Light commercial vehicles have often been left playing catch-up with cars when it comes to safety features. Apart from a few manufacturers, only recently have we seen widespread adoption of electronic stability control (ESC) on vans, and later this year it will become mandatory.
Driver’s airbags were an uncommon standard feature a decade ago, while anti-lock braking systems also took a while to penetrate the LCV market.
Safety technology always has a cost to the manufacturer providing it in a vehicle and the van market, dominated by outright purchase deals, has been price sensitive as long as vehicles were fit for purpose.
But companies running fleets are paying more attention than ever to duty of care for employees, with driver safety and comfort becoming a higher priority for those spending many hours a day behind the wheel.
Driver airbags and ABS are standard on the vast majority of commercial vehicles (no airbags are available on a
Land Rover Defender), and so-called passive safety systems – those that help protect occupants in a crash – are now commonplace.
The speed of change may now accelerate since international vehicle safety organisation Euro NCAP began testing commercial vehicles.
The first LCV Euro NCAP test was for pick-up trucks, and the organisation has since tested passenger and people carrier versions of vans. In most cases the results haven’t been as strong as for cars, but there are signs that manufacturers are increasingly engineering vans to reduce the risk of serious injury to occupants in a crash.
For example, the Volkswagen Transporter T5 achieved a four-star rating in 2013, while the Ford Transit Custom scored five stars in 2012, although other vehicles in the class have been given lower scores.
Michiel van Ratingen, secretary general of Euro NCAP, said after the first round of van tests: “Being derived from commercial van platforms, these people carriers are updated less regularly and are generally less equipped for safety than normal passenger cars.”
Although the vehicles tested were passenger vehicles, the basic structure was the same as for vans and the safety systems were carried over.
The tests prompted some of the lower scoring manufacturers to take action, with Fiat adding passenger airbags and speed limiters as standard in more European markets. PSA followed suit for its shared-platform vehicles.
But passive safety systems are only part of the story. There is an increasing appetite among manufacturers to offer a greater range of active safety systems (those than can help prevent accidents) than ever before.
As take-up of these features in the car market has made them more common, it means they are more affordable and some could be tempting for van buyers.
A standard feature on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter introduced in 2013 is crosswind assist, which can detect when the van is in danger of being blown out of the lane and intervene accordingly.
The van is also available with a blindspot monitoring system and collision prevention technology as options, features that have become increasingly available as options on cars but never before on vans.
ESC technology on vans is also becoming more sophisticated, with sensors detecting the payload of the vehicle and where in the van the mass is situated, adjusting the behaviour of the system when it is activated.
Little has been said so far about the next-generation Mercedes-Benz Vito, but its passenger car counterpart,
the V-Class, has already been unveiled and is loaded with new safety technology (some already on the Sprinter), some of which we can expect to migrate to the panel van.
The new Ford Transit, which has just gone on sale, also features safety technology unavailable on its predecessor.
This includes adaptive cruise control with forward alert, lane-keeping alert and driver monitoring and a rear-view camera with a trailer hitch assist system.
Some fleets even see the safety benefits of automatic transmissions and they are becoming increasingly offered on vans. For drivers spending their time in urban areas, perhaps on short multi-drop routes, automatic transmissions can help reduce fatigue.
Some van manufacturers offer semi-automatic transmissions, effectively manual transmissions with electronically-controlled automatic shifting capability.
The cost of specifying the feature is usually less than for a typical automatic transmission, but is viewed with the same level of desirability on the used van market.
They don’t carry the same fuel consumption penalty as some of the automatic transmissions in the past and, as fuel consumption is already higher in urban environments, there is often little to choose between the two.
Eric Bristow, business analyst at Hobart UK, says: “We’re looking at fuel consumption on automatic vans. If the cost difference is marginal then we can justify it in the interests of comfort and safety, as the driver spends a lot of time in the vehicle. We can view choosing automatic as a benefit.
“We currently have a Citroën Berlingo L2 stop-start automatic working in central London.
“The initial reception from the driver was muted. However, six months later he is adamant that he would not change back to a manual.
“Because of this, I have offered the same solution to the rest of the team that work in this area and I am now looking to possibly expand this to other ‘high urban’ areas.”
The improved range of safety systems available on LCVs is welcomed by organisations representing van operators.
Mark Cartwright, head of vans at the Freight Transport Association, says: “Anything that increases safety in a hazardous role should be applauded.
“Operators should not, however, take these options as an excuse to relax their commitment to workplace safety. While many manufacturers will tout their vans as providing a car-like driving experience, they are still potentially the largest and heaviest vehicle which can be driven on a car licence and they can get very un-car like very quickly in an emergency situation.
“We’d also take this opportunity to remind manufacturers of our Van Excellence challenge to be the first to restrict top speed to 70mph as standard – a requirement for operators seeking Van Excellence accreditation.”
It is unlikely that future van technology will ever be a step ahead of what’s available in cars, but the gap between the two is closing, and vans of the future will be available with many of the same safety systems available on cars if customers are prepared to pay.