The switch to battery-electric commercial vehicles is now well under way, with large municipal authorities and major companies taking a leading role. By 2020, Nottingham City Council had over 140 electric vehicles in service and had pledged to be carbon neutral by 2028. Islington Council in London has declared that all of its 500 vehicles will be electric by 2030.
Dwarfing that though, companies like DPD and Royal Mail are placing huge orders, and rapidly amassing thousands of electric vans and trucks. In 2020 British Gas was operating just 35 battery electrics out of a total fleet of 12,000 commercial vehicles, but that year ordered 1,000 Vauxhall electric vans. This was part of another strategy to run an entirely electric fleet by 2030.
The balance between payload and range certainly remains a challenge – especially for operators wanting to transport loads for reasonable distances that tend to be dense (like tools, equipment and equipment) rather than low weight and higher volume (like most packages). Smaller vans can typically carry 800 kg up to 270 km, but in the medium van sector with payloads around 2 tonnes, range can still be 130 km or less.
Some operators continue to hedge their bets by opting for hybrid vehicles to ensure they have sufficient range (say for extended journeys around rural districts where a public charging infrastructure is unlikely to be found). For example, Anglian Water ordered a fleet of 60 hybrid vans in 2022 as well as 43 pure electrics. As battery performance improves further, that option should become less and less necessary.
Even with greater volumes, the initial cost of a complete electric vehicle compared to the payload-equivalent diesel-powered one remains significant.
Big price drops did occur as advanced batteries moved from small scale to mass production. But improving manufacturing efficiency through the economies of scale in a large factory has been offset by rising commodity prices for essential materials (as demand grows) and the need for increasingly sophisticated control and safety systems in the battery pack.
For example, advanced batteries have a limited working temperature range so need active thermal management to cope with especially hot or cold ambient conditions.
That said, the combined effects of lower life cycle cost (long recognised) and societal benefits (more recently acknowledged) mean that the uptake of battery-electric commercial vehicles is accelerating – assisted by more and more draconian emissions legislation and imposition of ultra-low emission zones.
The attitude of drivers is an important purchasing consideration for fleet operators. Whereas a few years ago drivers might regard electrics as slightly odd, surveys by Ford and others have shown that a majority of drivers now say they would regard their employer operating them as a positive step. Indeed, far from being odd, electrics are being regarded as much more cool than ICEs.
Of more concern is the availability of sufficient special materials necessary to make the huge numbers of large batteries needed to enable a large-scale conversion to battery-electric power for commercial vehicles. Production levels of cobalt, manganese and lithium will all have to increase substantially.
Already there are deep environmental and ethical concerns about how these materials and others are extracted, processed and distributed to support battery manufacture. It will be a challenge to increase output in a way that alleviates these concerns rather than intensifying them.
Meanwhile work continues to increase the storage capacity of batteries, in some cases raising the nickel content to increase their energy density. In 2016 Nissan stated that the energy density of its batteries was 400 Wh/l. Development work was ongoing with the aim of increasing that to over 1,000 Wh/l by 2025 – extending the range of a car (or a small van) from 240 km to 600 km on one charge.
Expressed in terms of weight rather than volume, the energy density of lithium-ion batteries generally rose from 180 Wh/kg in 2008 to 300 Wh/kg in 2020.
Alongside that work, efforts continue to extend the life of batteries and reduce their decay (so their energy density falls less slowly over time). The goal is a battery that will stay in good condition for a million miles. So rather than get one or two new batteries during the life of the vehicle, the battery might be fitted in one or more vehicles.
Batteries charging the nation’s electric fleet requires a reliable supply of large quantities of electricity. The priority is to expand renewable energy sources like wind and solar to the maximum extent possible. In some places hydro-electricity is a sensible choice. Proponents of nuclear power argue that it too should have a role, possibly through mini-reactors built in areas where renewables are impractical.
Fossil-fuel generated electricity to charge up batteries is a bad option – indeed a battery-electric running on electricity produced by an old-fashioned coal-fired power station turns out to be the most polluting type of road vehicle there is, even compared with petrol and diesel.
