The results are in: Mini has been trialling its pilot ‘E’ electric vehicle with 20 fleets over the past six months and Fleet News has spoken to those taking part.
Mini and its parent BMW believe fleets will be the standard bearer for electric vehicles (EVs), pushed down that route by taxation and environmental pressures.
That view is backed by research carried out by Sewells, on behalf of the Energy Saving Trust, which revealed that nearly a third of fleets plan to introduce EVs in the next two years while 11% have already adopted them.
There are issues to overcome, however. Range anxiety, infrastructure, funding, BIK issues over charging at work, cost and residual values are all reasons stated by fleets for not adopting EVs.
Consequently, few firms are running EVs in any quantity; most have just one or two on their fleet.
Cost is one of the biggest concerns, with one Sewells survey participant saying: “If they come up with a monthly rental which isn’t too dissimilar to a diesel then that is where I think the fleet market will clearly say, ‘we can take one of those, we know what it is going to cost us’.”
Aside from the handful of companies that are running large numbers of EVs, such as Sainsbury’s, the Mini E research project is the first large-scale trial of this technology in the UK.
It follows similar trials last year in America – the car is a prototype for BMW’s emissions-free ‘mega city’ vehicle, due to be launched in 2014/15.
Forty Mini Es are being trialled in south east England, backed by Government funding.
The first 40 were trialled between December and June – half with fleets, half with members of the public – with the second 40 on the road from September.
All company car drivers and fleet managers were given training at the start of the trial.
This included a briefing from Mini’s technical team about charging and handling and then on-road training. In addition, “flying doctors”, as Mini has dubbed them, are available around the clock for any technical questions.
So, what’s the verdict? Fleet managers report that drivers adapted quickly to the new technology with all of them used to the car’s regenerative braking within a couple of hours.
“The braking is wildly different, but you can use it to great effect,” says Andy Badger, wayleave officer at Scottish and Southern Energy.
“I don’t actually use the footbrake apart from when I need to stop.”
Aside from braking, drivers have been impressed by how quickly the Mini E accelerates.
“It takes off like an aeroplane on a runway,” Badger says.
“It’s nice and smooth with no engine vibration. It’s a delight to drive.”
Brian Webzell, fleet manager at Oxford County Council, believes trialling the Mini E had been “a real eye-opener” for his drivers. “They love the performance of the car,” he says.
David Densley, head of sustainable transport at Scottish and Southern Energy, adds: “People’s prejudices disappear when they drive an electric vehicle.
They realise it’s not a golf buggy and that it’s actually good fun to drive.”
Drivers also have to adapt to how quiet an electric vehicle is.
“Turning the car on and not getting any reaction is a bit strange,” Chris Hale, strategic account manager for SEEDA, admits.
“The only giveaway that the car is running is the dial that shows you the percentage of charge that you’ve got in the battery and how many miles.
“But once you’re underway you’ve got the rolling motion of the wheels and noise of the tyres.”
Densley says driving in town in a virtually silent car is a potential hazard with drivers needing to be very aware of pedestrians.
The biggest challenge for drivers to overcome is range anxiety – the fear that their car may not have enough charge to get them home.
“You need a different mindset,” Badger says. “I have to keep thinking, ‘of course I’ll get home, I’ve got plenty of miles to spare’. You feel tension because you can’t call in at a petrol station.”
From a fleet manager’s perspective, ‘range anxiety’ is beneficial because drivers have adapted by planning their journeys more carefully.
No-one has run out of charge during the trial, although Badger admits: “I’ve got home with just two miles left on the gauge. That was a bit hairy.”
Mini says drivers can expect 100-120 miles on a single charge.
The American trials found that range varied from 70 to 100 miles with 45% of the 57 drivers reporting a typical range of 100 miles.
Trials here have been partly hampered by the British weather, particularly the heavy snow earlier this year.
One issue is that driving with the heater on uses a chunk of battery power.
Range is also affected by using headlights or the radio.
Hale’s range is 85-90 miles on full charge and he has been comfortable doing a round trip of 70-75 miles.
Badger found his Mini E could cover about 60 miles during the cold weather but has since been achieving closer to 100 miles.
Oxford County Council has put four of its Mini Es to use as pool vehicles.
One has also been assigned to a teacher who visits different schools, travelling around 60 miles a day.
Webzell found that a huge portion of work trips were within the Mini’s range.
He asks: “Why do you need a vehicle that can do 500 miles on a tank if you’re only doing 60 miles each day?”
Scottish and Southern Energy has assigned its Mini Es to project managers and sales staff who do not need to carry lots of equipment.
Densley says they have been driving about 30 miles visiting customers and returning to the office.
Both Hale and Badger admit they haven’t been able to use the Mini E for all their journeys.
They say its natural habitat is urban use as a short distance tool.
“If the journey is likely to take me close to the Mini E’s full range I revert back to my conventional company car,” says Hale.
All drivers have had a 32-amp charging unit installed at their house allowing full charging in 4.5 hours. It costs about £1.50 off-peak and less than £4 using daytime electricity.
Although charging is straightforward Webzell says fleet managers need to give drivers a full briefing for health and safety reasons.
Webzell also says some drivers have complained about the weight of the charging lead.
However, Mini points out that it needs to be a heavy duty cable as “you’re not charging a mobile phone, you’re charging a car”.
To read the Fleet News review of the Mini E, click here
How the trial worked
Forty Mini Es were put on trial from December to June – half with fleets, half with the public.
Southern Electric provided the electricity infrastructure while Oxford Brookes
University’s Sustainable Vehicle Engineering Centre analysed driver experiences, as well as reviewing the technical information provided by the data-logging units fitted to every Mini E.
Public sector involvement came via the South East England Development Agency, Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council who all tested a number of Mini E’s on their fleets.
While members of the public paid a monthly lease fee of £330 (which includes VAT,
insurance and maintenance) in addition to the cost of electricity, participating fleets paid only for the electricity.
The next trial of 40 cars starts in September.
BMW will publish its own analysis of the Mini trials next year.
Vox pop - the views of the drivers
Brian Webzell, fleet manager at Oxford County Council: “It wouldn’t be a direct replacement for a diesel vehicle but there is a place for electric vehicles.
"There’s no reason why one of your pool cars couldn’t be electric. I would like to see more infrastructure in place though.”
David Densley, head of sustainable transport at Scottish and Southern Energy: “Electric
vehicles are fine for doing 70 miles a day but they are no good for long haul.
But their quietness is appealing – they could be used for checking street lighting during the night, for example.”
Paul Groundwell, fleet manager, Scottish and Southern Energy: “I would recommend electric vehicles but only in the right circumstances and only after fully understanding the limitations.”
Chris Hale, strategic account manager for SEEDA: “The range limitations mean that, in its current form, it’s not suitable for all fleet usage. But it would meet the needs of company car drivers who do relatively short, urban journeys.”
For more information on Sewells research and analysis, visit www.sewells.co.uk