Initial enthusiasm for commercial electric vehicles is being tempered by poor battery performance, range anxiety and low resale value. Advances in telematics have helped, to an extent. Yet large-scale adoption appears to be still some way off. Christine Whitehouse reports.
It’s six years almost to the day since the first commercial electric vehicle took to the road. Made by Smith Electric Vehicles, now U.S.-based but then a British firm best known for its iconic milk float, the “Edison” had a top speed of 50mph and a range of up to 150 miles on a single charge. Based on the Ford Transit, it even looked like a ‘proper’ van, so it wasn’t likely to alienate drivers as some of the early prototypes had.
Yet, despite the initial fanfare – British retailer Sainsbury’s and the Dutch arm of TNT were early, enthusiastic adopters – commercial electric vehicles soon started to look like an idea whose time had not yet come. The old Zebra (sodium-nickel-chloride) batteriesfailed regularly, and were costly and time-consuming to replace. Diesel trucks were simply more cost-efficient.
In 2010, Smith set up the first detailed telematics system for electric commercial vehicles, initially to provide the data-monitoring required for government-funded projects in the U.S. and E.U. (Previously, there had been some GPS location tracking, but that was all.) But the system proved invaluable in other respects.
Raphael Cohn, co-founder of StormMQ, one of the firms which helped Smith to design the software, says of that time: “Smith wanted proof that battery failure was the fault of battery manufacturers, who were notorious for not paying out on warranties.”
The system sent data from trucks on three continents across an old 2G mobile network, cheaply and reliably. “We used a clever compression algorithm that would squeeze every last drop out of the network,” Raphael says. “We were gathering as much data as a mid-range hedge fund, so we could examine in detail battery charge levels, temperature, accelerometer profiles and other things.”
With the knowledge gained from this detailed telemetry data, Smith invested heavily in vehicle diagnostics, increasing the rate of availability and lowering downtime. It employed ten full-time software developers who handed over trillions of lines of data to engineers.
Ross Cooney, engineering software and telemetry manager at Smith, says: “On a daily basis we record nearly two billion data points, all of which is pored over by engineers. The minutiae are important.”
(For more on EV telematics, see Telematics and emerging electric vehicle technology, part I  and Telematics and emerging electric vehicle technology, part II .)
Data is king
The aim was to bring the time spent on the road, or in service, of electric vehicles into line with diesel trucks, which were seen as less technically complicated, more robust and reliable, with a near-99% rate of availability.
Ross says they are now “very close” to that. “Telematics has enabled us to identify faults remotely and arrive with the right battery modules, tools and protective gear so we can do any corrective work straight way," he says. "Without telematics the customer would ring up with a problem, an engineer would jump into a car or onto a plane, phone back to base with details of the required part, which would then be couriered over. The truck could be out off-road for several days.”
The extensive data available has also helped Smith with continued product development. The company recorded over 2.8 million electric miles to see how batteries, motors and chargers work in real-life, rather than test situations. This has led to a complete redesign of the motors, improving efficiency of 80% to 92-97%, compared to diesel trucks’ 40%. Vehicle life-time has increased by around a year, from seven to eight years.
To what extent Smith, and other, newer entrants to the market – around 30 of them – can “energetically change the world,” as it states on its website – is open to speculation.
The economics of electric commercial vehicles – high upfront costs but low fuel and maintenance costs – should appeal more to fleet operators than to private motorists. But despite government subsidies and tax breaks, most big corporates’ initial enthusiasm has waned over the years.
Back in 2007, Sainsbury's announced plans to replace its entire urban delivery fleet with electric vehicles by 2010; it still has only 70 electric vehicles in a fleet of thousands.TNT has its original 51, and not the 200 vehicles (10% of its Express fleet) it had hoped to have by now. Deutsche Post DHL has 12 out of a fleet of around 7,500. “Potentially we see that increasing by a small number, but the majority of our work is too heavy for EVs,” says Ian MacAuley, innovation manager at DHL Supply Chain.
Smith’s two Irish customers, Celtic Linen and the Office for Public Works (OPW), each have a single truck. “We bought one in late 2011, as an experiment,” says Pat Cranahan, OPW’s logistics manager. “We want to test its practicality before committing ourselves further.”
The U.S. Marine Corps has two; Coca-Cola has four. (On the other hand, Frito-Lay and FedEx, two of its biggest customers, have just bought 200 apiece.)
Long road ahead
Ross Cooney believes telematics has some way to go in terms of improving customer service (a “Minority Report”-like scenario where telematics can predict faults and fix them before the customer notices, as well as detailed feedback on individual driver style to improve range) and lowering manufacturing costs (the goal is an ambitious 30%).
On the customer side, Ian MacAuley wants to see telematics systems be able to do a straightforward comparison between how efficiently or safely drivers are performing in diesel vs. electric. Currently the driving characteristics of the technology require different techniques to getting the most out of the vehicle.
However, obstacles to widespread adoption may be more than telematics can solve, at least for the moment. Batteries are still a fundamental problem, with a short life and poor resale value. Ian MacAuley says that for DHL, “right now, batteries on heavy commercial vehicles are not a solution as we would need a full trailer to match current performance.”
Recharge time is high – it can take three days although 6 to 8 hours is more the norm. There are solutions: liquid batteries recharge in four to five minutes, and hydrogen is an option. But funding has been patchy. What’s more, there is a dearth of charging stations. In January 2011, there were 1,800 in the US, in contrast to more than 120,000 petrol stations.
And, despite incentive schemes, electric vehicles still cost around two and a half times more than diesel. Ross Cooney says customers will begin to see a significant return on investment after three years, but only if they “sweat the asset” by driving it on average at least 100 miles a day over that period.
(For more on electric mobility, see Telematics and electric mobility, part I  and Telematics and electric mobility, part II .)
Christine Whitehouse is a regular contributor to TU.
For all the latest telematics trends, check out V2V & V2I for Auto Safety USA 2013  on July 9-10 in Novi, MI, Insurance Telematics USA 2013  on September 4-5 in Chicago, Telematics Russia 2013 in September in Moscow, Telematics LATAM 2013  in September in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Telematics Japan 2013  on October 8-10 in Tokyo and Telematics Munich 2013  on November 11-12.
For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013 , The Automotive HMI Report 2013 , Insurance Telematics Report 2013  and Fleet & Asset Management Report 2012 .