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Changing demands: The future for electric vans

BT Fleet Solutions is having to adapt, to provide customers with an EV van offer. Head of engineering Gary Harrison talks Van Fleet World through the changes.

Gary Harrison, head of engineering, BT Fleet

Are you noticing any trends in terms of EV adoption within BT’s own operations and among BT Fleet’s customers?

We are starting to see a genesis of EV take up. This is certainly the case in the smaller van sector where manufacturers are jumping on the back of technology developed for the car industry. That’s kind of where the interest is at the moment, certainly for us and for our customers.

The challenge continues to be the next size up, as there is almost a void in the market. Once you get above the small or car derived van, that is the gap that everybody is waiting for. Everybody wants a manufacturer to step in, they are waiting for the 3.5 tonne panel van. These vans make up the bulk of BT’s own fleet. To be able to migrate onto alternative fuels in volume, that is the space we need manufacturers to start looking to fill.

Will electric vans meet your operating requirements?

Manufacturers are marketing EVs as a final mile delivery solution. Once you get into specialist fleet or the service sector, the van becomes a ‘work-from’ vehicle so it is pretty much at full payload and remains at full payload all day. These vehicles contain power tools, stores, onboard equipment and test gear to fulfil these jobs. That’s a different operating environment to what the manufacturers are predominantly designing the vehicles for.

How are you assessing operating requirements?

We are using a lot of telematics data and we have been able to develop some sophisticated telematics modelling, whereby we can track where the vehicles are going, what range and what duty cycle they have. With this data, we can come up with a model for vehicle selection. Previously payload was the predominant figure but now when we have to consider range anxiety and the mileage these vehicles have to cover, we’ve had to look more sensibly.

With that in mind, our model within BT is that we will have a 50% safety margin at full payload on a day’s duty cycle. So we run analysis on the previous 12 months of mileage, we work out what that particular van has done and then make sure that any alternative fuel replacement has that 50% safety margin of the range that that vehicle has done from the previous year.

We’re not expecting an engineer to recharge his vehicle during the day due to the operational downtime so product selection is critical in making sure we get that right.


What are the challenges?

I think we are at a pivotal point with regards to the whole life cost stacking up. From our perspective and from talking to some of our customers, when they have done their numbers,

it is there or there about. Charging in clean air zones is certainly what pushes the decision over the edge compared to a non-Euro 6 diesel.

From BT Fleet Solutions’ perspective, we did a price point comparison between a Euro 6 diesel and a pure EV and the one product we are testing is pretty much balanced against a Euro 6. But, with a Euro 6 of course, we don’t have all the other complexities that have to be taken into account such as charging infrastructure and the cost of providing that infrastructure, changes to our internal procedures, or questions about how we reimburse a home parking engineer. These are also discussions we are having with our own customers.

Product availability and price are only part of the complexity of introducing EVs to an operational fleet. Other questions we are looking to address include how you put a charge point at an engineer’s home? How do you maintain it? How do you deal with driver training? How do you deal with engineers that don’t have a driveaway? How do you reimburse a driver for electricity that’s used? We are working through the journey from diesel to EV so that as we ramp up the number of vehicles, we will have all the necessary processes and systems in place to support that.

How will the adoption of EVs progress?

We have a very clear environmental commitment where we expect our fleet to be around the 85% mark in terms of introducing alternative fuels by 2030. We have been very public in the fact that we are fuel agnostic so we accept that certain parts of our fleet will be pure EV but we also accept that pure EV will not be suitable for all of our fleet. So we continue as a business to seek out any form of alternative fuel that will improve our carbon footprint and still allow our customers to maintain operational effectiveness and supply the same services to their end users.

Internally, because of how we purchase our electricity, we are 100% renewable on the electricity that BT Group consumes. And the price point for a small electric van such as a Renault Kangoo or Nissan e-NV200 is pretty much comparable to a diesel.

We are using a small number of EVs to understand how we put in the necessary support infrastructure. It is coming, and we are committed to replacing our vehicle fleet with the most efficient vehicles we can buy on each one of our replacement programmes and that’s why we are keen to make sure that we have a real good process and understanding of EVs.

We are buying a number of EVs to go into Birmingham and Leeds, a combination of both home-based and work-based parked vehicles so we can get as much data as we can.

So you are closely monitoring EV use?

The learnings are not just data driven. We are seeing a huge behavioural piece. We are exploring driver training, driver perception, and how we migrate a driver from diesel to electric. If you think about it, for the last 100 years, you have taken one set of keys from someone and given them another. You turn the key, you start it up and drive away. We are now migrating into a technology that is so fundamentally different we need to take the drivers onto a journey of migration, rather than handing the keys over and giving them a handbook.

There is a change management and an educational piece associated with the driver as we move to an alternative fuel technology that we have never had to deal with before. And that’s not just the range anxiety, we need to consider how drivers operate the vehicle to make it perform most effectively, maintenance as well as driving experience.

How do you see things developing longer term?

In the next 10 years, we expect to see a much larger selection of vehicles and specifically a larger range of 3.5 tonne panel vans – the one that a lot of our customers are waiting for. At that point we expect take up of EVs to accelerate. To some extent, that will depend on legislation and government subsidies, but I think there will be a substantially higher number of alternatively fuelled vehicles, with EV making up the highest percentage of that.

At the end of the day, our task is to ensure our customers have the right vehicle at the lowest environmental impact that allows them to deliver the services to their customer, at the best price. If Euro 6 is the best for that operating environment, then Euro 6 will be the tool of choice. Also, whereas currently the standard fleet mix is 100% diesel, in 10 years’ time, I think the fuel source will be much more fragmented across the entire fleet. We will see EVs for certain operating environments and we will see CNG, LPG, hydrogen and anything new for others.

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