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Are electric vans the way forward?

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Hardly a month goes by without news of a new electric offering from van manufacturers. Electric vans (EVs) are often touted as the way forward for operators looking to boost their green credentials but what is the experience of the early adopters and what’s holding back others from taking the plunge?

A recent survey conducted by FTA’s Van Excellence programme showed that many van operators are adopting a ‘wait and see’ policy with almost 70% either having not yet adopted the technology or stating they are unlikely to do so within the next 12 months or so.

So what lessons can be learned from the early adopters?

The aims of the early adopters are laudable; their keenness to lead from the front and benefit from the potential environmental and cost benefits of EVs should be recognised but what messages will these pioneers pass on to others considering putting electric vans on the road?

First the plus points: the reduced operational costs, ease of maintenance, minimal noise pollution and undoubted ‘in use’ CO2 benefits are massive attractions as is the positive PR message, particularly if the electricity used to charge is sourced from ‘green’ providers.

But the reality of the day-to-day use isn’t quite as rosy. The downsides lead to early adopters recommending a cautious and well-researched approach to other users.

We asked operators to score how well their vehicles had met expectations. Their response was decidedly average with only around a third declaring they’d met or come close to meeting their expectations.

What were the issues?

The significant up-front and wholelife costs cannot be ignored and neither can the limitations on range. Rory Morgan, of Iron Mountain, advices potential users “to be absolutely sure of the route they want to use the vehicle on”.

“Is the vehicles’ range sufficient in real life operations when loaded with other demands on the batteries such as lights, wipers, heaters, etc? Can they justify the costs; the vast majority of EV are hugely expensive compared to their diesel equivalents. Are there other options?”

Best practice suggests interested operators conduct trials in as close to ‘real life’ conditions as possible.

These trials should range across as many variants of operation as possible, including range on single charge, with different types of charging points and voltage/phase requirement, different payloads and with different drivers in varying weather and traffic conditions.

If the EV is being considered for use in a specific environment or on a particular route then obviously it should be tested in that role.

The importance of robust trials was underlined by Vince Dignam, transport manager at the Corporation of London, but even so the longer-term reliability of vehicles was questioned.

Dignam noted that vehicle off- road time can be excessive, with the ability of repairers to work with new technology and disputes around responsibility for faults cited as reasons.

Other respondents identified issues with older EVs where the original providers had ceased trading.

What other tips would they give potential users?

The competence and attitude of drivers, as you’d suspect, is seen as being an important factor in the successful use of EVs.

The allocation and training of specific drivers is to be recommended. Rory Morgan again: “There is a particular style of driving with an EV compared to a standard fuelled vehicle. Training is essential to ensure the driver gets the best possible results and charge life from the vehicle.”

This view was supported by other users, particularly with the first few vehicles taken on.

The other big tip was to allocate the vehicles to specific roles where the operator is confident the vehicle is within its operational abilities.

A manager at a major facilities management provider commented: “One EV is being used for park maintenance in the Midlands which fits with the range of the vehicle. It would be impractical to use on works such as reactive repair and maintenance as they could be travelling hundreds of miles a day so the charge would not be sufficient.

“We have a more extensive fleet used in a London Borough – they are caged vehicles which are used to collect waste items from households in the area. Again, these are planned routes so the distances are known prior to the vehicle commencing operation.”

What did non-users feel about using electric vans?

Worries about operational range topped the list of concerns, with 60% of respondents citing this as a barrier.

As you’d expect, the upfront cost of vehicles continues to be a disincentive to adopt electric vans although the recent extension of the plug-in grant, along with ever-increasing diesel costs, is likely to make adoption more attractive.

Other issues identified included worries about the availability of a robust charging infrastructure and, interestingly, the loss of payload making it difficult for operators to keep below the 3.5t operator licence threshold, an issue already identified by Van Excellence operators.

But is it all gloom?

Probably not; of the operators already running electric vans, there is clear evidence that, used correctly, EVs can have a role to play in the right role. Particularly among the larger fleets, almost all the existing users expected to increase their use in the next year and some 15% of non-users expected to have joined the electric van club during the same period.

Are electric vans the future?

Electric vans potentially provide significant environmental benefits in appropriate operating environment.

Low-mileage urban operations, with vans returning to a specific location (equipped with charging facilities) clearly lend themselves to the use of such vehicles.

Makers need to build operators’ confidence in the technology and work with the remarketers to address uncertainty of residual values.

Government, both central and local, can play its part in establishing a robust recharging infrastructure. Central Government can also clearly encourage adoption with financial incentives such as the plug-in grant and by providing a concession in the operator licensing regulations to allow operators of electric vans to offset the impact on payload from the weight of the traction batteries.

There does also seem to be a useful role for hybrid technology as a viable halfway house given the issues around charging networks and vehicle range.
179 van operating FTA members responded to this survey. Respondents represented a wide range of fleet sizes and types of operation.

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