When it comes to cars, there’s no doubt that motorists are being encouraged to switch to plug-in hybrid and all-electric models as soon as possible by all manner of voices and there is certainly plenty of choice out there. In the light commercial vehicle (LCV) world, though, PHEV and EV vans are far from ubiquitous, electrified offerings having been slower to emerge. We look at electric van developments and available models so far, along with what’s on the horizon.

The early days of electric vans

Notable endeavours in contemporary electric van development began bubbling up from the mid-noughties, with niche firms like Aixam (the company behind the electric microcars seen in modest numbers on the Continent) revealing its Mega(van) in 2005, which subsequently attracted UK orders from the Isle of Man Post Office and various other local-area operators like sandwich shops and councils.

Aixam Mega electric van - fleet contract hireIn 2010, Allied Electric from Glasgow attended the Commercial Vehicle Operator Show with the eBipper and ePartner Tepee, fully-electric vans announced to slot alongside the existing Expert and Boxer LCVs that the firm had electrified through its official partnership with Peugeot. With electric battery ranges spanning 65 to 100 miles, they had limited appeal at the time, although this mileage banding is still used today as a guide to what’s acceptably useable.

The first all-electric van to really achieve any traction was the original Nissan e-NV200 which was launched in 2014, similar in footprint to a Leaf hatchback but taller than comparable vans, equipped with a 24kWh battery and again good for around 60 miles on electricity – which is admittedly sufficient, if recharged nightly, for many businesses and organisations operating in a compact locality.

Nissan’s zero-emissions e-NV200 has since then been improved in parallel with the Japanese OEM’s electric Leaf hatchback and now boasts a 40kWh battery, an electric driving range of between 124 and 187 miles rated under WLTP, rapid charging capability of between 40 and 60 minutes, and a cargo capacity of 4.2m³

Nissan e-NV200 electric van leaseElectrified vans actually available to buy and lease today

The models that have been commercially available until now have mainly been small in size, the Renault Kangoo Z.E. rubbing shoulders with Nissan’s relative stalwart for several years, and the latest ‘33’ version of the French model is available to buy and lease in Maxi and Crew Van variants. Its battery range is cited as 124 miles in the summer and 75 miles in the winter and it’s worth noting that any mentions of 160-170 miles are NEDC figures, while its payload is 640kg, more suited to carrying croissants than concrete blocks.

Renault Kangoo ZE 33 electric vanRenault also now makes a much larger all-electric van, though, in the form of the Master Z.E., which has an admittedly relatively high starting price of £57,000 but offers 75 miles of clean motoring in real world conditions and is available in flexible formats from SWB and MWB to LWB (long-wheelbase) and business platform cab, with load volumes up to 222m³ and all of them using a Type 2 Mennekes charging cable.

Citroen and Peugeot’s commercial EVs

While Nissan and Renault are allies in one corner, PSA’s Citroen and Peugeot are other noteworthy siblings in the compact electric van segment with the Berlingo Electric and Partner Electric respectively. Each of these 100% electric vans are marketed as costing 2-3p per mile to run and incorporate both AC and faster DC charging ports, while their cited 106-mile NEDC ranges reportedly translate into between 60 and 80 real-world miles according to media road-tests.

Mercedes’ bright electric future

Mercedes also already offers a fully-electric van but it’s fair to say that the eVito doesn’t seem to have entered consumer consciousness yet in what is a niche market to start with. Some van drivers and fleets swear by Mercedes-Benz vans so it will come as welcome news that the eVito pledges a battery range of 93 miles and its drivetrain includes three driving programs and four recovery levels enabling the vehicle’s electrical consumption to be optimised.

The eVito utilises regenerative braking to harvest energy and boost its battery charge, which is just what many electric cars do when coasting, too, and as a medium-sized 100% electric light commercial vehicle, the Mercedes’ 6-to-6.6m³ loading space options and hidden battery location make it viable for a larger number of organisations. Its 41kWh battery can be recharged from flat in around six hours using a standard socket. Well-known courier DPD signed up for 10 extra-long eVito vans (direct from Mercedes) in the spring of this year and is operating them as last-mile solutions from its Westminster delivery centre.