Electricity demand will soar as fossil-fuel based heating, manufacturing and transport are displaced. So will the potential battery-electric vehicle population be limited by the availability of ‘fuel’? An analysis in 2017 suggested that electric vehicle charging would consume less than 10% of Britain’s electricity output, but the rapid switch away from gas for household heating and cooking may affect how much is actually available for electric vehicle charging.
Speed of charging remains a concern. An 11 kW domestic charger will typically take six hours to take a car or small van traction battery up from 25% to full charged. Plug-in charging stations typically run at 50 kW, but 350 kW chargers are coming that could charge up such a battery in as little as 12 minutes.
As well as conventional charging through plug-in cables, it is possible to recharge using induction, which could be quicker in many cases. The suitably-equipped vehicle is parked over a pad and energy is transferred by means of resonant magnetic induction from a wire loop in the road surface to a wire loop in the vehicle. Needless to say, there are energy losses over the air gap, which could be around 11%.
In late 2022 the Israeli company StoreDot announced it was developing batteries against a ‘100inX’ performance target, where 100 stands for 100 miles worth of charge and X is the number of minutes in which to charge the battery sufficiently to deliver that. The immediate goal is ‘100in5’ by 2024, reaching ‘100in2’ by 2032.
The next step could be dynamic charging, where a section of road will have inductive charging loops embedded in it and vehicles recharge as they pass over them.
The other big issue is the availability of charging stations. Bigger commercial vehicles will be recharged in depots, but many white vans run by sole traders will need the same access to ad hoc charging points as car drivers, whether they are plug-in or induction.
The UK government and vehicle manufacturers are steadily installing charging stations across UK, but concerns remain over whether a particular charger will be compatible with one’s vehicle, be already occupied or even working. We are still a long way from the ubiquity of a filling station.
The move to electrics on a large scale has created opportunities for facilities management companies to install and maintain infrastructure to support electric vehicle operation by big public and private sector operators.
In August 2022, Mitie announced a £5 million deal to fit and maintain electric vehicle charging points across 100 sites belonging to the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Needless to say, wherever possible Mitie technicians and engineers would deliver the work travelling around in some of Mitie’s own fleet of 2,500 electric vehicles.
The future of electric vehicle manufacturing in the UK is worth considering. All the traditional manufacturers have gone, so there is no obvious base to build on.
DAF is starting to build the electric version of its LF medium weight truck at Leyland, and this is probably going to be a major centre for production of this model. Dennis Eagle is constructing electric refuse collection vehicles in Warwickshire. In July 2021, Stellantis announced that the existing Vauxhall car factory at Ellesmere Port will be renovated as a primary site for building electric vans.
A number of start-ups have depended on British research, design, development and testing skills and facilities to bring their vehicles up to production readiness. However, the transition to production has now seen a number of firms which planned to build factories in the UK take their manufacturing abroad.
Arrival is retaining a significant development presence in the UK, but has shelved plans to build a factory in the UK in favour of a site in the US state of South Carolina.
Volta at first declared it would build its trucks in Britain, but then picked Steyr in Austria as its production base.
It’s not all gloom among the start-ups though. Tevva is assembling electric trucks in Essex, and REE Automotive has declared plans to build its vehicle platforms in Coventry. Munro is planning to start production of its off-roader in Scotland.
There is definitely a strong component industry in the UK. Firms like Electra, Magtec and Protean produce motors, transmissions and control systems.
A lot of their work is leading edge at a global level. For example, Drive System Design (DSD) is a British firm which has developed a compact high power electric drive system for medium to heavy commercial vehicles. It is expected to be marketed in 2024. It employs a six-phase, rather than conventional three-phase electric motor, close-coupled to a reduction gearbox. The motor runs at up to 7,000 rpm and the total assembly weighs around 170 kg, which is considerably lighter than current systems.
There are no substantial battery makers in Britain other than a Chinese-owned plant adjacent to the Nissan car factory in Sunderland.
Britishvolt, another start-up company, announced plans to build a £4 billion gigafactory in Blyth. However, it failed to attract sufficient investment, government funding or a major OEM partner and fell into administration in January 2023. It was bought by Recharge Industries, an Australian company, the following month.
