30th November 2017
What alternative fuels are being developed and promoted for light commercial vehicles?
There are over 4 million vans on UK roads1, around a quarter of them operated by end user fleets rather than rental firms and private individuals†, and the BVRLA regularly reports high-teens growth in the LCV leasing sector2.
In the report ‘UK Fleet Industry Review – April 2017’ by experteye and The University of Buckingham3, 95% of respondents to the underlying survey stated that diesel powers their LCV fleets, with petrol and electric accounting for just 15% and 12% respectively, which isn’t surprising.
At a time of rapid change when it comes to cars, and with heavy goods vehicle manufacturers and fleets trialling compressed natural gas in tiny numbers to limited degrees of success4, it’s fair to wonder what alternative fuels are being promoted and developed for light commercial vehicles, or vans as they’re more commonly known.
FN50 analysis identified that although van CO2 emissions have dropped to an all-time low, 99% of the index’s LCVs are still powered by diesel, the emissions improvements put down to the adoption of cleaner Euro 6 compliant vans5.
Nevertheless, a number of fleets are quietly replacing their diesel vehicles with a fuel that is by no means new but is regarded by many as being cleaner and more suitable for frequent short trips in a local area. Yes, petrol is making a comeback across LCVs.
Just a few days ago, a leading car-sharing network announced that a new partnership with a major manufacturer will see ten new vans added to its customer fleet in London – and they will all be powered by TSI petrol engines6. This move is intended to ‘encourage companies to consider their options when it comes to their commercial vehicles.’
Although popular vans like the Citroen Relay, Ford Transit, Mercedes Sprinter, Renault Trafic and Vauxhall Vivaro aren’t available with petrol engines, the Caddy and Transporter from Volkswagen do offer such a choice7, and smaller vans including the Fiat Doblo Cargo, Ford Transit Connect, Peugeot Partner and Vauxhall Combo are also available in variants that drink from the green nozzle8.
Hybrid and electric power, now both passionately promoted for cars, account for around 4,200 plug-in vans according to SMMT data to October 2017. The primary electric vans available in the UK are the Nissan e-NV200 and Renault Kangoo Z.E, the range of the former recently having been extended to broaden its appeal, but they are still both relatively rare.
With battery power not viable for longer-distance commercial drivers such as couriers, hybrid seems an excellent middle ground to focus on, and Ford is trialling twenty Transit Plug-in Hybrid9 vans in London. A high-tech’ vehicle, geo-fencing will be used to automatically adapt its powertrain depending on location, seamlessly switching over to electric in low-emission zones, for example. When the 1.0-litre Ecoboost petrol engine contributes to overall power, the NOx emitted will be less than a comparable diesel van. A maximum range of around 300 miles is hoped to be possible from the combined hybrid setup, while an all-electric range of 30 miles has been cited. Ford keenly stresses that the Transit Plug-in Hybrid uses a ‘series’ rather than ‘parallel’ approach, predominantly relying on the battery pack, with the petrol unit topping it up ad hoc.
The London Taxi Company (LTC) has also revealed plans to develop “the future-proofed ‘white van’ that people have been waiting for” at its new plant in Coventry, backed by investment from Geely along with advanced systems technology from Volvo10. No details have been given at this stage other than pitching their electric van at the urban commercial sector for use in the city, but if the LTC’s tireless endeavours at continuously improving the humble taxi can be applied to vans, it should be a success.
Mercedes-Benz has made headlines this month from “steps up electric van push11” and “doubles efforts on electric van12” to “announces electrification of all commercial vans and unveils new all-electric van13.” The electric eVito will appear on roads across Germany in early 2018 with the UK expecting deliveries later in the year14, before the electrified version of the large Sprinter arrives in 2019. Mercedes-Benz is, like other manufacturers announcing electric vans, presenting its models as ideal for city centre use by delivery companies, community transport and crew bus operators, and tradespeople.
Hydrogen, which powers a select number of fuel cell cars such as the Toyota Mirai, is also being considered for light commercial vehicles. Boosted by government funding, Arcola Energy of London is currently developing a hybrid hydrogen-electric van drivetrain for 3.5-tonne vehicles, having already modified a fleet of lighter Renault Kangoo vans, badged ZE-H2, with the same pioneering principles15. Despite only a minute number of hydrogen sites currently being offered across the UK, a major eventual advantage of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCV) is that they can cover much longer ranges than hybrid or electric counterparts, Arcola’s 3.5T hydrogen-electric vans able to cover 200 miles. FCVs can also be refuelled much more rapidly.
Compressed natural gas (CNG) has been the conserve of HGVs until more recently, when Iveco launched a new range of vans under the Daily Blue Power banner, offering an 8-speed Hi-Matic automatic version of its Daily Natural Power CNG van, alongside an electric variant. With a 124-mile range and £100,000 price tag, the Daily Electric is understandably an uncommon choice for fleets at the moment, which is how the Daily Natural Power van is also likely to remain until refuelling options become more widespread, but at least Iveco is clearly working hard to develop solutions.
With vans comprising upwards of 14% of UK road use17 and their ubiquity not set to change in cities, towns and on motorways any time soon, it’s encouraging to see all manner of alternative fuels being developed. While it’s fair to admit that a number of these are currently far from viable for many fleets, technology moves forward at such a rate that it’s only a matter of time.
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