With climate change governing ever tougher laws to combat air pollution, backers of alternative power for vehicles believe there will be no more of the ‘false dawns’ that have dogged electric car development since its invention more than 150 years ago.
Poppy Welch, head of Go Ultra Low, a campaign for plug-in vehicles backed by the Department for Transport and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, says that business users are “taking the bull by the horns”, with fleets accounting for 65% of electric/hybrid registrations.
“Though users are mainly influenced by cost savings – as low as two pence per mile compared to 10-12ppm for petrol/diesel – emissions play a significant part in energy audits and social responsibility commitments,” says Welch.
She describes the presence of ultra-low emission vehicles in the UK parc as “roughly in line with Government expectations” – up from 0.44% in 2014 to just over 1% last year – and expects the fallout from the Volkswagen Group emissions testing debacle, coupled with cancer scares over diesel, to “encourage more people to look at alternatives”.
Leasing provider Alphabet reports “a dramatic increase in interest” from organisations looking to include electric vehicles (EVs) in their corporate fleets. The number of EVs on its portfolio has more than doubled to just over 3,000 since the end of 2014, beating last year’s target.
But David Bushnell, Alphabet’s product manager – mobility, acknowledges that this is still “relatively low”, at less than 5% of its leases. He attributes this to a series of reasons, among them “quite a lot of misinformation in the marketplace and a reluctance among decision-makers to embrace technology”. There’s also a need for more uniformity on Government incentives and greater visibility on tax.
“With fleets working on three- to four-year cycles, they don’t have sight of what tax levels are going to be beyond then, so there’s nervousness about benefit-in-kind,” he says.
Bushnell describes the £200 reduction in grants for fitting home charging points as “bizarre” at a time when the Government is aiming for a target of 5% ultra-low emission vehicle (ULEV) registrations by 2020. “With less of an incentive for drivers to recharge at home, there’s a risk that they will just run them as conventional vehicles,” he says.
However, Welch says that with “no limitless pot of money, Government reasoning is that by reducing individual grants, more money is available to greater numbers of purchasers – it’s a different way of managing the budget”.
Colin Marriott, head of fleet for British Gas, makes a similar point. “Any change in Government support, whether it’s the home charge grant or initial capital purchase, can significantly affect total operating cost (TOC),” he says. “No matter how fantastic the technology, if deployment does not make it commercially viable, it will not advance.”
British Gas began piloting 28 Nissan e-NV200 vans during the winter of 2013/14 as part of its 13,000-strong home service fleet. Today it has 113, plus a couple of electric minibuses, along with 25 pure electric and 150 hybrids among the fleet of 3,400 cars. Choice of electric or hybrid for cars tends to be left to the driver and is more of a “niche deployment” compared with the LCVs.
“The vans have been of greater benefit in terms of service, maintenance and repair than we had forecast,” says Marriott. “As for TOC, this was running at around 7% less than for a comparable diesel, but since the dip in diesel prices it’s more like 5%. In both cases, it doesn’t take into account savings on congestion charges.”
To maximise fuel savings, vehicles are deployed to drivers doing 50-70 miles a day. Recharging is done either at the driver’s home or at one of the company’s larger sites.
“Dependence on the public charging infrastructure is kept to the absolute minimum because costs at some of these points are £5-7 for a rapid charge,” says Marriott.
According to Bushnell, more help is needed from manufacturers on issues like “journey planning education” to complement the fuel saving benefits.
“There is still range anxiety – OK, you can get 300 miles from some cars, but at a price,” he says.
Fleet operators, too, need to be more flexible with vehicle choice. “Rather than one-size-fits-all diesel, they should be looking at allocation almost on a case-by-case basis,” Bushnell adds.
Along with that is the importance of wholelife cost rather than “effective rental” (finance, plus VAT, plus maintenance).
Other issues include a shortage of LCV models, especially of the larger variety, and the charging infrastructure.
“London is relatively well-served, but more development is needed in other large conurbations,” says Bushnell. “Motorway points also need to be monitored more closely to ensure they are working and the bays are not blocked.”
Welch points out that carmakers are adding momentum to the ULEV drive, with the launch this year of another 30 cars and nine vans, and a further 40 due to come to market over the next three years. “Research shows 90% of charging is done at home – it becomes a routine, like charging the mobile – and the average commute is 10 miles,” she says.
According to Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions, exemption from the congestion charge has a marked impact on electric van use in London. Comparing the wholelife cost over 10,000 miles of a Nissan eNV200 to a VW Caddy 1.6-litre CDI, the Nissan shows a 15% saving.
“However, for a normal urban cycle, diesel is slightly cheaper, and for large fleets this could equate to a high cost of change,” says Hitachi fleet consultant Suzanne Phillips.
Analysis of that database reveals that, although the presence of hybrid and pure electric is merely 0.7% and 0.1% respectively, there’s been a marked fall in CO2 emissions since 2009, down from 136 to 80g/km.
Colin Herron, managing director of research and development company Zero Carbon Futures in Sunderland, says that advancement in battery technology is seeing more power at the same weight and shorter charging times. “Coupled with that, there is increasing choice of EVs.”
The latest advancements include battery power not just for the vehicle, but in the home or commercial premises. Herron explains that the car/van would be charged off-peak at night, with any excess stored via a building control unit to power appliances at peak times.