That is significant because experts agree that without an on-shore gigafactory, the growth electric vehicle production within the UK will be severely compromised.
The biggest volume segment of commercial vehicles in Britain is vans. There are hundreds of thousands in use across the UK and many of them are run by very large fleet operators. Firms like BT, Centrica, Royal Mail and Tesco each run tens of thousands. Now they are all committed to going electric, as members of an international organisation named the Climate Group.
Among this group’s goals is EV100, to make electric vehicles the ‘new normal’ by 2030. This implies an immediate switch to large scale electric vehicle acquisition because light commercial vehicles have a typical life span of five to seven years (and electric ones should last rather longer).
Amazon has announced its Shipment Zero mission. This aims to make half of all Amazon shipments with net-zero carbon by 2030, and achieve an entirely net-zero carbon operation by 2040.
In terms of vehicles, the scope of that ambition extends from e-cargo bikes all the way to 37 tonne articulated lorries.
To make inner-city deliveries more sustainable, Amazon has set up “micro-mobility hubs” across Europe, with one in London. They employ e-cargo bikes to support neighbourhood deliveries, rather than conventional vans.
By mid-2022 the firm was operating over 1,000 electric vans across the UK. That year Amazon announced it was going to add 700 e-lorries to its UK fleet up to 2027. It already has 1,000 electric vehicles devoted to last mile delivery work. The bigger trucks will be charged in two hours by fast chargers being installed in delivery depots.
Beyond vehicles, Amazon’s ambition extends to achieving as much energy generation independence as possible. Five large solar panel arrays were installed in 2022, in Manchester, Coalville, Haydock, Bristol and Milton Keynes.
BT has ordered 270 Vauxhall eVivaros, and Centrica has ordered 1,000. As things stood at the start of 2021 they would all be built in France, but these big operators want to see electric Vivaros coming off a production line in Britain. The Stellantis decision to revamp Ellesmere Port to handle EV production is highly significant for them.
DPD, the delivery company, continues to be at the front in making the transition to all electric. In January 2020 it announced an order for 300 Nissan vans, claimed to be the largest single order for battery-powered vans to that point. It followed that with an order for the first 100 MAN eTGE 3.5 t vans. These 100 would add to the 500 3.5 t electrics already in service to create the largest fleet of 3.5 t electric vans in the UK.
By the end of 2022 DPD had in service or on order over 2,500 electrics vans, including an order for 1,000 Ford E-Transits placed that May. The electric fleet size was forecast to rise to 5,000 by the end of 2023. It bought its last diesel van in 2020. This investment in electrics was reckoned to avoid 7,200 tonnes of carbon emissions per year.
DPD converted its first depot to all-electric operation (Westminster in London) in 2018. Its short term goal was to have each of its 68 British depots to have one in ten of their fleets to be electric by the end of 2020. It actually achieved that by July, by which time it had over 830 electrics in service.
In May 2022 the firm was able to announce it was providing an all-electric delivery service in ten towns and cities across the UK. Oxford was the first, in July 2021, with vans operating from its eco-depot in Bicester. Subsequently, Bradford, Bristol, Cardiff, Hull, Newcastle, Nottingham, Reading, Southampton and Stoke-on-Trent joined the list. It wants that number to rise to 30 by the end of 2023.
The additional locations will be Birkenhead, Birmingham, Brighton and Hove, Cambridge, Coventry, Derby, Edinburgh, Gateshead, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Plymouth, Portsmouth Rotherham, Sheffield and Shipley.
Royal Mail will, of course, be a huge operator of electric vans. In almost every decade since the 1880s it has either experimented with or operated modest numbers of battery-powered vehicles. So it can rightly be described as a pioneer, although until the 2020s it never operated significant numbers.
That changed in June 2021 when it announced that it was ordering 3,000 electric vehicles to add to the 300 it already had in service. Most of these were Peugeot e-Partner and e-Experts and Mercedes-Benz e-Vitos and e-Sprinters. Both OEMs have been major suppliers of equivalent ICE vans to Royal Mail.
