Making the Switch
With the ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol light commercial vehicles (LCVs) coming into force in 2030, there has never been a more challenging or exciting time to be involved in the automotive industry.
From the billions of pounds spent by manufacturers on the research and development of new products, to an improving charging infrastructure and battery manufacturing, the electric revolution is sparking into life. In this article, Glass’s Chief Commercial Vehicle Editor, Andy Picton, takes a look at the challenges, opportunities and innovations surrounding the switch to electric vehicles (EVs).
Vehicle cost, availability, range, charging times, long-term reliability and infrastructure requirements are just some of the factors that need to be addressed. On top of this is getting the ‘buy-in’ from the vehicle drivers. Every operator will have different criteria to fulfil and different limiting circumstances to work within. Negative stories always spread more quickly than good news stories, so its vital drivers have confidence in the products and their capabilities.
Unfortunately, the UK is not blessed with excess space on which to develop state of the art stand-alone charging hubs, and many of our business premises and associated land need additional permissions before electrical upgrades can even commence. Even if space and permissions are available, a fleet establishing a charging hub will find that it is not a cheap process. Dependent on where the power supply is coming from, civil engineering costs can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Availability of product is a rapidly improving situation. In 2019, electric van choice was limited in the UK, with the majority sold by Renault and Nissan. Fast forward to the end of 2020 and no less than fourteen different manufacturers were offering 17 different electric or hybrid vans in the UK:
- Citroen – e-Dispatch
- Fiat – e-Ducato
- Ford – Transit Custom PHEV
- Iveco – Daily Electric
- LEVC – VN5
- M.A.N. – eTGE
- MAXUS – eDeliver 3
- Mercedes-Benz – eVito and eSprinter
- Mitsubishi – Outlander Commercial PHEV
- Peugeot – e-Expert
- Renault – Zoe van, Kangoo ZE and Master ZE
- Renault Trucks – Master ZE
- Vauxhall – Vivaro-e
- Volkswagen – ABT Transporter 6.1
By the end of 2021, at least another 7 new vans will be available and by 2023 it is estimated that a further 20 new models will enter the market. In 2019, 3,204 electric LCVs were registered and a further 5,492 registered by the end of 2020 an increase of 71.4%. Today the market share is small. At around 1.9% for 2020, with growing interest in the market and major utility companies now placing orders, that share is set to grow significantly.
Purchase or lease
Lingering concerns over initial vehicle cost have not been helped by the recent decision by the DfT to reduce the Plug-in Van Grant from a maximum of £8,000, to a limit of £3,000 for vehicles with gross vehicle weights up to 2.5 tonnes and £6,000 for vehicles between 2.5t-3.5t. Unfortunately, this is sending the wrong message to all those contemplating a move away from diesel. If the UK Government is serious about reducing the size of the carbon footprint and being a leader in zero-emission mobility, grants remain necessary to continue to kick-start the movement.
Higher purchase prices of electric vans remain a prohibitive hurdle to EV ownership to many potential owners. A persistent question is whether the key to large scale adoption is leasing these vehicles rather than outright purchase. Not only can the costs be spread evenly over the term of a contract, it enables regular fleet renewals, allowing vehicles to keep track of new technologies and vehicle developments.
Whole life costs and downtime
The whole life cost of running an electric van is less than an equivalent ICE model. Although the upfront purchase price is higher, once depreciation, servicing, maintenance, taxation and running costs are taken into account, electric vehicles are cheaper to run. A large portion of the potential cost-saving is fuel, with UK electricity prices significantly lower than diesel. Additionally, as there are fewer working parts on an EV, this minimises vehicle downtime and delivers lower price servicing and repairs ensuring the vehicle is off the road for less time.
One new technology already being worked on is by StoreDot, an Israeli battery company. They are pioneering extreme fast charging (XFC) battery technology. This technology will potentially allow five-minute EV charging as a commercial reality.
Another development is the supply and production of battery components and the batteries themselves. The UK doesn’t have a gigafactory at present, but as battery costs fall and EV range improves, demand will increase. Currently, in the UK, there is only small-scale battery assembly at Nissan in Sunderland with the facility making enough battery cells for approximately 50,000 40kWh Leaf models a year.
While current demand doesn’t justify a big plant, it soon will. Britishvolt, a start-up battery manufacturer has selected Blyth in Northumberland as the location for the UK’s first gigafactory. Built adjacent to the Blyth Power Station, the plant plans to be producing batteries by the end of 2023.
A partnership of 19 vehicle manufacturers, local authorities, universities, colleges and industry research bodies is also developing proposals for a gigafactory to be built at Coventry Airport, potentially creating 4,000 jobs and could be operational by 2025.
End of life
An equally big part of the green change is the end of life recycling, with OEMs in particular, creating roadmaps for battery reuse, recycling and sustainability that will address climate-change concerns. Renault, for example, recently joined forces with Veolia and Solvay to establish a circular economy for recycling cobalt, nickel and lithium from batteries to reduce the environmental footprint.
At the beginning of 2021, Volkswagen Group (VWG) began recycling batteries at their Salzgitter plant. A circular process of reusing usable battery modules to give a second life in mobile energy storage systems utilising a ‘pyrometallurgical process’. Through dismantling, crushing and sieving components, up to 90% of each redundant battery is recycled. This means that despite there being limited raw materials, mass production can still be achieved.
Nissan on the other hand has taken used Leaf car batteries to power automated-guided vehicles (AGVs), to help bring components at the factory to the workers. Around 4,000 AGVs are in use in Nissan factories globally, saving time and increasing efficiency.
Moving towards 2030, registrations of petrol and diesel vehicles will steadily decline as fleets have to renew their fleets with EVs. These will be driven by several positive factors including:
- A wider choice of vehicles
- Government-backed grants
- Lower cost of ownership
- Exemptions from road charging including clean air zones
- Exempt from vehicle excise duty
- Reduced charging times
- Improved battery ranges
- Increased battery power density
- Zero per cent benefit-in-kind rate for electric vans (from 6th April 2021)
Negative factors are accelerating fleet decisions including:
- Increasing numbers of Clean Air Zones (CAZs), Low Emission Zones (LEZs) and the expansion of the London Ultra Low-Emission Zone (ULEZ)
- Increasing road charging prices for ICE
- Increasing diesel and petrol prices
- CO2 based taxation for LCV VED
- Reducing ICE residual values in the medium term leading to increased leasing rates
Does it make good business sense?
Demand is growing exponentially as more product becomes available and pressure mounts on LCV operators to make the switch. For every fleet, large or small, the tipping point will be slightly different. The chances are that the switch for many will be staggered, with small numbers added to the fleet at a time and allocated to specific operational roles. The belief that the days of an identical fleet of vehicles performing all transport roles are numbered. Taking its place will be specific vehicles completing specific tasks built around location, route, payload and hours on the road.