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Leading the charge: The latest developments in electric LCVs

Electric and hybrid commercial vehicles are set to play a major role in the delivery market, says Dan Gilkes.

Master Z.E. uses proven technology within a gross weight of 3.1-tonnes

From Dieselgate to ultra-low emission zones, tabloid hysteria to changing public perception, the call for an alternative to diesel has never been stronger. Leaving aside the argument that Euro 6 standards have made diesel engines cleaner than ever before, car manufacturers are dropping the black pump wherever possible.

Which, to be fair, is a fairly easy response for many car firms. They have a wide range of petrol engines on offer and have been working for some time on electric and hybrid drivetrains too.

The same is not necessarily true of van and truck manufacturers. Certainly, those with a wheel in both lanes can call upon car technology to power their vans. However, as we have seen with a number of recent introductions, while a petrol engine can work well in a Volkswagen Caddy, the petrol option is less successful in the larger Transporter.

Vans and trucks are not simply larger cars. They have very different tasks to perform and operators have more diverse requirements to fulfil.

That’s not to say that things aren’t changing. Far from it. In the last six months Van Fleet World has attended more electric and hybrid commercial vehicle launches, both van and truck, than diesel-powered. What’s more, these are not some fanciful vision of the future that might make it to market in five or 10 years, but vehicles that are ready to work now.

We are entering possibly the biggest period of driveline disruption since trucks moved from steam to internal combustion. It’s fascinating for a journalist looking from the sidelines, but could be a headache for a fleet manager trying to make the right decisions for the next five years of van and truck operation.


Electric availability

The good news is that, finally, fleet managers are going to be offered a much wider choice of vehicles, drivelines and possible transport solutions. Unlike the car market, where range anxiety is perhaps the biggest issue holding back electric vehicle adoption, for many commercial vehicle operators the main concern has been weight.

Manufacturers agree that there are plenty of van users who complete less than 60-70 miles a day, returning to a depot each evening, well within the potential range of an electric vehicle and easy to recharge. The big problem has been payload, particularly with the most popular 3.5-tonne gross weight vans. Adding battery weight simply reduces the available payload, in many cases making larger electric vans unviable.

However, the Department for Transport (DfT) has now agreed to raise the permitted gross weight of electric vans, from 3.5-tonnes to 4.25-tonnes, without companies being required to hold an operator’s licence. For larger vans, this could be the much-needed push that will allow fleets to try a plug-in alternative.

By allowing companies an additional 750kg of gross weight, the DfT has levelled the playing field when compared to a diesel van, making electric drivelines a far more viable, if still more expensive, option.

“Iveco has been campaigning passionately on this issue for several years and we’re delighted with the DfT’s decision on relaxing O-licensing for alternative fuel vehicles up to 4.25-tonnes GVW,” says Martin Flach, Iveco’s alternative fuels director.

“We look forward to this being followed by a similar decision on driver licence derogation for 4.25-tonne vehicles. We are confident these will support the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles, delivering much-needed improvements in air quality for our towns and cities.”

Prior to this move, the most successful electric LCVs have been smaller models, primarily from Nissan and Renault. Nissan’s e-NV200 offers the same 4.2m3 load volume as its diesel counterpart, along with a competitive 703kg of payload. The van is said to be capable of travelling up to 174 miles, with no drop in carrying capacity, answering the range question too. The e-NV200 comes with three charging options, delivering a 30-minute rapid charge capability or four hours on a regular wall box.

Renault also recently increased the range of its Kangoo Z.E. and Kangoo Maxi Z.E. models, updating the battery technology to provide a claimed 170 miles for the Kangoo Z.E.33. Renault has not equipped the vans with a fast charger, so a wall box offers the fastest recharge, at six to nine hours.

This proven driveline will also feature in the Master Z.E. available later this year. Offered in three panel van wheelbases and with two roof heights, there will also be a chassis cab option. The vans are said to offer up to 124 miles of range, with a 1-tonne of load-carrying ability.

Renault has bucked the trend, by giving Master Z.E. a gross weight of just 3.1-tonnes, saying that to achieve the heavier 3.5-tonne weight would require an additional battery, in effect cancelling out much of the benefit. Master Z.E. will also be offered by Renault Trucks, which sells Master vans alongside its heavier commercial range.

There has been no confirmation yet from Renault, but the fact that both Kangoo and Master Z.E. models share many of the same components, suggest that an electric Trafic would not be impossible to achieve in the future too, if there was demand.

Peugeot and Citroën have offered electric versions of Partner and Berlingo vans for some time. The two French LCVs also boast a fast charge facility, cutting the eight hours required when using a wall box to just 30 minutes for an 80% charge. Both van ranges are due for replacement later this year and the new model will also be badged as a Vauxhall Combo. No doubt that will lead to an electric van from Luton before too long as well.