Mercedes electric eVito vanThe larger eSprinter is coming in 2020 with reportedly the same 93-mile range, a 55kWh battery, fast-charging capability in just 45 minutes and a payload of around 900kg, combining to form a milestone in electric van development owing to the Sprinter’s size.

Mercedes is a marque that people expect to be somewhere at the forefront of electric vans, but discovering that the acronym LDV, synonymous with the Midlands and once short for Leyland DAF Vans, is now sported by one of the most technically ambitious electric vans out there may take some by surprise. Thanks to the Chinese giant SAIC and UK distributor Harris Group, though, the LDF EV80 is very much to be reckoned with.

An iconic name from British LCV history

The LDV EV80 has actually been around since 2017 and has already been facelifted and improved, with Milk & More adding one shy of 160 of them to its formidable electric vehicle fleet, which now exceeds 500. Indeed, delivering milk in local communities using near-silent, zero-emissions electric vehicles is hardly a new concept, with milk floats a once familiar sight throughout the UK, but it’s encouraging to see companies like Milk & More, Nottingham City Council and Royal Mail returning to or placing their trust in electrification.

LDV’s electric van may not be the most aesthetically attractive or modern on the market and it may lack contemporary interior and other features that many of its rivals offer, but in the large van segment it’s certainly among the leaders as far as its powertrain is concerned. The EV80’s 56kWh battery pack endows it with a cited 127-mile range which, even in the harshest of real-world tests and conditions, should be good for around 80-90 miles that will suffice for the typical usage patterns of most vans of this ilk.

LDV EV80 Maxus electric vanOne automotive outlet, Parkers, has commented that despite the electric LDV van’s 92kW motor producing around 123bhp compared to the 136bhp of its 2.5-litre diesel counterpart, the EV80 is more pleasant to drive, feeling and handling surprisingly perkily for a van of its size, complete with an ‘automatic’ CVT transmission dubbed ‘digital intelligent’. It offers just 0.2 cubic metres less volume versus the diesel model, so doesn’t miss out in that regard, but does have a payload rating almost 33% smaller, which may deter some fleets.

LDV impressively also produces electric crew minibuses, wheelchair-accessible vehicles (WAV), chassis cab and panel vans, so is certainly one to watch, and we hope its brand image grows in consciousness and respect as a result.

Ford’s Transit Custom PHEV plug-in hybrid is finally here

No article on the subject of vans would be complete without including Ford, arguably one of the world’s leading commercial vehicle manufacturers and the producer of the Transit, ‘the backbone of Britain’. Interestingly and perhaps shrewdly, Ford has opted to take the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) route with its long-awaited electrified Transit, rather than go all-out, likely with exceeding the previously unbeaten one-tonne payload threshold in mind.

The Ford Transit Custom PHEV will perhaps turn out to be the perfect compromise for van-driving sole traders, SMEs and larger fleets keen to go green as quickly as possible but who can’t rely on pure electricity at the moment. Available now for ordering on finance and ‘contract hire’ lease, the hybrid Transit Custom can be specified as an L1H1 or 8-seat Tourneo crew minibus, each fitted with Ford’s respected 1.0-litre EcoBoost petrol engine producing 124bhp, combined with a 92.9kW electric motor and a 13.6kWh lithium-ion battery pack. The motor drives the front wheels the majority of the time, while the petrol unit acts more like a generator, essentially making the Ford Transit plug-in a ‘range extender’ van and certainly impressively efficient. Fuel economy is officially cited as 91.7mpg but as with all figures including WLTP, it’s to be taken with a pinch of salt, while recharging using a typical workplace or domestic home charge point will take just under 3 hours.

Ford Transit plug-in hybrid electric van PHEVStarting up in silence like all hybrid and fully-electric vehicles, the eagerly-anticipated Ford Transit Custom PHEV should prove more relaxing to drive than a petrol and certainly a diesel equivalent and its maximum battery range of 35 miles may be enough in its own right for sole traders and low-usage fleets, although the van’s overall range of 310 miles is the figure most fleet managers will likely focus on, along with its 1,000kg carrying capacity and 6m³ volume, good for standard 8’ x 4’ boards or three Euro pallets according to Ford.

