the engineering behind them. The event played host, for example, to the debut of Citroën's Berlingo Electric, while Nissan showed a prototype of the e-NV200, the battery only version of its medium-sized van.

And with electric versions of Ford, Iveco, Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot and Renault vehicles already available, fleet managers looking to adopt battery power suddenly have a considerable range from which to choose. Further, the powertrain setup for both the Citroën and Nissan (see panel) shows that EVs have moved on dramatically in recent years, in terms of performance and range – two key attributes.

The e-NV200 won't be officially on sale in the UK until next year, but Matt Dale, Nissan's national LCV sales manager, is already talking to customers. Also, major operators, including British Gas, EDF Energy, and FedEx, have now completed trials of the new van.

Why go electric? Well these vehicles, especially the battery packs, have come a long way since the days of the humble milk float. The biggest change has been the substitution of nickel metal hyride (Ni-MH) batteries mostly with lithium-ion (Li-ion). These latter are smaller and lighter (although, in some cases, more costly) meaning that comparable pack sizes store much more power – Nissan and Citroën powertrains offer above 20kW/h – and hence range. One hundred mile round trips are now entirely realistic, if drivers take it easy – which is all you can do in EVs' natural town habitat.

Factor in fuel cost savings, no congestion charges and a boost to your carbon footprint through an EVs zero emissions rating, and the choice becomes appealing. There are, however, the issues of significantly higher vehicle cost and managing longer journeys, motorways or 'A' road, where battery power may fall flat. Unlike range-extenders – where the battery is matched to an ICE – there's no backup.

That said, with Nissan's EV experience through the LEAF all-electric car, Dale believes the Japanese manufacturer is well set up to offer fleets the service they need. "The vast majority of dealers have LEAF training and are certified. By the time e-NV200 is launched, all of them will be fully electric vehicle qualified," he explains. "This gives operators peace of mind. They will be able to maintain all vans through their normal Nissan dealers."

Dale also points out that, since its van was originally built as an ICE-powered vehicle, removing the engine and inserting the electric motor minimised design and testing issues. "The batteries don't encroach on load space, because they are under the floor and the driver's seat, which also improves the e-NV200's centre of gravity," he says. Also, with the inverter housed under the bonnet, load space for its diesel and electric van variants is exactly the same.

For him, all this is about making the electric van mainstream, by keeping it practical. "We want people to have a mixed fleet of diesel and electric vans, because EVs won't fit everyone's needs equally," he argues. "There have been some cases where the mileage is such that it is not cost effective to run an EV; it would be better to have a diesel. Commercial vehicles are working tools [and] we want them to be economically viable."

One operator that has made electric vehicles work very well is Network Rail. Previously running two diesel-powered Chrysler Grand Voyager as shuttle vehicles, management at its Westwood development centre, near Coventry, were keen to improve their green credentials while also bringing costs down and.

Steve Duffy, business support manager at Network Rail, says that two Mercedes-Benz Vito E-Cell people carriers fitted the bill. "The vehicles operate as a shuttle bus service from the training centre to the train station and back," he explains. "They are in constant use from 7:30 to 10:30 in the morning, and then do nothing until taking people back from around 1pm. The gap in the middle of the day is used for re-charging. Then, come 6:00pm, the E-Cells are on charge until 7:00am."

Staff at Mercedes-Benz handled the training and Duffy says they made the drivers feel at ease. "We needed to know about charging properly, letting the batteries reach optimal level and how long they will last, depending on how the vans are driven," he recalls. "The guy from Mercedes-Benz knew everything about the vehicle, and was able to teach our drivers, in straightforward terms, how to get the best performance and economy. All six drivers had training over a two-day period."

What about savings? The cost of switching to EVs have not yet been calculated, but Duffy says software is on its way to monitor the numbers. Whatever happens, though, he believes that more EVs will be on their way to Network Rail.

"They might not be Vito E-Cells, but there is a desire within the business for more electric vehicles," he confirms. "We have depots inside the London LEZ and we have to ask ourselves if we really need a Vauxhall Combo that takes two men from the depot to an access point, when a Nissan e-NV200 would do the job. Do we need to put one man in a 3.5-tonne Transit, or would another EV work? We are certainly preparing for it, and any new building that Network Rail builds now has EV charging points installed."

New kids on the block
The Citroën Berlingo Electric is the French manufacturer's second serious attempt at an electric vehicle, following the previous generation's battery model, which was on sale from 1999 to 2005. The new vehicle combines a permanent magnet 49kW electric motor with a 22.5kW/h lithium ion battery pack. This specification gives a range of up to 106 miles and a top speed of 68.75mph. Fast charging is now available, which means that after 35 minutes plugged into the mains, 80% of the battery's power will be replenished.

Like the Citroën, Nissan's e-NV200 has quick-charging capabilities, with half an hour needed to reach 80%. The alternative is a conventional full charge, which takes around 12 hours. The vehicle is powered by a 24kW/h battery
pack – borrowed from the manufacturer's LEAF passenger car – and an 80kW ac synchronous motor, which provides 280Nm of torque. It, too, boasts a 100-mile range.

Smith Electric fleet surpasses 700 vehiclesM
Smith Electric Vehicles says it has now produced more than 700 of its all-electric Edison and Newton trucks, and that together they have covered over five million miles. CEO Bryan Hansel believes that milestone confirms a growing demand for fleet electrification, driven by "significant economic and environmental benefits for short-haul fleets".

Medium-duty gas and diesel trucks, he insists, are expensive to operate and are one of the biggest contributors to urban pollution. He's referring to vehicles that typically travel on fixed routes of fewer than 100 miles per day from a central depot. These, he says, are ideal for conversion, with experience suggesting that switching to electric vehicle saves around 70% annually on fuel and maintenance.

"We do not think in terms of the truck," explains Hansel. "We think in terms of end-to-end fleet transformation and all its associated benefits. This delivers substantial economic and commercial benefits."

For him, short –term growth in EVs is all about short-haul urban transport, not least market because "operator demand, logistical viability, political support and environmental benefit are all aligned".

Infrastructure initiatives
Having an electric vehicle is one thing but, without the charging infrastructure, it can be next to useless, especially for fleet managers expecting to run vans close to the edge of their range. For the North East, however, things are looking up, courtesy of Zero Carbon Futures, a non-profit organisation born out of the former Regional Development Agency.

"We've learned a lot about how people use the vehicles, as well as their concerns about range," says Dr Colin Herron, managing director of Zero Carbon Futures. "We have a lot of information on where people use charging points and at what times of the day." In the commercial world, that has been accomplished by Herron's team monitoring how people drive prototype vans and get to grips with the technology. "If a driver is working at different houses, they want to know what infrastructure is available and how they live with the vehicle, given the sort of journeys they are doing."

Herron highlights two areas of development, not just in the North-East, but nationwide. "One is the public on-street charging points, which offer 3—7kW and there are 750 in our region. The other is quick chargers that deliver 50kW," he explains. "We're working on putting in another 220 of these across the country. We've got 12 in our region, so if anyone buys a van, there is the infrastructure to run it." As a result of this investment, Herron explains, some councils now have more confidence and are building up their EV fleets.

Elsewhere in the UK, operators can expect the electric vehicle infrastructure to grow, albeit faster in some parts than others. "Areas such as Scotland, Manchester and Bristol are advanced but there are holes in the network," concedes Herron. "The new round of grants has been designed to go to people in non-demonstrator areas that are putting their own infrastructure in."

John Challen

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Related Companies
Citroen UK Ltd
Mercedes-Benz UK Ltd
Nissan Motor (GB) Ltd
Smith Technologies Ltd

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