The Future of Electric Vehicles in Commercial Fleets

Electric Van Fleet

Electric vehicles (EVs) have a long history, dating back to the 19th century when Thomas Parker, a chemistry student, created the UK’s first electric car in 1884, utilising his patented lead-acid batteries and dynamos. Fast forward to the present day, and EVs have gained significant traction, with 120,000 full battery electric vehicles (mainly cars) sold in the UK this year alone. However, when it comes to commercial fleets, the transition to electric vans and trucks remains relatively slow.

This isn’t to say there isn’t incentive. For example, electric vehicles won’t have to worry about London’s ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone). However, all the perks in the world still take a while to make electric vehicles worth adopting.

Challenges in Electric Van and Truck Uptake

Several factors contribute to the slow adoption of electric vans and trucks in commercial fleets. The higher cost of electric vehicles compared to their internal combustion counterparts, coupled with the capital cost of charging infrastructure installation, poses huge challenges for fleet operators especially in the current economic climate we are living in. Additionally, the relatively slow pace and geographically patchy charging infrastructure development across the UK (especially for larger and heavier vehicles), range limitations, and payload issues further hinder the electric vehicle van and truck transition.

Commercial fleet operators face unique challenges due to the diverse nature of their operations with vehicles used for commercial purposes which often require bespoke features such as racking, refrigeration, inverters, tail-lifts and electrical equipment. These additional requirements can have a negative impact on the range of electric vehicles, the vehicle payload and add complexity to the transition process.

Encouraging Electric Van and Truck Adoption

Despite these challenges, several companies have already embraced electric vans for last-mile delivery services including the Royal Mail, Amazon, and Tesco’s who are among the organisations making swift progress in transitioning their fleets to electric vehicles. Local authorities, such as Islington Council, have also set ambitious targets to have their entire fleet electrified by 2030 and they are currently leading the way within the public sector in terms of making that transition including the more difficult heavier goods fleet vehicles weighing over 3.5 tonnes.

To facilitate the adoption of electric trucks, a breakthrough in longer-range haulage vehicles in the near future is crucial. The Department of Transport (DFT) plans to publish details on the support they can provide to the heavy goods vehicle (HGV) fleet sector in 2024, including potential exemptions to the proposed 2035 end-of-sale deadline for vehicles under 26 tonnes. The DFT will also address HGV charging infrastructure which at the moment is near non-existent.

Increasing Options for Electric Vans

The good news is the market for electric vans is expanding at a rapid rate, with more options now available the ever before. Various manufacturers are also set to introduce new electric vans in the next 18 months including Ford’s anticipated E-transit custom and E-courier, as well as Iveco’s diverse weight E-daily range, this will provide commercial fleet operators with more choices, particularly with the payloads they require. The Maxus E-deliver 3 and 9 vans are already available, with the mid-size E-deliver 7 being available for order soon.

Renault’s Trafic E-Tech, joining the existing Master E-Tech and Kangoo E-Tech, and further offerings from the Stellantis group are additional options for commercial fleet operators which should help that electric vehicle transition. Chinese manufacturer BYD will also release their electric ETP3 van, and the Nissan Townstar is another upcoming model worth considering with a towing capacity of 1,500kg.

There are some specific fleet management options and tools intended for electric fleets, too. Read our guide to find out more.

Advancements in Battery Technology

As electric vehicle technology evolves, improvements in battery technology will play a vital role in fleet operators making that transition to electric vehicles with increased confidence. Over the next 20 years, we can expect to see lighter, more powerful, and cheaper batteries with reduced environmental impact. The development of battery technologies that minimise the use of rare and expensive earth minerals like cobalt and nickel will be a positive step forward.

Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, which do not contain cobalt and nickel, are already being used by some vehicle manufacturers and no doubt more will be making that switch instead of the more common lithium-ion battery. Solid-state batteries, considered safer and capable of longer range and will provide shorter charging times, are also under discussion with Toyota announcing recently that their solid-state battery will produce a range of 745 miles and can be charged in 10 minutes, however we will have to wait until 2027 to see if this materialises nevertheless this is still positive news. Other potential battery technologies being developed include sodium-iron, zinc-air, and silicon anode, and as electric vehicles sales increase globally we will need as many options in terms of battery technology improvements as possible.

The Future of Electric Vehicles

The future of the transportation industry remains uncertain for small and medium size businesses (SME’s) with many not having the finances to currently move their fleets to electric vehicles particularly when you consider the related infrastructure costs and the problems related to charging these vehicles on longer-haul journeys. This has led to conversations around hydrogen fuel cell vehicles or hydrogen liquid vehicles being a potential alternative to electric vehicles (see The Race to Net Zero). However, as stated above; current battery technology has already undergone significant improvements, and further advancements are expected very soon. As battery technology continues to evolve, electric vehicles will become more efficient and environmentally friendly, and it remains to be seen how hydrogen can compete with battery electric in the very near future.