Mercedes-Benz has big plans for the electric market, both in vans and trucks. This year the firm will launch an eVito, followed in 2019 by the eSprinter and an electric version of the Citan. The eVito promises a maximum load volume of 6.6m3 with a payload of up to 1,073kg. Mercedes promises a fairly conservative range of 62 miles on a single charge, with no fast charge capability.

Volkswagen is introducing the e-Crafter, which will also be offered as an electric TGE by sister company MAN. The firm is currently testing e-Crafter vans with customers in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, before the e-Crafter goes on sale in September.

The e-Crafter makes use of the heavier 4.25-tonnes GVW, offering a 10.7m3 load volume, with payloads of 1,000-1,750kg, depending on model. A 100-mile range is promised, though Volkswagen says the van has been designed for future battery technology, which could lift this to as much as 250 miles. Fast charging capability will allow an 80% charge in around 45 minutes.

Iveco recently updated its Daily Electric, which can be had in panel van and chassis cab forms, with gross weights up to 5.6-tonnes. Customers can choose from one to three batteries, to suit individual applications, with the triple battery offering a range of up to 170 miles. A fast-charge facility provides two-hour charging to 80% for a rapid turnaround.

“Models like the Daily Electric have been available for years, we’ve just needed changes in regulation to ensure businesses keen to introduce cleaner vehicles aren’t penalised on payload, in a sector that is very sensitive to reductions,” says Flach.

LDV, a division of Chinese firm SAIC, also offers an electric van at 3.5-tonnes. The EV80 can be ordered as a medium roof, long wheelbase van, or as a chassis cab for conversion. Both vehicles offer a claimed 900-950kg of payload, depending on body.

The driving range is said to be up to 120 miles and the EV80 comes with a fast-charge capability, providing two-hour recharging. LDV is expected to add a second electric van to its line-up over the coming year.


Hybrid drivelines

The latest company to announce an electric van is LEVC, the company that build’s London’s black cab at a facility in Coventry. Also part of a Chinese automotive giant, in this case Geely, LEVC’s van will feature an electric driveline, with a 1.5-litre petrol engine used as a range-extender to recharge the batteries. This combination will provide up to 80 miles of pure electric drive, with the range extender adding a further 300 miles of potential travel.

The LEVC van is a mid-weight model, said to offer around 1-tonne of payload in a body that will compete with the likes of Ford’s Transit Custom. It uses a modular aluminium chassis, which helps to keep weight down to allow for the added weight of batteries. The company will start trialling the van later this year, with sales to start in 2019.

The comparison in size with Transit Custom is particularly apt, as Ford is also taking the hybrid route, with the Transit Custom PHEV. Currently testing with customers in London, the van uses a 1.0-litre EcoBoost petrol engine to power the batteries. Electric range is 31 miles, but the van offers up to 310 miles of overall driving range. As the engine and battery are smaller than a pure electric model, there is no loss of payload or load volume.

Perhaps less known as a commercial vehicle, Mitsubishi’s popular Outlander PHEV can also be ordered as a van. Powered by a 2.0-litre petrol engine, the PHEV offers up to 33 miles of pure EV range, with a potential hybrid range in excess of 500 miles. The Outlander PHEV has a load capacity of 510kg and a 1.6m3 load volume.

Other newcomers to the market include Deutsche Post DHL’s range of StreetScooter WORK XL electric vans. The company has committed to building 2,500 EV vans, based on a Ford Transit chassis, by the end of 2018 for its own use. However, Ford and DHL have not ruled out selling the van to third parties as well.

StreetScooter has also just taken an order for 200 electric vans from dairy distributor Milk & More. In a return to a familiar sight from our youth, the company will use the StreetScooter EVs as milk floats. The vans have a 905kg payload and an 8m3 load volume, offering a 75-mile operating range.

There are other companies entering the market too. Arrival has provided a number of vehicles to Royal Mail, to transport mail between sorting locations within London. At the lighter end of the market there are a number of smaller utility vehicles with battery power, while Piaggio Commercial Vehicles has returned to the UK market, with electric versions of both the Porter four-wheeler and the Ape three-wheel delivery vehicle.

So, the market is growing, with a broadening range of vehicles to meet the needs of customers in different market sectors. There won’t be an electric van for everyone, or indeed for every application. However, for inner city deliveries, the E-LCV or hybrid van makes a lot of sense as part of the transport and logistics solution.

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Written by Dan Gilkes

Dan has been a commercial vehicle and construction equipment journalist for almost 30 years. An automotive engineer and former fleet manager, he has driven almost every van, pickup and truck that has been launched in Europe over that time. As editor of VFW, his aim is to keep readers up to date with the latest developments in the light commercial world.

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