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Meet the new van, same as the old van

Date: 10 December 2012

British project Emerald Automotive has produced the prototype for a hybrid-electric van it believes could revolutionise large van fleets, but as James Dallas discovers, it's reassuringly familiar.

Emerald Automotive is to bring an ultra-low emissions, lightweight delivery van to market, following a project co-funded by the public money from the Technology Strategy Board as part of its Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform.

The t-0001 is targeted at leading blue-chip companies running fleets of at least 40,000 vans. Emerald boss Andy Tempest says the development team started without any preconceived ideas but asked fleet managers what they wanted from a 3.5-tonne delivery van. The most important requirements were economy with no impact on payload capacity plus the elimination of the range anxiety that inevitably dogs pure electric vehicles.

Emerald used a Ford Transit as the base donor vehicle while taking the 1.4-litre diesel from the Fiesta and adding range-extender technology.

The rear-wheel drive van features an aluminium chassis, space-frame cab structure and lightweight composite body panels. These techniques, more commonly found in motorsport, helped to preserve the van's 1400kg payload and 5.2m3 load volume. Equally important, insists technical director Ian Collins, is that the van will also pass the most stringent safety tests.

Two prototype Range-Extended Electric Vehicles (REEV), using lithium batteries and a 1.4 diesel engine range-extender, achieved CO2 emissions of 32g/km coupled with fuel consumption of 232mpg, but Emerald reckons these can be improved to 25g/km and 300mpg respectively by the time the van is set to go into production in 2014.

The batteries power the van for about 60 miles via a 75kW electric motor before the diesel engine kicks in, driving a 54kW generator, which recharges the batteries and provides current to the electric motor, stretching the vehicle's range to 400 miles. The diesel engine does not power the wheels directly.

Tempest describes the t-0001 project as using "disruptive technology" in that its engineering methods break the mould and are "designed for purpose". He says manufacturers that have cobbled an electric motor and range-extender onto a standard steel monocoque frame have lost a third of the payload in the process and merely "created a mule".

The van will have a price tag of about £32,000. Tempest says the firm needs sales of 4000 vans to break even and has a base business plan of producing 10,000 units a year (following first-year production of 5000), rising to 100,000. He reckons fleets are looking at a payback time of 22 months on their orders and cites average fuel savings of £7200 per vehicle a year.

"It will save them a fortune on fuel," he says, and claims that over four years a big corporate fleet of at least 40,000 vehicles could slash £1bn off its fuel bill.

Emerald aims to make use of telematics in conjunction with the vehicle control unit (VCU) for route planning. For example, the system could be set up to switch to electric power when entering an emission-free zone, having conserved enough charge to do so during the journey beforehand.

Production will be based around a central manufacturing hub in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, but the firm insists it will set up a final assembly point in the UK and in other European markets.

It adds that the UK is a prime market for the t-0001 due to the likely proliferation of emission-free zones and the high cost of fuel.