Urban delivery fleets are often considered the natural environment for electric vehicles, so it stands to reason that a logistics giant such as global parcel company UPS should be one of the pioneers of EVs in the British capital.
The company got into the London plug-in game early, with its first EVs going into service in 2008.
Peter Harris, Director of Sustainability at UPS Europe, said, “A lot of our routes in Central London are relatively short, so we don’t have particular range restriction difficulties and it’s ideal in terms of being able to address some of the pressing air quality concerns the city has.”
Range anxiety is a frequent hang-up for businesses operating electric vehicles. UPS’s London fleet hasn’t been affected by it in the slightest but power supply, which reared its head when the firm reached 10 EVs, has been a far bigger issue. An upgrade to the local supply bought some time and capacity but it wasn’t cheap, nor was it a permanent fix if the plug-in fleet was to expand, so the company looked for alternatives.
“We wanted [something] that would get beyond this conventional grid upgrade, so we’re implementing a technology called a smart grid, which will make much better use of the available energy that was already present throughout the entire charging period but [which] we didn’t have access to, because our vehicles were recharging in the conventional way.”
Via the medium of various different tie-ups, including with Innovate UK – a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – UPS has embarked on a trial of a smart charging system, with the capacity to optimise the timing and the amount of available power based on grid loads and the fleet’s needs.
Harris explained, “It will be a combination of a conventional grid upgrade with a smart grid, in conjunction with local energy storage. It’s a two-year project that started in April, and we want to come out at the end of it with a strategy on the optimum way to electrify any of our urban fleets. We want to be able to take the strategy into any of our buildings in Europe, or indeed globally, that will allow us to lay out the optimum approach.”
“If this smart grid is successful in the way that we think it will be, it will unlock the ability for us to effectively deploy an entirely electric Central London fleet – that’s all 170 vehicles. If that is the case, then we will certainly plan to proceed down that road.”
The move has allowed the firm to increase the number of electric vehicles based out of its Kentish Town depot. It currently has 52, was limited to 63 by its outgoing power supply, and can now handle a further 20, bringing the total to 72. The trucks themselves are 7.5-tonne items, converted from UPS’s existing diesel vehicles.
“What we’ve been doing for the past five or six years is a conversion programme in conjunction with a German company called EFA-S. We take Mercedes Vario-based distribution vehicles – that already have UPS bodies on them – but at mid-life, which is about the seven-year mark, we work with EFA-S to convert them from diesel to electric. Some of the work is done in-house at UPS and some of the work is done in Germany. We’ve done about 150 of them across Europe now and about a third of those are in Central London.
“It’s been a practice that has worked out well for us [but] it’s not where we want to be long term; it’s a bridge technology. We want to eventually to get to the point where we can deploy brand new vehicles from the ground up. The market doesn’t yet supply those, so this is what we are doing in order to not be held back.”
The first 10 of the new vehicles are due to hit the streets in the final quarter of this year, the second 10 in the first quarter of 2018 and, according to Harris, they will perform exactly the same duties as conventional, diesel trucks. “One of the things that we require from our alternative fuel programme is that the vehicles are able to step in and replicate what their diesel predecessor would have done. So if you looked at an electric P80, as we call them, they look exactly the same as their diesel counterpart; even inside as far as the driver is concerned, there is very little change.”
Harris admits that pure electric delivery trucks don’t work in every scenario but says the firm is also working on range extenders capable of switching between internal combustion for the motorway and battery power for zero-emission travel in cities.
“For most of our other locations, pure EV is not the perfect solution because [they] require a greater range than a pure EV can, at the moment, provide. To address that challenge, we are working on another technology, also with Innovate UK and in conjunction with a company called Tether, which is a British start-up, and we have developed a range extended EV. It’s just like the EFA-S conversion, but this vehicle also carries a range extender engine, which acts as a series hybrid. It’s not connected to the wheels, but it’s able to drive a generator to put more charge back into the battery during the day.
“Take, for example, the ones that we’re building at the moment, that we intend to deploy in Birmingham. We serve Birmingham from our base in Tamworth; with a pure EV we just can’t get from Tamworth to Birmingham, do a day’s work, and get back again. But what we will do is operate the range extender on the to/from routes, then switch it off at the boundary to the Birmingham city area, so the vehicle operates as a zero-emission EV all day, in Birmingham, just like our EFA-S ones do in London. The driver won’t control it; it will be controlled by geofencing, and the range extender will just be used for that to/from route to enable it to cover the distance.”