In addition to battery advancements, vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology holds promise as a game-changer in the energy industry and we await the combined charging system (CCS) protocol supporting V2G sometime in 2025. V2G technology will allow electric vehicles to export energy back into the grid when needed or initially back into a home, building or a fleet depot. This technology has the potential to revolutionise how we perceive electric vehicles and their very important role in the energy sector.

Environmental Impact and the Need for Transition

The transitioning from traditional internal combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles is essential for fleet operators and individuals alike. The road transport industry is the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, contributing to air pollution and climate change. Diesel vehicles, in particular, are responsible for a significant portion of harmful air pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.

According to the DFT, the road transport industry was responsible for emitting 99 MtCO2e (million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) in 2020 with little improvement since then. This means transport is the largest emitting sector of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the UK with nearly 50% of the most harmful air pollutants which includes nitrogen oxides (NOX) and particulate matter (PM) coming from the road transport industry and in particular diesel vehicles so it is imperative we collectively do what we can within our industry to reduce this.

With the impending 2030 end-of-sale date for new petrol and diesel vehicles, it is crucial to act swiftly to reduce emissions and improve air quality and embracing electric vehicles in commercial fleets is not only environmentally responsible but also aligns with the growing environmentally conscious consumer demand for businesses to have sustainable practices.

Taking Steps Towards Electric Fleet Adoption

To facilitate the transition to electric vehicles, commercial fleet operators can take several steps and receive assistance to begin this transition. Many e-mobility and specialist energy companies now offer complete turnkey or end-to-end solutions which includes utilising fleets current telematics to recommend suitable electric vehicle replacements within your fleet. These companies will also conduct energy surveys to see what available power you currently have or what you may need and thereafter install the necessary charging infrastructure, tailored to your fleet’s needs. Additionally, low-emission plug-in vehicle grants are still available from the government, providing financial incentives for adopting electric vehicles.

The transition should be approached by targeting what I would call the “low-hanging fruit” vehicles within the fleet, such as your urban or last-mile delivery vehicles which predominately reside at depots overnight or which come back to your depot for longer periods of time throughout the day. These vehicles often have predictable routes and can be easily replaced with electric alternatives, provided that the total cost of ownership, including infrastructure costs, is feasible for your business.

The Road Ahead

The future of electric vehicles in commercial fleets is within reach. Despite the challenges, the increasing availability of electric vans and ongoing advancements in battery technology are paving the way for a cleaner and more sustainable transportation industry. By addressing the obstacles, embracing innovative solutions, and working towards a collective goal, commercial fleet operators can contribute to a greener future and meet the growing demand for environmentally friendly transportation options.

The pace that electric vehicle charging infrastructure is now being rolled out in the UK is improving with nearly 44,000 (May 2023) charging points across the UK which is a 38% increase from the same point last year.

However, while the future of electric vehicles in commercial fleets holds immense potential, there are still hurdles to overcome. The industry must continue to innovate and address concerns surrounding cost, range, and payload limitations. Collaboration between manufacturers, government entities, and fleet operators is crucial to drive progress and accelerate the adoption of electric vans and trucks. With advancements in battery technology, expanding charging infrastructure, and a collective commitment to sustainability, the future of electric vehicles in commercial fleets looks promising and the journey has just begun.

Written by:
Chris is Head of Corporate Fleet, Transport and Accessible Community Transport at the London Borough of Islington, where he is responsible for over 500 vehicles and 150+ staff as the local authority’s licence holder. With more than 20 years of overall public sector experience, he has extensive knowledge of all things fleet management and vehicle tracking, with a specialist interest in fleet electrification. Currently, he is leading the transition of the Islington council fleet from fossil fuelled to electric and alternative fuel vehicles in line with its 2030 net zero pledge. He is committed to deploying new and innovative technologies wherever possible, including an award-winning electrification programme that has seen the borough upcycle the internal combustion engines of its refuse collection fleet (aka bin wagons). A well-known and respected figure in the fleet and transportation industry, Chris regularly shares his best practice and knowledge at trade shows, most recently speaking at Fleet & Mobility Live – the UK’s largest fleet and mobility conference. Reviewing Expert Market’s vehicle tracking articles with a keen eye to everything from fleet and driver risk compliance to forward-looking trends like V2G (vehicle-to-grid). In his spare time, Chris runs ultra-marathons and is a keen supporter of both Spurs and Saracens. All views and content endorsements expressed here are Chris’ own and do not reflect the views of his employer, the London Borough of Islington.