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Take the ultra-low road

Date: 24 May 2016   |   Author: Jack Carfrae

Plug-in vehicles are good for us and we should be driving them, say the Government and the salespeople.

In an ideal world, we would, but your average fleet operator is likely cynical about taking on cars and vans that are limited in range and can't be brimmed immediately at the pumps - and rightly so.  

But what about those who have taken the plunge? The corporate sector accounts for around two-
thirds of plug-in vehicle sales, so it's clearly possible to operate ultra-low emissions vehicles in a practical capacity.

The business appetite for ultra-low emissions vehicles is "partly because of plug-in hybrids," according to Mike Potter, managing director of leasing firm FleetDrive and chairman of the BVRLA's leasing broker committee. "They've been very well received by company car drivers, particularly when you get some of the prestige badges like Mercedes and BMW - and the [Mitsubishi] Outlander has been a great success.

"However, they do need to come with a little bit of a health warning on fuel economy because the European method of testing emissions and fuel economy, as we're all being made aware, is not quite fit for purpose."

FleetDrive has around 2300 vehicles on its books, circa 600 of which are plug-ins leased under the FleetDrive Electric banner, with a further 150 about to find homes with businesses.

"In all the time we've been running these cars I think we've only had three people run out of electricity - I'm absolutely certain a lot more people would have run out of fuel [in equivalent petrol or diesel models] - mainly because they're a lot more careful about how they plan what they're doing," adds Potter.

These days, 'how much will it cost?' is a more frequently asked question than 'how far will it go?' according to Potter. "We don't have to explain about range so much now - people know that when they come to us. Cost is [an issue] but that's changed. When you look at the lease prices now they're probably 50-100% less than even two years ago in some cases."

Potter claims it takes "about a month of using [an electric] vehicle - just to get used to the restricted range and the fact that you charge it at home", and that bedding in period is something that's echoed among fellow EV specialists.

"If you take one for a run for half an hour you get an idea of how quick they are and how they handle," says Karl Anders, Nissan's national EV sales manager. "If you take it for a day or two you don't really get it, but if you take it for more than two or three weeks then it starts to make sense.

Run them for a couple of months you begin to understand the advantages and that's when people start taking bigger batches."  

Nissan has a large proportion of Leaf hatchbacks operating in the public sector, as Anders explains: "About 95 council, fire, police or NHS organisations have taken our EVs in the last year and they're normally used as things like pool cars.

"Our biggest one recently has been West Midlands Police, who took 30 24kW Leafs a few years ago and they're now coming to the end of their life cycle. They've worked very well so they've bought another 30 Leafs, 30kW [the latest model with a more powerful battery and a claimed 155-mile range] this time."

The limited distance full-electric vehicles can travel on a single charge renders them off the menu for what you might call traditional, high-mileage sales rep fleets, but they are still relevant for perk company car drivers.

"You've got a growing number of people who have [full EVs] as company cars - as in someone's personal company car, not so much a pool car," adds Anders. "It's particularly relevant when they're only commuting into work because of the low tax."

"There are quite a lot of circumstances in which electric vehicles are useful as company cars," says Poppy Welch, head of plug-in car campaign Go Ultra Low. "Research we've done shows that the average commute is less than 10 miles and even a pure-EV's average range is around 100 miles, so that's well
within the range of something like 90% of all journeys.

"If there is motorway driving involved, 96% of motorway service stations have rapid chargers where you can charge the vehicle in half an hour. It does involve a little more planning but it's absolutely possible."
Potter claims that perk and salary-sacrifice drivers are actually the ideal candidates for full-electric vehicles: "The real sweet spots for these cars are actually for perk users - commuter cars rather than fleet business cars. People who have company cars are very often 20,000-30,000-mile drivers - so that's not for them.

"The perk company car users or salary-sacrifice people that are doing a decent commute - they're the ones that can make the savings. We do a salary-sacrifice scheme for Brompton Bikes and they've saved a fortune compared to what they were paying out."

White van man

Vans are often said to be the prime application for anything with a plug, especially if they aren't straying too far from the depot or if they have prearranged routes.

"Vans, particularly for urban logistics and deliveries, are the spot-on niche for electrification," says Denis Naberezhnykh, head of low-carbon vehicle and intelligent transport systems (ITS) technology at the Transport Research Laboratory. "Relatively speaking, [petrol and diesel vans] do a combination of short mileage and a lot of stop-start driving and the fuel consumption for the distances covered is disproportionately poor."

"You tend to find lots of organisations that use them do so from depots," adds Nissan's Anders, "so there's a lot of shuffling backwards and forwards. When you've got a charger in the depot and the van is frequently returning to base, the range is a lot longer. They can go out for a couple of hours, come back, bit of downtime and they're out again."

There's money to be saved by using electric vans in urban areas, but in addition to planning your routes and time back at the depot for charging, it's worth bearing in mind where your drivers live if they're going to be taking the vans home with them.   

"London has the extra draw of the congestion charge not being applicable to electric vans, so the cost model is off the chart," says FleetDrive Electric's Potter. "Unfortunately, a lot of people who work in London often don't live anywhere close. They'll be coming from outside the M25 and that first bit of the journey, without any rapid-charge infrastructure, makes it difficult. That is being addressed, but it's a bit sad that London has less rapid chargers than Newcastle.

"Where they really need that infrastructure is the North and South Circular roads - that mid-point on the journey in and out. But it is changing and I think TfL are getting to grips with it. The people I've got that use electric vans in London love them and I think there are still a lot of businesses that could use them there."

TRL's Naberezhnykh claims one way round the issue is to reserve a charger at a pertinent location. "What we're seeing most operators, who are implementing substantial volumes of electric vehicles, do is one of two things: either they just ensure they have a back-to-base operation where the vehicles will come back, recharge and they schedule their services and routing appropriately, or they create private charging hubs in key locations in a city.

"Car clubs are a really good example of that. They have to be able to access charging infrastructure so they make sure they have it even in public locations but not necessarily publicly accessible - so it might be a parking space only for that vehicle."

Who can save and how much?

A report published in 2013 by the Transport Research Laboratory and British Gas named the industries most likely to make savings by using electric vehicles.

Conducted in late 2012, the study claimed that the transport and distribution sector stood to make the largest savings, at £486,000, by converting 10% of their fleet to electric vehicles - or £2.43m for a 50% electric fleet. Other industries named as prime candidates for savings through EVs were financial services, emergency services/NHS trusts, service industries (including IT, leisure and media) heavy industries, and architecture and construction.

"We looked at the different industry sectors and quantified the potential savings in terms of annual running costs for the sector, as well as the impact on CO2 reductions," says Denis Naberezhnykh, TRL's head of low-carbon vehicle and intelligent transport systems (ITS).

"It essentially varied depending on the exact make-up of vehicles and how long [the business] operated them for, [but] on average you could see £350,000 annual cost savings for a typical fleet operator if they converted 10% of their fleet to EVs."

Naberezhnykh believes the savings could be even greater for fleets doing the same thing today, largely because of the energy mix: "Along with that you would then get a CO2 well-to-wheel reduction - including the electricity grid mix in 2012 - of something around 5%-6%. If we were to do that [again] today, I think that would be substantially better because the electricity supply is being decarbonised very quickly."