Now that laws have been passed requiring vehicle manufacturers to equip their electric and hybrid cars and vans with some kind of warnings to alert other road users and pedestrians of their presence, the Transit plug-in emits a low-level humming sound, and thanks to 355Nm instant torque and its automatic gearbox, it will prove a doddle to drive on today’s congested roads. Priced from £39,000 and increasing to £43,000 in Limited trim, the partly-electrified Transit is clearly not as cheap to buy or lease as one of its diesel stalwart siblings, but the significantly reduced total cost of ownership (TCO) may be compelling for some fleets.

Next-generation electric vans coming soon from VW and others

Hot on the heels of the VW e-Caddy Maxi with a 160-mile (NEDC) range and a 636kg payload, which is reportedly on sale now, the next breed of exciting electric vans is due to start trickling onto the scene from mid-to-late 2020 onwards. Leading examples will come in the form of the ABE e-Transporter LWB and e-Crafter, also from Volkswagen, the former boasting an incredible NEDC range of 250 miles from the 77.6kWh version and the latter offering the same cargo area and payload as the current diesel variant along with a 107-mile battery range.

Volkswagen VW ID Buzz CARGO electric vanPerhaps more excitingly from Volkswagen, though, are the brand’s forthcoming electric vans under the I.D. banner it keenly promotes at the world’s motor shows, and we are especially keen to see and drive the VW I.D. Buzz CARGO van when it arrives in 2022. Closely resembling a modernised iteration of VW’s classic and iconic campervan, it’ll be crammed full of connected technology, drive assist systems and the like, including many autonomous features. The I.D. Buzz CARGO will also be enabled for 150kW rapid-charging via DC and will hopefully have a range close to the currently reported 340-mile figure, which will be a huge stride forwards.

From taxis to LCVs

London EV Company, the firm that makes the electric taxi seen on the streets of the capital and other UK cities, has created a light commercial vehicle which it has been testing and promoting in the media ahead of order books opening in 2020, likely in the second half of the year. LEVC’s LCV is a range extender hybrid, removing any range anxiety. It offers an all-electric range of 80 miles as part of its total range of 377 miles, can transport two Euro pallets and will be ideal for fleets that need to enter London and other LEZ and CAZ but also travel to more distant parts of the UK.

Startups and disruptors making inroads

In today’s automotive landscape with technology firms like Apple, Tesla and Uber at times leapfrogging OEMs in the electric and autonomous races, it’s little surprise that startups and other lesser-known businesses have also been making significant advances in electrifying vans, with large client orders already in the bag for some.

Arrival, a Russian-owned company with offices in Kensington, Germany, Israel and LA plus a factory in Banbury, Oxfordshire, is one of the leading pioneers among non-OEMs, its electric vans looking futuristic and with household names like DPD, DHL and Royal Mail having trialled or planning to pilot well-advanced prototypes. Like Tesla, Arrival has also taken a ‘skateboard’ approach to designing its electric vehicles, with the battery, motor and the rest of the drivetrain contained in the wheelbase, allowing for all manner of conversion bodies to be placed on top as time goes on. A striking advantage to Arrival’s primary electric van is that it is set to cost around £35,000, very similar to common ICE vehicles.

Arrival electric van Royal MailAVEVAI, a startup from Singapore, believes that its electric van called the IONA, which uses supercapacitor batteries that act and charge much more quickly than conventional lithium-ion types, will provide a range of 200+ miles, be capable of carrying payloads of up to 2-tonnes and recharge fully from empty in around 4 hours using a relatively humble 22kW charger. There’s no concrete UK launch date yet but AVEVAI is said to be set to introduce the IONA to European markets either in late 2019 or early 2020 so, partly depending on Brexit perhaps, the UK will hopefully get its chance fairly soon after.