In 2022 the firm ordered a further 1,000 of each Peugeot model. Royal Mail put its 3,000th electric van into service in August 2022. It expected to be operating 5,500 electrics by early 2023.
These Peugeot and Mercedes-Benz vans were initially allocated to cities where clear air zones are in place, but are increasingly seen even in rural settings. Bristol was the first city where Royal Mail went all electric, in June 2021. By the summer of 2022, 70 sites across the UK were running collections and deliveries either partially on wholly with electric vans.
Not all new Royal Mail vehicles would be full-size vans. It also placed orders in September 2021 for two different types of smaller delivery vehicle, to support door-to-door deliveries. These micro electric vehicles (MEVs) were the Paxster Cargo (from Norway) and the Ligier Pulse 4 (from France). Once trials were complete the Royal Mail would decide whether MEVs have a much larger place in its operations.
Another indicator of the demand for electric vehicles is the van hire market. One company, Reflex Vehicle Hire, reported in July 2022 that 80% of customer enquiries asked about using electrics versus diesels. In response, the firm was expanding its electric fleet with new Mercedes-Benz eVito vans.
We have already mentioned a number of makers, but the early 2020s have seen a bewildering array of new makes appear on the UK scene.
British (or substantially British) manufacturers now include Arrival, Tevva and Volta which are developing urban delivery vehicles. e-One, Electra, Lunaz and Magtec all convert diesel RCVs to battery power and plan to move into other applications. Morris Commercial offers a wonderfully retro small van, inspired by the 1950s Morris J type. Paneltex offers a variety of special delivery trucks.
One point to make about the UK-based makes is that a number of them, along with component manufacturers and development companies, are located in the Midlands.
Even though domestic car manufacturers have largely gone from the region, there continues to be a depth of expertise in vehicle development and world-class capabilities in electric vehicle technology. Indeed, it can be argued that the English Midlands could emerge as a global centre of excellence in electric vehicle design, development and manufacture. Places like Banbury, Coventry and Warwick come up again and again.
Overseas builders offering machines here include Goupil (France), Paxster (Norway) and Ligier (France), who are in the small or micro electric vehicle segments. The Chinese manufacturer Maxus has now been joined by DSFK, and more vehicles from China can be expected.
Well-established motor industry brands like Citroen, Fiat, Ford, MAN, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Peugeot, Renault, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo are becoming increasingly familiar as electric vehicle suppliers.
American brands may also be expected in due course, especially ones that already enjoy support and investment from global firms active in Britain. Perhaps we shall see GM BrightDrop vans in FedEx or TNT livery before long, or Rivian vans carrying packages for Amazon..
In spite of the widening choice, a major complaint from customers like DPD has been that several attractive electric vehicles from overseas manufacturers are not available in right-hand drive form. Pressure from them should convince OEMs of the sense in widening their ranges to embrace right-hand drive – unless they take the radical option Volta has gone for, which is to have a central steering position.
At the moment the UK government is offering grants to spur on the uptake of electric vehicles, including vans, through the Plug-In Van Grant. For small vans the grant will pay for 35% of the purchase price for small vans, up to a maximum of £3,000. For larger vans between 2,500 kg and 3,500 kg gross vehicle weight, and trucks between 3,500 kg and 12,000 kg gross vehicle weight, the grant covers 20% of the purchase price, up to a maximum of £16,000.
This grant is available for the first 250 orders placed, except that grants at the £16,000 rate are limited to 10 per customer. Once the 250 order limit is reached, the maximum grant per vehicle becomes £6,000. Interestingly this scheme offers no incentives to buy larger goods vehicles, like the 16 tonne GVW electric DAF LF – the only volume electric vehicle currently built in Britain.
The UK Government is continuing to support research into the practicalities of operating electric commercial vehicles. The Low Emission Freight and Logistics Trial, launched in 2017, has funding up to £20 million to help projects exploring a number of different low emission technologies.
Among them, the Battery Electric Truck Trial (BETT) supports projects to look at electric vehicle acquisition, charging infrastructure, training, maintenance and repair. This means understanding the total cost of ownership, and running projects in a variety of operational settings with differing duty cycles.
