Electric Vans and Trucks for Couriers

This article Benefits of electric vans now outweigh concerns has caused some chatter over the weekend, with various claims that ‘courier companies’ will soon start opting for electric vans as a matter of course.

These claims seem to be based on recent decisions by the likes of TNT to make ‘significant’ purchases of vehicles from Smith Electric Vehicles www.smithelectricvehicles.com. While this is an encouraging step forward I think that TNT’s claim to be running “world’s largest zero emissions fleet” needs to be put in perspective. By November 2009 TNT will have acquired 150 7.5-tonne electric vehicles for use in the UK, that’s much less than 10% of their fleet – without taking into consideration the thousands of vans and trucks operated in TNT livery by their subcontractors.

By TNT’s own claims the limited range of these electric trucks (100-150 miles between charges) would allow them to replace a maximum of 200 trucks out of their UK fleet with the electric powered vehicles, unless battery technology improves significantly. The express parcels division of TNT UK operates from over 60 depots in the UK, so even without taking the numerous other TNT UK locations and operations into account it’s clear that these electric vehicles will carry out a tiny proportion of TNT’s UK work, and only the low mileage, and therefore least polluting, local operations at that – so it’s hardly likely to have a significant impact on their carbon footprint. As for TNT running “world’s largest zero emissions fleet”, maybe they don’t have milkmen in Atherstone but a quick call to their contacts at Smith Electric Vehicles would confirm that Smith’s are responsible for the maintenance of Dairy Crests fleet of over 2,000 electric milk floats.

Unless battery technology improves significantly electric light commercial vehicles will always be limited to extremely local operations with a predictable daily mileage of 100 miles or less. While that might be useful for milk rounds, florists, some postal deliveries and local multidrops in city centres it’s almost entirely useless for the same-day courier industry, except possibly on some local London circuits and some local in-house mail runs.

And the ‘cost savings’ from running an electric van compared to a diesel? Well the electricity cost of running the 7.5t vehicles that TNT are using is apparently only 7p/mile, compared with 42p/mile compared with a diesel truck, which certainly sounds like a substantial saving. It has to be remembered though that these vehicles will only be used on the shortest of runs – with a quoted range of 100-150 miles under ideal conditions, presumably without radios, data terminals, headlights, windscreen wipers, heater (do they have heaters?) etc draining the battery, I’d be concerned about running one of these for more than say 80 miles per day. That’s a potential saving of £28 per day in fuel costs.

The trucks are exempt from London Congestion Charge and Road Fund Licence and apparently cost less to maintain than a diesel vehicle and have the added benefit of not requiring an operator’s licence, so there seems to be a lot in their favour. The initial purchase price does seem to be a bit steep though.

Smith Electric vehicles don’t seem to publish any prices on their website but TNT’s recent press release quotes a £7m investment involved in the purchase of 100 vehicles. That’s £70,000 each for a vehicle which is likely to do less than 125,000 miles over the next 5 years.

The upshot seems to be that if you’re keen on reducing your carbon footprint (or just adding a bit of ‘greenwash’ to your business), if you have vehicles in your fleet that consistently travel less than 100 miles a day and you’re either cash rich or willing to sign up to a 5-7 year lease agreement then electric vehicles certainly seem to be an attractive proposition. For the rest of us in the transport industry our contribution to cutting our carbon footprints will have to rely for now on reducing fuel consumption and maximising our vehicle utilisation.

Posted under Vans

Posted by Alec at 11:36 am, August 4, 2008

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2 Comments so far

  1. Stan Wellaway added on  August 4th, 2008 at 14:41

    The number of depot-based fleets whose vehicles travel less than 100 miles a day is huge. Not a market to be dismissed easily. Every local postal delivery fleet operates in this way. France’s La Poste has invited tenders for supplying 10,000 electric delivery vehicles. Japan Post has announced that almost all its 21,000 vehicles will be replaced as quickly as possible with electric ones.

    Among the supermarkets, Sainsbury’s has pledged to replace 100 per cent of its urban delivery fleet with electric vehicles, and expects the first 20 per cent to have been ordered by next month.

    Deliveries within cities and urban areas might be lower in mileages than open-highway trips, but they are much more polluting. Stop-start routines, in which vehicles are constantly working up and down through the gears, and are frequently idling in congested traffic situations, produce worse emissions. Focussing on replacing these with zero-emission alternatives is surely a worthy move.

  2. Alec added on  August 4th, 2008 at 15:10

    As I said in my last paragraph, electric vehicles seem to be becoming a very attractive proposition in roles with a consistent low mileage, predictable over a number of years. Even more attractive now that TNT have evaluated them in that role and given them their seal of approval.

    However the very fact that one of the largest express parcel carriers in the UK only consider that electric vehicles could replace a maximum of 200 of their lowest mileage vehicles would tend to suggest that their usefulness to the UK courier industry, whether express parcels or same day deliveries, is extremely limited.

    Without doubt improved battery technology will mean that many companies specialising in high density home deliveries will increasingly turn towards electric vehicles in order to cut costs, and that can only be seen as a positive move and one of the more pleasant side-effects of the current high oil price. That segment of the transport industry is outside my area of interest though and was not the focus of this article.

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