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Sales executive at GlobalVans

How electric vans have evolved

Electric Vans / Electric Van Guides / How electric vans have evolved

You might be forgiven for thinking that the electric van is a new thing. It’s only in very recent times that we’ve become accustomed to seeing new vehicles being launched seemingly every month, but these emission-free commercial vehicles go back quite a long way. Tim Cattlin takes a look at some of the early examples, and how they compare to the electric vans of today.

What Was The First Electric Van?

This is possibly open to debate – do you class the electric milk float as a commercial vehicle? Probably, as it is designed to carry goods and not passengers. But, let’s just think about what we’d consider to be a van as we all know it. In my opinion, the first electric light commercial vehicle was the Smith Edison, which to the outside observer looked exactly like a Ford Transit. No surprise really, as that is what the van started out as before the team at Smith’s Tyne and Wear factory got their hands on it. The Smith Edison was the first electric van to have a GVM (Gross Vehicle Mass) of under 3500kgs, allowing it to be driven by holders of a conventional licence. Introduced in 2007, it was fitted with a 90kw (120hp) electric motor which was powered by a pair of sodium nickel chloride batteries.

Although the payload was a very respectable 1200kg, a major problem was that the batteries were housed within the van loadspace, restricting the available room for goods and the box they were contained in open to being knocked about somewhat. Other issues? By today’s standard, the range was poor at only 60 to 100 miles, and the cost, at 3 times the price of a diesel equivalent (and no government subsidies to help) pretty hard to justify. The van did find homes in some major fleet customers, but uptake was slow and eventually, Smith Electric Vehicles was placed in administration.

What Came Next?

There have been a couple of pioneers of mainstream electric vans that opened up zero-emission vehicles to the masses. First, the Renault Kangoo ZE, an electrified version of the popular small van. Cited as the first full-production electric light commercial vehicle when launched in 2011, it was offered with a very modest 60hp electric motor, and whilst the official range was quoted at 106 miles from what would now be considered a tiny battery pack of just 22kWh, Renault was candid enough to suggest that in the real world, the van was more likely to achieve just 53-78 miles before running out of charge. The payload of around 625kg wasn’t great, but OK for many, if not the majority of users.

In these early days, potential customers were concerned about the long-term durability of the battery. Renault thought it had solved this by only supplying the van with a leased battery pack. In other words, you may have paid hard cash for the van, but the battery remained the property of Renault which claimed a monthly lease fee – a bit like the very old days when TVs were unreliable and you rented them so you didn’t get any shocking repair bills. The only issue here was when you wanted to sell or trade in the van – the next owner had to continue the lease payments. This policy deterred leasing companies from buying the Kangoo ZE as their remarketing process couldn’t cope with this arrangement. Understandably, used van buyers weren’t that keen either.

So, Not Just Renault Then?

No. Nissan enjoyed quite a bit of success with the eNV-200. A ‘large’ small van, it was launched in 2014 and often traded places with the Kangoo ZE for being the top-selling electric van across Europe. Originally with a similar, 22kWh battery pack, the van had a range (based on the old NEDC testing cycle) of 106 miles, the same as the Renault although independent testing concluded that the Nissan was only good for around 70 miles in reality. The 109hp electric motor made the van sprightly, even if not exactly exciting to drive but the vehicle proved quite popular, especially after subsequent upgrades were introduced including a bigger battery, and the e-NV200 continued in production longer than the diesel equivalent.

No Official Ford Products in Times Gone By?

There was, but only for a short time, and you’ve probably never seen one. In 2010 Ford entered into an arrangement with Canadian firm Azure Dynamics to produce a fully electric Transit Connect. Ford supplied a ‘glider’van (without engine and gearbox) to the company which then fitted a fully electric drivetrain. The 70hp motor was fuelled by a 28kWh battery giving a quoted but unsubstantiated range of 80 miles between charges. The payload was a fairly paltry 575kgs.

I drove one of these vans on a couple of occasions and at the time it was hard to ignore the novelty value of an almost silent driving experience. The project failed to take off and globally only around 500 units were sold before production stopped in 2012 as Azure Dynamics filed for bankruptcy.

So Things Are Much Better These Days…

Absolutely. If you look at the stats of the vans above and compare them to, say the Vauxhall Combo Electric. It’s got a 50kWh battery powering a 134hp electric motor, an official range of 175 miles which, I understand is achievable and a payload of up to 803kg. It’s also got the ability to tow a 750kg trailer. Not to mention the huge amount of driver aids and safety tech included as standard such as multimedia screens, air conditioning, cruise control etc. There are long warranties too, including support of up to 8 years for the battery in most cases.

Things have really come on in the last 10-15 years…