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Plug-in van trial gets a step closer to zero emissions

Plug-in hybrid Transit Custom

Wholelife costs will play a critical role in the development of a new van from Ford that will test fleet acceptance of electric commercial vehicles.

Earlier this year, Ford announced it would launch a year-long trial of 20 plug-in hybrid (PHEV) Transit Custom vans in partnership with Transport for London (TfL).

Ford will provide 20 PHEV Transit Customs to a range of fleets operating vans in the capital to test their impact on emissions and see how they perform in urban conditions – the toughest working environment for vehicles.

Participants will include TfL’s own fleet and a range of companies that reflect the varied uses of commercial vehicles in the capital, from couriers to plumbers to emergency services. The names of fleet partners are expected to be announced within the next two months, ready for the trial to launch in the autumn.

The van is still in development but it is expected to have a pure electric range of around 31 miles. It is just one of 13 new global electrified vehicles Ford plans to launch in the next five years. Among them is a fully-electric SUV with a range of 300 miles which Ford is planning to launch by 2020.

Graham Hoare, director of global vehicle evaluation and verification at Ford, recognises there is no point creating a vehicle fleets don’t want, so the trial will play a critical role in refining its development, with a final version pencilled for launch in 2019.

The focus will be on two key challenges – wholelife costs and usability.

Hoare said: “The aim is to try to reduce the complexity of the configuration and look at developing the technology so it delivers a seamless alternative to today’s powertrains. 

“Also, it is a cost-sensitive market, so wholelife costs must be credible. If they are not affordable, vans won’t be ordered. We need to make vehicles more efficient, but affordable.”

Simplicity will also be a key factor when it comes to recharging, with Ford determined that fleets will be able to use a standard power supply, instead of having to invest in new charging bays and facilities.

Hoare added: “Charging is very important because we don’t want to have customers overhauling their facilities. We want to make sure this is transferable without an infrastructure burden.”

The trial is intended to provide an insight into van usage patterns in different business environments and how this affects demand on the battery.

This will also help refine the final van’s electric-only range, which has to be a careful balance between maximising zero-emission travel and keeping battery size to a minimum to maintain useable payload in the van.

To provide the most detailed analysis, all vehicles will be fitted with telematics, allowing engineers to assess perform-ance throughout a vehicle’s life with each fleet.

The programme is being supported by a £4.7m grant from the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC).

The APC manages partnerships between equipment companies, suppliers and manufacturers to develop new powertrain technologies in the UK and bring them to market. The Government and industry is providing £1 billion to the programme over a 10-year period and, to date, it has funded £325 million of projects.

Its support for the London trials recognises the importance of reducing emissions in the capital, which has become a central policy area for mayor Sadiq Khan.

Commercial vehicles in London make 280,000 journeys on a typical weekday, travelling eight million miles. Vans represent 75% of peak freight traffic, with more than 7,000 vehicles per hour driving at peak times in central London.

In the coming years, fleet may face an increasing range of restrictions when entering urban environments, after the High Court ruled that Government plans to tackle air pollution are so poor they break the law.

EU law requires the Government to cut pollution in the ‘shortest possible time’ but lobby group ClientEarth brought legal action as part of a campaign against several national governments, arguing their plans are too weak to make a short-term difference.

A High Court ruling in ClientEarth’s favour last year means the UK Government will be forced to introduce tougher measures to cut pollution in cities, which could see the nationwide roll-out of congestion charges and low emission zones which ban polluting vehicles.

Ministers were already proposing to introduce clean air zones in Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton. The ruling will force the roll-out of zones to any city deemed to have high pollution levels.

Ian Constance, chief executive of the APC, said: “The Ford Transit PHEV project is an important step forward in lowering carbon emissions in the commercial vehicle sector, and improving inner city air quality. 

“From the rate of development that we have seen through APC projects, it is clear there is a strong appetite in the commercial vehicle industry to lower emissions, which will ultimately filter through to the market.”

However, he pointed out that reducing emissions can be achieved using fossil fuel technology in the short-term.

He added: “It is worth noting that not all innovative low carbon technologies call for electrification, with many companies working on ways to make internal combustion engines more efficient.”

Hoare agreed: “The future is difficult to predict. We have a very good diesel engine and diesel will be an important part of the range into the future, but an EV solution will make us better at all classes of vehicles and there will be a migration in cities to electrification.”

Careful consideration needed before making zero-emission switch

The Ford PHEV trial demonstrates the importance of fleets carrying out their own detailed assessments when investing in new vehicle technology.

A range of companies are being chosen because of the different ways vehicles will be used, particularly in terms of payload and routes.

Payload will play a critical factor in fleets deciding whether they can introduce plug-in commercial vehicles. As plug-in vans require heavy batteries, there is a trade off between low emissions and available payload.

For example, the new Citroën Berlingo Electric L2 550 LX van has a gross payload of 552kg, compared to 753kg for the equivalent conventionally-fuelled model.

Therefore, if vehicles are expected to carry heavy equipment that takes a diesel or petrol vehicle close to its gross vehicle weight, then they may not be suitable for electrification without a change of processes.

By contrast, a business that needs to move light, bulky items, such as couriers, bakers or florists, may find plug-in vehicles are perfectly suited to their needs.

The routes vehicles will take also require consideration. Urban environments and short distances will suit plug-in vehicles, but if extensive motorway mileage is required, then a change is unlikely to work.

Furthermore, while many electric vehicles have a claimed zero-emission range, fleets need to consider what impact payload will have.

According to leasing company Arval, the range of an electric van can almost halve when carrying a full payload in real-world conditions. It carried out a study showing that over the same 33.58-mile course, an EV with a full payload lost more than 85% of its range compared to a 45% loss for one carrying nothing.

A diesel van with a full payload would typically see its range reduced by around 35% on the same route.

Eddie Parker, commercial vehicle consultant at Arval UK, said: “It could be that if, as EVs develop, this range loss is found to be typical then factors that help to extend range, such as driver training, could become more important.”

Sam Clarke, founder of one of the country’s biggest electric commercial vehicle fleets, Gnewt Cargo, says fleets need to carefully consider how vehicles will be used.

He said: “We are growing and our solution works because we did not have any legacy systems to mould the EV operation into. However, for some companies this will be a big step. Our range requirement is relatively low, so there are few constraints and business is relatively predictable in terms of our mileage requirements. 

“For companies in the services sector, which don’t know where they are going every day or how far they will have to go, there is a different requirement for flexibility.”



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