Whether you're a fleet manager or you run a small business, choosing the right van is one of the most crucial decisions you face. An electric van could be the perfect opportunity to cut running costs, but do they make sense for your business? We look at the key issues
What are the pros and cons of electric vans?
Electric vans – advantages
Let's keep it simple.
- Eco-friendliness – times have changed and environmental concerns are driving change. EVs have several environmental benefits compared to conventional internal combustion engine vehicles. They have lower operating and maintenance costs, produce little or no local air pollution, reduce dependence on petroleum and also have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It creates a big potential to dramatically improve air quality, especially in urban areas.
- Running costs – electric vans are considerably cheaper to run than diesel alternatives because the cost per mile of electricity is lower. For instance, Citroen claims its Berlingo Electric costs 2-3p per mile to run on average – that’s less than £2 per 40 miles. Add to this that EVs are virtually maintenance-free, and you can see why they are becoming so popular these days!
- Incentives - there are various schemes to encourage the use of electric vehicles and the commercial world is no different. These include the Government Plug-in Van Grant, which is worth up to 20% off the list price (up to a maximum of £8,000), plus reduced tax burdens for both business and private use. There are even grants towards the cost of workplace chargers. Other examples of benefits range from free parking in some areas, exemption from London's Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) charge and even free charging.
- Silent running – electric vans are much quieter than diesel vans, to the extent that some are virtually silent (aside from a hum you’ll only hear at low speeds). This makes life more pleasant for the driver, but also opens up a whole host of opportunities for unsocial-hours services, where a conventional van might otherwise bring noise complaints.
- Easy to drive – EVs are much simpler to drive. Broadly speaking, you press the accelerator to go and you brake (or simply lift off) to stop. There's no changing gear and they’re very nippy around town because electric motors deliver instant torque. It's also a much more pleasant experience because electric motors are virtually silent, apart from a distant hum or whine.
- Convenience – also seems unlikely, but electric vans do have some convenience features not often seen elsewhere, including the ability on many to set the air-conditioning to your preferred temperature while charging. This also avoids waiting around for the van to defrost in the morning.
- Image booster – having an electric van or a whole fleet demonstrates to your customers that you have an environmental conscience.
Electric vans – disadvantages
It isn’t all good news, of course.
- Range anxiety – this is a big issue. While driving range is improving all the time, electric vans don't travel as far on a single charge as diesel or petrol vans on a single tank of fuel. This not only means you will have to stop more often (and for longer), it also makes them almost entirely impractical for long-distance use.
- Charging time – this varies, depending on the power of the charging system, but even in the best-case scenario it will take much longer to recharge an e-van than to refuel a regular van. Rapid chargers can give you an 80% charge in around 40 minutes; home charging stations can complete a full recharge overnight; a normal three-pin plug may require an entire day.
- Charging convenience – not only does it take a long time to charge an electric van, you’ve got to find somewhere to do the charging, too. Certainly not as quick and easy as filling up at a fuel station.
- Purchase cost – electro-mobility technology is still in its infancy, and is also made from individually expensive components (the very material that the batteries are built out of, for example), so it’s no wonder electric vans are so expensive. They are usually cheaper to run, though.
- Weight – e-mobility tech is also heavy. The current crop of small electric vans are able to manage this through increased homologated gross vehicle weight (GVW), allowing them to retain the same level of payload capacity as non-electric equivalents. The government has attempted to counter this by increasing the GVW for electric vans from 3.5 tonnes to 4.25 tonnes to allow for the weight of the battery tech.
- Range variance – you need to take the efficiency of an electric van as quoted by the manufacturer with a pinch of salt. Most claim they will go 106 miles between charges, but the reality is that you’ll be lucky to see more than 80 miles in practice, however, this can be shortened by cold weather (EVs don't like the cold!) and as soon as you add a payload or passenger, or use the air-conditioning and heating, then this range will drop even further.
- Batteries lose performance over time – an unavoidable reality of all electric vehicles is that their batteries deteriorate over time, meaning they gradually begin to hold less charge. This, however, is why most battery packs are covered by extended warranties (up to eight years in some cases), ensuring they see out the working life of the van.
- Residual values – at the moment, uncertainty in the used market about electric vans means that they often lose value faster than their diesel counterparts. Renault's model of leasing the battery pack separately from the van hasn't helped matters here.
Where do electric vans work best?
Taking all of the above into account, you’d expect the best use for electric vans to be in urban areas – so towns and cities – where you’re never far away from a plug. While this is certainly true, it doesn’t automatically rule out other uses – particularly if you have a set route or known distance that you rarely exceed that falls within an e-van’s real-world driving range.
Most current operators simply plug their electric vans in overnight, use them within their limits during the day, and then set them to recharge again ready for the next morning. And many EVs include timers that allow you to set them to charge when electricity is cheapest.
How do I know if an electric van is right for me?
If you’re still unsure, the best thing to do will be to speak to your local electric van dealer. They should be able to arrange for you to test one in a manner suitable for you to decide whether it will work for your business.
They should also be able to show you a specific cost comparison between electric and conventional fuel, based on your business needs.