Last reviewed 5 November 2013

Are electric vehicles finally proving themselves? Rob Bell investigates.

Electric vehicles (EVs) have been enthusiastically backed by the Government and the administrations of cities such as London as a solution to the pollution problems caused by the cars we drive, both in our own time and for business.

However, concerns over price, patchy recharging infrastructure and range have made fleet managers reluctant to make the leap into the unknown. While these concerns may have been well founded in the recent past, EV technology has matured rapidly, and organisations such as Cenex (Centre of excellence for low carbon and fuel cell technologies) — a delivery agency established with support from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to “promote UK market development in low carbon and fuel cell technologies for transport applications” — are confidently claiming the hour of the EV has arrived.

EV report

Cenex has announced the conclusion of an Ultra-Low Carbon Vehicle (ULCV) demonstrator programme for the Office for Low Emissions Vehicles (OLEV) and Technology Strategy Boards (TSB). It published a results report, Assessing the Viability of EVs in Daily Life, which analyses the experiences of 349 drivers covering more than 1.5 million miles during 270,000 journeys.

The study found drivers consider EVs simple to drive and performance stereotypes associated with previous generation EVs were successfully countered, with current EVs seen as fun to drive, smooth and rated very highly on acceleration. The report says: “Over a third of drivers stated their EV had superior performance to their normal car and most found charging ‘even more straightforward than they had initially imagined’”.

Cenex CEO Robert Evans says: “Uptake of electric vehicles has been slower than some expected, with real and perceived barriers, including consumer concern over range anxiety and limited public infrastructure. However, this report proves EVs are extremely viable in daily life.

“Government and industry players are committed to sustained effort to support what is expected to be a gradual uptake of plug-in vehicles in the market, running in parallel with the increased use of plug-in capability, as a means of offering consumers fuel cost savings and improved environmental performance.

“Likewise, vehicle recharging infrastructure is continually growing. The UK national ‘Plugged-in Places Scheme’ has already helped install over 5000 public charge points in key areas, including business parks, tourist attractions and leisure centres, with the scheme being extended as well as being complemented by new national measures.”

Savings to be made

Alongside positive feedback from drivers, as well as costs of EVs themselves coming down, it is claimed savings can also be made through the switch away from ever-more-expensive fossil fuels.

According to the Energy Saving Trust (EST), if just 10% of London businesses would switch to using electric vans, they would make a collective saving of nearly £200 million. The capital, which now has over 1300 public charging points, was the focus of a detailed business fleet analysis by the EST, which found potential fuel savings of 75% to organisations and businesses through going electric. Additional savings include 100% capital allowances, the plug-in vehicle grant and no Congestion Charge in central London (which amounts to around £2200 per year per van).

EST Knowledge Manager Caroline Watson says: “There is a strong business case for the adoption of electric vehicles for business fleets. The financial benefits through going electric are clear and relevant to all businesses, whether you’re in the private or public sector, a small- to medium-sized enterprise or a larger organisation.

“Through the ‘Plugged-in Fleets Initiative’ we have already demonstrated big savings through conservative estimates of just 10% of vans registered in London. These could be even greater if more businesses begin to recognise the benefits of going electric. At the same time, the practicality of having an electric vehicle has never been greater, with over 1300 charging points already in London.”

Cenex Technical Specialist Steve Carroll says: “It’s definitely coming to the point now where EVs are a viable option for business fleets. The cost of vehicles is dropping twice a year on average, and packages such as battery rental agreements are taking a lot of the risk out of the proposition for fleet managers.

“In addition, while the expansion of public charging infrastructure is helping make EVs more attractive to private car owners, it has never been a major consideration for businesses, which prefer to control their own charging regimes,” Carroll says. “The key consideration is the daily range a fleet needs to achieve and whether that can be met with an EV.”

Ian Hobday, CEO of Liberty Electric Cars, agrees. He says: “EVs are practical for company fleets in certain categories — if you’re making deliveries, picking up passengers and so on, doing a fairly regular route and going back to base at night for charging, then your fleet is eminently suitable for conversion to EVs.

“In some parts of the country, the switch is more appropriate than in others. In London, for example, which has the Congestion Charge exemption and where some boroughs offer free parking for EVs, it’s a complete no-brainer.”

Inner city applications in the capital should mean fleet managers see a payback on investment in EVs of between 2 and 2.5 years. “If you go into outlying areas where there is no congestion charge, but you benefit from parking privileges or the low cost of recharging, you’re looking at 3–3.5 years,” Hobday says.

Liberty’s philosophy is that if its staff believe a fleet would benefit from the switch to EVs, it will arrange a test drive, but “we won’t encourage someone with the wrong kind of fleet to take them on. It would only backfire on us when the client came back in two weeks complaining that the vehicles don’t meet their requirements.”

With this in mind, Hobday says fleets with cars or vans travelling more than 100 miles per day should hold off making the change — for now. “The big remaining issue is distance more than anything, although there are already some vehicles capable of doing 70–80–100 miles between charges. However, at the moment, I’d say hang-fire. Energy storage technology is improving rapidly and I’d expect that, within three years, we’ll see significant development leading to a range extended to 3–400 miles — we’ll get to 1000 eventually.”

Carroll says fleet managers’ first move should be to try out EVs to see whether they will work for them. “Look at the range of EVs available, understand the range you’ll get out of them in real world conditions, and deploy them on trial first of all.”

Alternatively, managers looking to understand how EVs might fit into their fleets can go to specialist organisations such as Cenex that have modelling software allowing evaluation of how EVs will perform within the necessary parameters.

“People are still cautious, but with capital costs dropping, diesel so expensive and electricity so cheap, along with more examples of people doing it — particularly in inner cities where vehicles do low mileages per day — the larger fleets are showing more interest.

“There’s growing momentum as the economic model becomes more appealing, and once drivers have tried EVs, the fact that they’re a smooth, quiet drive with very good performance breaks down a lot of barriers — we get excellent feedback from drivers.”

Hobday is of a like mind. He says: “People still don’t understand what EVs can do. We try to lend vehicles to businesses, such as florists doing deliveries for a day, and then ask them whether they want to switch over, and they generally say yes. “Apart from anything else, the driver experience is incredible, there’s none of the vibration you get with diesel engines, no noise, and people love it.”

Conclusions

The conclusions from Cenex’s research are clear. For many (but not all) fleets, while EVs are still the new kids on the block, their day has definitely come. In addition, with the advice (and modelling software) that organisations such as Cenex have to offer, and the Hobdays of this world just a “phone call away”, establishing whether the time is right for your fleet to make the change is easy.

As Hobday says: “Talk to us. Have a conversation with us and if we think your fleet is suitable, we’ll give you one to try.”

Cenex “has used its leading-edge, low carbon vehicle expertise to develop a new approach to Fleet Carbon Reduction”. This business support package uses its Fleet Carbon Reduction Tool: a bespoke simulation tool, backed by real-world experience to quantify the environmental and economic impact of deploying low carbon vehicles.