However, a major concern at the start of 2023 is that the level of support is paltry compared with what the American government is doing. Extremely generous tax breaks and other incentives, both for manufacturers and customers, seems to be have a factor in a number of firms deciding to focus their efforts there and not in the UK. Arrival is a case in point.
A new class of electric vehicle that will appear in the 2020s is the pick-up. The pick-up has become increasingly popular for commercial applications like farming and construction (as well as being a must-have lifestyle choice for many private motorists), and the basic design architecture has moved further and further from its car roots.
Most new pick-ups feature a four-door passenger area with a load deck behind. The rugged construction, four-wheel-drive layout and need to tolerate extreme driving conditions present particular challenges for electrification, such as achieving a one tonne payload within a 4.25 tonne GVW that is necessary to meet the light commercial vehicle tax requirement in the UK.
Added to that, the acceleration and range offered by American producers mean these pick-ups will need to carry a lot of battery. Development has been driven principally by the US market which is the world’s biggest for pick-ups and also tends to favour vehicles that would be too large for most UK users.
For example, there is the Bollinger B2 electric pick-up which is quite obviously inspired in its looks by the first-generation Land Rover Defender. Its payload will be a whopping 2.2 tonnes and the absence of an engine under the bonnet means that (thanks to a series of hatches) a load the length of the vehicle can be stowed along the rear deck, through the cabin and into the under-bonnet area. Four motors are specified, with a combined power of 614 hp, and a range of over 200 miles is claimed.
To meet a niche demand for mighty pick-ups, the Hummer EV is already available, and Bollinger, Rivian and Tesla have indicated they might come with their supertrucks. But the real market will be in smaller and more general practical designs. There is a good chance that an all-electric pick-up from a Ford-VW joint venture will appear, and battery-powered variants of the Isuzu D-Max and Toyota Hilux should also come along when the market for diesels starts to tank.
The widespread adoption of battery-electric commercial vehicles is now inevitable. The high point of 50,000 or so electrics in the UK around 1960 will easily have been surpassed by 2030. Royal Mail alone has 49,000 vans and its replacement policy is go electric. In fact, projections suggest that half of all light vehicles sold globally in 2040 will be electric.
According to Maxus, 17,000 light electric commercial vehicles were registered in the UK between March 2021 and April 2022. By at the end of 2021 just 313 larger electric vehicles were registered.
Centrica Business Solutions has predicted that one third of firms would be operating some electric vehicles within two years. 62% of firms it questioned for a survey said they expected to be entirely electric by 2026.
Although the pace of electric vehicle penetration into the commercial market is accelerating, the SMMT reported that in 2021 there were about 4.6 million commercial vehicles registered in the UK yet only 14,000 or so were either electric or hybrid. So there is actually a long way to go before the national ICE fleet is predominantly electric.
Indeed, registrations would have to reach about 600,000 units a year so achieve that before 2030.
For some time, market demand ran ahead of manufacturers’ ability to supply. In 2015 British Gas declared an ambition to have 10% of its fleet electrified by 2015, but suitable vehicles simply were not available. Vehicles are more available now but with big corporate fleets securing the delivery slots from factories, it may be more difficult for smaller concerns to emulate their pace of conversion from ICE.
What this study has shown is that the basic concepts for the new generation of electric vehicles were in place a century ago. Detachable battery packs, wheel-mounted motors, charging stations, nippy delivery vans, quiet municipal vehicles, were all well-proven decades ago.
What held everything back was the want of robust, durable batteries with sufficient energy density to give the necessary range and road performance, and light enough to permit a decent payload. As an article in Commercial Motor from September 1919 declared, “The electric vehicle can never expect to do much more than to supersede the horse, unless some revolutionary system of electric power storage is brought forward”.
There is no doubt the electric vehicle is now well beyond replacing the horse and is poised to replace the internal combustion engine in most of its commercial applications.
There is however one area where the work of the past holds no lessons for the future and that is autonomy – driverless control. The Garrett kerbside control system of the 1920s might have given a clue as to how tricky this is, but the all-electric autonomous commercial vehicle is very much a twenty-first century problem.
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