The 2010s was the decade in which battery-electrics at last became the intelligent choice for a wide range of commercial vehicle applications, initially those requiring lower payloads. This of course was largely down to the advances in battery technology, combined with improved control systems and more efficient drivelines.
But it was also down to vehicle operators realising that their reputations, more than ever, depended in large part on their taking their impact on the environment seriously. Moving to electric vehicles was one practical, and visible, way of doing that.
Even so the market was volatile and risky. Only large-scale vehicle manufacturers, and newcomers with lots of patient venture capital backing, could withstand the ‘two steps forward one step back’ way in which the market developed.
The breakthroughs in the energy density of batteries meant that by the middle of the 2010s it was possible not only to produce pure electric urban delivery vehicles that made economic sense. It was now possible to challenge the diesel engine as the way to power medium weight and even heavyweight inter-city trucks. That said, doubts remained over the long-term performance and ultimate durability of the newest types of battery.
The 2011 Commercial Vehicle exhibition showed off more battery-electrics than for many years. Ford unveiled its electric Transit Connect, Renault its Kangoo, and Mercedes-Benz the E-Cell version of its Vito van. From further afield, DFSK of China displayed a range of mini-electric vehicles in various formats, van, tipper, chassis-cab and so on.
Not all the offerings were high-speed, long-range machines. Tata showed off the electric version of its Ace small truck, which was slated to be built in Coventry, and which would top out at 25 mph. Alas the market Tata hoped for did not manifest itself and the operation soon closed. And Ford did not proceed with the electric Transit Connect.
The real excitement came though with the emergence of a series of entirely new manufacturers with substantial backing.
The Anglo-American Arrival company set up in Oxfordshire and was soon announcing a partnership with UPS that could lead to orders exceeding 10,000 vans within a few years. Rivian was established in the United States, with support from Amazon and Ford that could potentially see thousands of its vans running Amazon deliveries in the UK in the 2020s.
Both these companies were very well funded and their technology appeared to be right for the times. They also expected to achieve sales from many other customers – delivery firms, retailers, utilities, public service outfits, and so on.
But this was not a one-way bet. DHL invested heavily in a start-up called StreetScooter that failed to attract any significant external sales, and cost the German company hundreds of millions of euros.
Changes in shopping habits in the UK saw a huge growth in online retailing – doubling between 2008 and 2013. Getting all this stuff to the customer meant a concomitant growth in sales of vans. By 2013 the four largest grocery deliverers had a combined fleet of 12,000 such vehicles and the total parc in 2011 was over 140,000.
Naturally the overwhelming majority of these were diesel-powered, but supermarkets and package delivery firms were interested in trying out battery-electric vans and deciding when would be the right time to invest at scale.
Royal Mail bought a fleet of electric 100 Peugeot vans in the late 2010s. They were put into service in 18 depots across the country, including Belfast, Edinburgh, Essex and Kent. Sainsbury’s began running a fleet of Chinese-made LDVs for home delivery from their supermarkets.
DPD, the package delivery company, was a leader in converting fleets to being entirely electric. In 2018 it opened a £3 million depot in Westminster, to enable all of its central London deliveries to be emissions-free.
By the mid-2010s the electric urban delivery van was well established (if far from commonplace), but there was also a push for full-size lorries which could haul large loads over much greater distances. The benchmark would be a 250 mile range, running at up to 60 mph. This is broadly what can be covered within the 4.5 hour continuous driving time allowed in EU and equivalent drivers’ regulations.
Recent technical advances meant this was possible, as shown by the Tesla Semi prototype articulated lorry demonstrated in the United States in 2017. This was claimed to have a range of 500 miles on a single charge, and be able to be 80% recharged in 30 minutes using a solar-powered Tesla Megacharger.
Towards the end of the decade major truck manufacturers like Daimler-Benz and Renault announced plans to introduce all electric models imminently. The outstanding snag was the weight of the required battery and drive pack (up to nine tonnes on a 40 t GVW rig) versus two tonnes for a diesel-powered truck. That would eat into payload and therefore profit unless the goods carried were limited by volume rather than weight.
One important application of battery-electrics that revived in the 2010s was municipal services, where quietness of operation and green credentials were important factors for local councils.
Large battery-powered refuse collection vehicles (eRCVs) started to been seen again, along with a return to the virtuous cycle of collecting refuse, sorting it, then burning the combustible elements to generate electricity to recharge the vehicles and sell surplus energy.
Modern waste separation technology, filters to remove harmful pollutants, and equipment to capture carbon dioxide – along with more efficient combustion – meant these facilities made more environmental sense that their 1920s predecessors.
Sheffield was once again a pioneer, having employed these principles (albeit with little attention to pollution control) almost a century before. One interesting factor with eRCVs is that their payload can actually be higher than that of a diesel equivalent. This is because, if the battery is mounted under the cab, the need for ballast to prevent overloading the rear axle is avoided.
A study by Eunomia Research & Consulting (a consultancy based in Bristol) examined the case for electric RCVs based on operating experience in several cities in the UK and abroad. The breakeven point for electric versus diesel with new RCVs seemed to be around eight years (although the diesel would be pretty worn out by then, whereas the electric should have more life left in it).
The initial cost of about £320,000 versus £160,000 for a diesel, was off-set over time by substantially lower fuel and maintenance costs. The infrastructure to charge the vehicles was not counted in this analysis and would of course be significant, although it could support several generations of vehicle.
Until the early twenty-first century the UK government’s approach to encouraging electric vehicle use was carrots – a series of incentives. That changed to sticks as a consequence of a new emphasis on tackling climate change. In July 2017 it announced that the sale of diesel vehicles would be banned from 2040, giving a strong impetus to developing alternative forms of motive power.
Individual cities took a similar line and also started schemes to promote electric vehicle use. Clean air zone (CAZ) and ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) programmes were set up to penalise or prohibit fume-producing vehicles whilst providing free access to electric ones.
In 2018, the UK government announced the Faraday Battery Challenge with £246 million of funding, to develop a thriving UK-based battery industry.
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