At an Institution of Mechanical Engineers lecture at EA Technology in January 2001, entitled ‘Electric vehicles – their time is now’, John Baker provided a useful summary of where the industry in the UK was at that point. 15,000 milk floats were still in use, but other pure electric vehicles were scattered about, mainly as light delivery vehicles.
Battery research was focussing on nickel-cadmium, nickel-metal-chloride, sodium-nickel-chloride and sodium-sulphur. In addition, work was going on into fast charging (achieving a 50% recharge in half an hour) and non-contact inductive charging (crossing a three to five inch air gap).
As for potential applications for electrics, then the familiar roles still pertained: local authorities, postal and courier services (where bulk rather than weight was likely to be the more significant characteristic of the payload) and utility vehicles. It was not an especially sanguine appraisal.
By the middle of the decade the picture had changed dramatically. Next-generation batteries were available that were being proven in all kinds of applications. The growth in internet shopping and the need for more and more home deliveries created a market that electrics were well-placed to fulfil.
The only surviving maker from the previous century, Smiths (or rather, ‘Smith’ as it was now called), set about developing new models that took advantage of these opportunities. Its first effort was entirely in-house but considered by potential operators to be too unsophisticated to be acceptable to drivers familiar with mass-produced vans, and wrongly sized for optimum payload.
Smith then created the Newton, based on a diesel truck chassis from Avia in the Czech Republic and employing a sodium-nickel-chloride battery. The payload was up to four tonnes. This machine was quite successful, with TNT taking 100 examples in two years from 2009.
Alongside the Newton, Smith developed the Edison, based on the Ford Transit. 250 were built and run with operators like DHL and Sainsbury’s. Smith was confident of selling 10,000 electrics a year by 2010. It did not get anywhere near that.
The other important innovator in this decade was Modec. This firm was spun out of LTI, the builder of London taxis which had built an electric prototype van in 2004. The Modec two tonne payload van was introduced in 2006, and was deliberately designed to accept new types of battery as they appeared. The cab design reflected Smiths Cabac concept with a doorway in the bulkhead and the exit through the side of the body.
Tesco bought a fleet, and examples went to a number of other operators, including an drop-side version for Speedy Tool. Optimism was high and a factory was built at Coventry to produce 2,000 units a year. Again, it did not happen.
Both Smith and Modec saw a brighter future in the American market, but even there the reality did not match the dream. Modec went under in 2011; Smith ceased all UK operations in 2017 and is dormant in the US.
At the government level, there was encouragement for users to run more environmentally-efficient commercial vehicles. The Powershift programme from 2004 offered subsidies on the purchase of lower-emission vehicles. As part of this programme, part-funded by the Energy Saving Trust, three electric LDV Convoy vans were trialled by Merseytravel and Royal Mail in 2000 using the Wavedriver on-board fast-charging and power management system which had been developed by EA Technology.
The three vans would spend a month in Liverpool and then two of them would transfer for six months of trials with Royal Mail in London. The Powershift programme created a register of approved electric vehicles which already included the 106 and Partner from Peugeot and the Citroen Berlingo.
In 2007 it was announced that the UK Government would make £20 million available to public sector organisations to buy low-carbon vehicles such as electrics and hybrids in the Low Carbon Vehicle Public Procurement (LCVPP) programme. Ten manufacturers were selected as preferred suppliers.
The electric vehicle builders were Allied Vehicles, Citroen, LDV, Mercedes-Benz, Modec, Nissan and Smith Electric Vehicles. The pilot operators were the local authorities of Coventry, Gateshead, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle. Public sector partners were the Government Car and Dispatch Agency, Royal Mail, the Environment Agency, HM Revenue and Customs, the Metropolitan Police and Transport for London.
Modec received £224,000 in the first phase of the project, supplying four electric vans to public sector fleets – indicating the kind of money available to manufacturers.
Added to that other inducements to go electrics continued to stack up. As well as attracting no road tax, electrics also needed no O-licence (a licence to operate a goods vehicle) and did not have to pay the London congestion charge.
As we have seen, in spite of these incentives, and the availability of much better technology that made them truly competitive, the hoped for take up of battery-electrics did not happen. The global financial crisis of 2009 probably made many firms much more risk averse, vehicle manufacturers and operators felt that sticking with diesel vans was the safer short-term bet, and government support was a little too timid to overcome that reluctance.
But eventually the momentum started to build, thanks to two major factors outside the industry.
First, in the 1990s there was insufficient impetus behind electric vehicles to get the level of investment needed to crack the battery problem. That eventually came about because of the mobile phone. The enormous revenues that could be generated by having more portable, yet more function-rich, devices justified the intensive development that produced not only the flat lithium-ion batteries found in phones and other personal devices, but also the cylindrical batteries that could be used in industrial applications.
Second, after the 1920s there was little interest in electric cars. Spasmodic efforts like the 1990s General Motors EV1 project were largely frustrated by battery limitations. That lack of interest started to change when Elon Musk took charge of Tesla (an American electric car business built from scratch) and began a sustained strategy to make and sell affordable electric cars in large numbers – in part as a consequence of the falling price of lithium-ion batteries.
By 2010 traditional car makers like General Motors, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Renault were announcing all-electric cars. These firms were also commercial vehicle producers. Cars and vans share a lot of core components, so much of the car work could give a head start to electric LCV programmes.
Of course the development of other components did not stand still.
The ever-expanding functionality of electronic control devices meant that battery energy release and road performance could be better tuned and optimised – as could battery charging.
And there was a tentative move back to wheel mounted motors. A big snag with such motors is that they add to the unsprung weight of the vehicle, so suffering the full impact of road shocks and interfering with the handling. On the other hand, it is possible to power each wheel independently for better traction control.
Michelin developed ActiveWheel technology that combined in-wheel motors with active (powered, as opposed to passively-sprung reactive) suspension, but abandoned the effort in 2014. Others continued and perfected practical designs, like Protean. That was helped by the fact that modern electric motors are capable of producing a given amount of power are one-fifth the size they would have to be a century ago – overcoming much of the effect on handling.
That said, even in 2022, mainstream OEMs are staying with chassis-mounted traction motors.
Turning to vehicle structures, more availability of complex, lightweight materials like carbon fibre meant that the weight of a vehicle could be reduced without sacrificing strength. Additive manufacturing (or 3D printing) rapidly advanced, allowing components to be designed that had finely tuned properties and no unnecessary weight.
These technologies began to be commercialised in the aerospace industry and gradually found their way into premium high-performance cars and ultimately commercial battery-electrics.
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