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Van fleets play the waiting game

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Van fleets have been courted by EV producers for many years, but what are the potential problems that need to be resolved before taking on electric commercial vehicles?

We’re told that being ‘green’ helps save money, and that is certainly true when it comes to conventional diesel and petrol engines. Lower CO2 emissions are a result of less fuel being burned by the engine.

But for the ultra-low energy cost, the picture is far more complex.

Damian James, head of transport provision at Bracknell Forest Council and a director of ACFO, has investigated fleet applications for a wide range of cutting-edge technology including electric vans.

Operating a low-mileage, depot-based fleet, the local authority would, at face value, appear to be the ‘perfect’ electric van operator.

However, James says: “Electric vans are simply not viable for the council’s fleet. The financial argument just does not stack up when comparing total cost of ownership with diesel vehicles and the technology is too much of a gamble. We cannot afford to experiment. I want to see fleet data over perhaps a five-year period that tells me EVs are reliable and make both economic and environmental sense.”

Birmingham University transport manager Monica Guise has seven electric MegaVans from French manufacturer Aixam on the organisation’s 130-strong fleet, although that number is to reduce as some are defleeted in the near future.

Guise admits battery durability has been an issue with one van now on its third battery in five years and two more suffering problems at three to four years old.

The university’s carbon management programme means that vehicle funding is directly linked to vehicle emissions so the operation of zero emission electric vans is vital to budgetary opportunities.

“10% of the fleet is sustainable with vehicles running on either electric or hydrogen. As with all vehicles, wholelife costs are the key issue. Our experience tells us that electric vans do not last as long as diesel vans and are more expensive to operate,” she explains.
“When we have replaced the batteries they have cost £2,000 each, which is a lot of money when added to the cost of the vehicle.”
However, the experience has not put her off electric vans. Guise says: “Electric vans have been a step into the unknown, but I am anxious to run electric vans
from other manufacturers.
“Unfortunately, there are no wholelife cost figures for electric vehicles to compare with diesel or petrol vans.”

The key challenge facing van manufacturers, according to Phil Cane, Sainsbury’s delivery operations manager for the 1,300-strong online fleet, is to increase electric vehicle range without reducing payload.

The supermarket giant operates a central London-based home delivery fleet of 50 Edison electric vans, which are based on the Ford Transit and have been converted by Smith Electric Vehicles.

Sainsbury’s has been operating electric vans which have a near one-tonne payload since 2005, so has plenty of experience of day-to-day use.

Cane says: “The range is 60 miles and that works for the company in central London. Sainsbury’s requires a 3.5-tonne vehicle to get the required payload and we have worked closely with Smith Electric Vehicle because every kilogram is vital.

“Energy density versus van payload is a big issue for the industry. The opportunity is available to us to introduce more electric vans in other areas and our practical experience of the Edison is very good, but payload cannot be compromised by larger batteries to extend range.”

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