There are others, but the final disruptor and electric van pioneer we will include in this snapshot is Rivian, a name more widely known for its electric SUV and genuine 4×4 concepts. In fact, their slogan is ‘electric adventure vehicles’. Still, on the back of over £500million of investment from Amazon, a cute, futuristic-looking van will turn into reality first, with the online retailer having placed an order for 100,000 of the vehicles, which will be built for its business exclusively. Rivian’s electric vans should start appearing on real roads by 2022, probably confined to the U.S, and will play a key role in helping Amazon become carbon neutral by 2040.

The advantages of electric vans

Benefits of electric vans range from their near-silent operation and zero-emissions making them more palatable in residential areas, to their relaxed and comfortable driving experience free from the traditional vibration of diesel engines, with electric power’s instantaneous torque and smooth acceleration.

The payload capacity of electric light commercial vehicles isn’t typically as strong as in conventionally-fuelled models but in terms of physical cargo bay area they generally don’t lose out, especially if the manufacturer has positioned the vehicle’s batteries underneath the floor in a ‘skateboard’ format.

Electric vans require less maintenance and servicing than diesel equivalents because they incorporate fewer moving and mechanical parts. In the car world, Tesla now says that its customers don’t even need to take their vehicles to the nearest ‘store’ or dealership for an annual check, but this is still recommended for fleets adopting one or more electric vans. Repairing individual cells in an electrified van’s battery keeps any such admittedly unlikely costs down.

Mitsubishi Outlander 4Work PHEV plug-in commercial vanA financial advantage in addition to the cheaper fleet running costs of electricity compared to diesel or petrol power is that certain electrified plug-in hybrid and fully-electric vans are eligible for the government’s plug-in car and van grant. To qualify, a vehicle must be able to travel at least 10 zero-emissions miles on pure electricity and emit less than 75g/km CO2 overall. The government’s website lists models such as the BD Auto eTraffic and eDucato (3.5 tonnes), Mitsubishi Outlander Commercial and LDV EV80 chassis cab, the grant discounting their RRP by 20%, up to a maximum of £8,000.

With ultra-low emissions zones (ULEZ) and clean air zones (CAZ) spreading across the UK as they continue to do in Europe, it’s impressive that vans like the Ford Transit Custom hybrid are equipped with 4G connected technology and geofencing software that will enable EV Now or equivalent driving modes to be automatically switched to when a vehicle enters a CAZ.

There’s also a business image benefit to operating one or a fleet of electric vans, adopters perceived by the public and other clients and suppliers as organisations conscious of their burden on the environment, hence enhancing their CSR efforts when they invest in green commercial vehicles.

There are some downsides to today’s models

At Vehicle Consulting we look at things pragmatically and frankly not just on our blog but also in our dealings with fleets and other clients, and it’s true that so-called ‘range anxiety’ still impedes some businesses from making the switch to electric vans, which simply don’t offer long or even medium-distance mileages yet so are largely unsuitable for national couriers, for example. Additionally, it’s unarguably inconvenient having to wait at least an hour for an electric van’s battery to charge perhaps even to just 50%, compared to the matter of a few minutes that it takes to insert a diesel or petrol nozzle.

Electric vans cost more to buy or lease on contract hire, primarily because of the added costs of their batteries and drivetrain technologies, which all add weight and hence restrict their ranges. Manufacturers are commendably negating this drawback, though, after the government increased the homologated gross vehicle weight (GVW) from 3.5 to 4.25 tonnes to reflect battery weight. Residual values for electric vans are still a point of uncertainty, which in Renault’s case is confused further by them leasing their LCVs’ batteries to customers, so this needs bearing in mind by fleet managers, finance directors and the like.

In conclusion, the electrification of the small and medium-size light commercial van market is certainly accelerating after its initially slower start compared to cars. We envisage the Ford Transit Custom PHEV plug-in performing strongly among fleets right down to sole traders, as a compromise move while organisations wait for fully-electric vans from primary OEMs to offer consistently high payload abilities, mileage ranges and recharging times at ICE-comparable price-points. It will therefore be fascinating to watch what the disruptive innovators do in the meantime.