The switch to battery-electric commercial vehicles is now well under way, with major companies and large municipal authorities taking a leading role. By 2020, Nottingham City Council had over 140 electric vehicles in service and had pledged to carbon neutral by 2028. Islington Council in London has declared that all of its 500 vehicles will be electric by 2030. Companies like DPD and Royal Mail are poised to place huge orders.
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 effect of lower life cycle cost (long recognised) and societal benefits (more recently acknowledged) means that the uptake of battery-electric commercial vehicles is accelerating – assisted by more and more draconian emissions legislation and imposition of clean air zones.
Of more concern is the availability of sufficient special materials necessary to make the huge numbers of large batteries needed to make possible 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 150 miles to 375 miles on one charge. Tesla is on a similar path.
Expressed another way, 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 they gradually carry less and less charge 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 need charging and that 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 an option. 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 that.
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 through 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%.
The next step could be dynamic charging, where a section of road will have 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 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. Arrival is a British start-up, with its technical headquarters in Banbury. The manufacturing concept envisages production close to the customer, so it is likely any British plant will be scaled for local demand.
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.
There is definitely a strong component industry in the UK. Firms like and Electra, Magtec and Protean produce motors and control systems. There are no substantial battery makers in Britain but Britishvolt, a start-up company, has announced plans to build a gigafactory in Blyth. There are also plans to build a gigafactory next to Coventry airport.
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).
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 vans in the UK.
DPD’s immediate aim 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.
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 will be Peugeot e-Experts and Mercedes-Benz e-Vitos and e-Sprinters. Both OEMs are major suppliers of equivalent ICE vans to Royal Mail. These vans will initially be allocated to cities where clear air zones are in place.
Not all the Royal Mail vehicles will 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) are the Paxster Cargo (from Norway) and the Ligier Pulse 4 (from France). Once trials are complete the Royal Mail will decide whether MEVs have a much larger place in its operations.
We have already mentioned a number of makers, but the early 2020s have already seen a bewildering array of new makes appear on the UK scene.
British (or substantially British) manufacturers now include Arrival which is developing and building 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 makes a variety of special delivery trucks.
And of course, we are seeing electric vehicles coming in quantity from brands like DAF, Dennis Eagle and Vauxhall, even if all their products are not made in the UK.
One point to make about the UK-based manufacturers is that a number of them, along with component manufacturers, 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.
Overseas builders offering machines here include Goupil (France), Paxster (Norway) and Ligier (France), who are in the micro electric vehicle segment. The Chinese manufacturer Maxus has now been joined by DSFK, and more vehicles from China can be expected.
Volta, which is an Anglo-Swedish concern, will soon launch a range of purpose-built lorries designed from the outset as pure electrics.
And again, overseas brands like Citroen, Fiat, MAN, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Peugeot, Renault, Toyota and Volkswagen are becoming increasingly familiar. The imminent electric Ford Transit promises to have a huge impact.
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 Brightstar vans in FedEx or TNT livery before long.
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 will 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.
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 load 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.
The only all-electric pick-ups presently slated for sale in Britain are from Bollinger, Rivian and Tesla of the US. 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. In fact, projections suggest that half of all light vehicles sold globally on 2040 will be electric. According to Maxus, 17,000 light electric commercial vehicles were registered in the UK between March 2021 and April 2022.
But 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 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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