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Electric vehicles and the impact on route planning

Friday 1 November 2019 Demographic Data

Paul Dawsey's picture
By Paul Dawsey

Electric vehicles are a common sight on UK roads today. Mostly they’re private cars, but electric commercial vehicles are gradually becoming more mainstream.

We’re beyond an early adopter market in the consumer sector, but electric vehicles are still relatively expensive compared to their fossil fuel counterparts. It’s not surprising that commercial operators have been slower to launch electric vehicles: the added cost per vehicle soon becomes very significant in a regional or national fleet numbering tens, hundreds or thousands of vans or trucks.

There are also unknowns in the operating costs: with so little experience and evidence of electric vehicle performance over time, it’s hard for fleet managers and logistics firms to forecast how long a vehicle needs to stay on the road to achieve payback. Increasing maintenance and upkeep costs over a longer usage period are hard to predict and build into the financials. 

But there is good news for the environment. Electric vehicles are becoming cheaper to buy, and electric goods vehicles are increasing their load capacity. Up to now, companies have tended to publicise their electric vehicle usage as a corporate social responsibility exercise – often only deploying on a very limited trial basis. But large companies, including Sainsbury’s and the Co-op, are now conducting longer-term comparison trials, to build data that shows the best type of vehicle for different journeys and to identify optimal usage and driving patterns.

 

It’s not surprising that companies are keen to evaluate costs and performance accurately before making large-scale investments in electric vehicle fleets. Today, a basic electric heavy goods vehicle that can drive for 23 hours on one battery might cost around £300K. In comparison, a traditional double-articulated lorry, with maximum load capacity, would cost around half of that. Even a lightweight urban electric van costs at least four times its fossil fuel equivalent. Many current electric vehicles need long charging periods between missions, so more would be needed to replace a fossil fuel fleet that operates more or less continuously, 24/7.

Routing is another challenge for electric commercial vehicles. Some need short top-up charges en route and all need overnight charging: route planning tools and algorithms must factor in charge points, range and distance back to depot when scheduling and mapping the day’s deliveries. CACI’s Truckstops planning software already allows users to set a maximum distance per vehicle.

Driving an electric vehicle also challenges the driver’s skills more: for example, harsh braking will reduce the number of miles on one charge. Driving uphill will reduce the range further. This makes route planning even more complex, with more decision points. A short cut could save on distance, but if it involves more gradients, it could be a less efficient choice for an electric vehicle. But with urban pollution restrictions becoming more prevalent, it could create competitive advantage to use electric vehicles, despite their current range and capacity constraints.

Making sure that electric vehicles can get back to base for their overnight charge will have an impact on the location and number of local and regional vehicle hubs and distribution centres. They must be situated so that a fleet of electric vehicles can effectively cover the entire catchment or routes between centres. CACI’s Optisite planning tool can help model scenarios for this, depending on the range and capability of vehicles chosen. Businesses may need to plan a network for a mixed fleet with different operating times and ranges, to cover all of its current and future routes.

Although we’re beyond early adoption, and electric vehicles are widely acknowledged as the future mainstream technology on our roads, we’re still in an adoption phase, as commercial operators grapple with vehicle and performance options and financial impacts. The challenge is to balance the environmental and economic benefits. Objective evaluation of trial data and accurate modelling of a range of fleet and hub scenarios will be key for logistics companies to roll out electric vehicle fleets successfully in the coming months and years.

Find out how CACI is evolving Truckstops and Optisite to meet the emerging demands of electric fleets – get in touch with our distribution and logistics technology team.

Electric commercial vehicles are gradually becoming more mainstream and a common sight on UK roads.

Electric vehicles and the impact on route planning