As the UK’s first-adopter of a purpose-built 16-tonne electric vehicle, DHL is already finding out what life may be like after the 2030 end to new petrol and diesel vehicle sales. Electric vans are already growing in significance, but the larger scale is still somewhat of a step into the unknown. So, what is it like to operate a 16-tonne EV?
“It has so far exceeded expectations,” Ian Clough, Managing Director, Network Logistics and Transport, UK & Ireland, DHL Supply Chain, told us. “We have experience of previous trials and had teething problems with power failures and operational challenges. After three weeks of being a regular member of the fleet the EV has proved itself and we are talking about making it work harder.”
The Volvo FL Electric 4×2 rigid chosen by DHL to make last mile deliveries into London’s West End shopping district began on conservative 50-mile routes in November and has already had its workload increased. It offers, said DHL, a perfect solution for making deliveries in densely populated inner-city locations where air and noise pollution challenges are greatest.
“We started at 50 miles to establish its real-time operational range and were returning from routes with over half the vehicle’s range remaining,” continued Clough. “Idle fuel use, which is a major factor in London, heavily impacts efficiency for ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles, but with an EV it doesn’t have the same effect. For this reason, we don’t foresee that the dynamics of lockdown will make much of a difference to our initial experience. We have been gradually building confidence that it can be used for longer routes currently up to just over 90 miles – we initially needed to maintain caution in order to preserve our high service levels for customers.”
The nature of the routes undertaken by the FL Electric, operating within ULEZ restrictions, has enabled DHL to overcome a potential stumbling block associated with EV fleet operation: charging times. An overnight charge at its Purfleet base is sufficient to prepare the vehicle for its day ahead. This negates the need for a more expensive onsite fast charge infrastructure helping to reduce costs and the risk of delays caused by reliance on a still evolving public charging network.
“Charging at the depot gives us total control over our vehicle,” explained Clough. “We are currently investing in our warehouse operations across the UK and all ducting required for future EV charging infrastructure is being fitted at each site.”
Clough stated that, ultimately, the UK would need the help of government and industry to evolve its available fuelling infrastructure if large fleet operators such as DHL were to move, for example, from diesel to EVs for urban use, and alternatively-fuelled vehicles, such as gas options, for long haul. In the meantime, as part of its Go Green initiative, the company aims to futureproof its facilities by preparing for an electric future.
DHL currently operates a fleet of around 5,000 vehicles in the UK, which requires an intensive vehicle maintenance and replacement schedule. The number of EVs entering this fleet in the future is, said Clough, dependant upon the success of its debut 16-tonne Volvo FL and the rapidly evolving technology and cost dynamics of electrification. For example, EVs are inspiring some of the fastest technological changes in the history of commercial vehicles and the drive for enhanced efficiency, power, range, and battery control and cooling technologies results in a competitive yet clouded vision of the future.
What is clearer, is the positive feedback from DHL drivers to have taken the wheel of its 16-tonne EV. “Drivers have been very positive about the drive,” explained Clough. “One of the key factors is familiarity – from the cockpit it doesn’t look significantly different from our existing Volvo diesel trucks. Drivers have also reported great acceleration and comfort.”
Clough’s closing comment offers perhaps the biggest compliment to EV adoption, given the huge technological – and perhaps perceived operational – jump from ICE: “It has fitted in perfectly; a normal member of the fleet.”