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A few years ago it was predicted that in the world of electric vehicle marketing one of the last segments that will be seriously pursued will be trade vans. The reason is that existing gas-powered trade vans are a low margin business, and tradespeople seem to keep driving them a little longer than drivers in other categories.

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Since then electric passenger vehicles and electric buses have taken off, electric SUVs are beginning to gain momentum, and larger vehicles for courier and mail delivery have moved beyond pilot tests and are now being ordered in big quantities. Government vehicles like fire trucks, ambulances, garbage trucks, and police cars are being tested in small quantities, and freight trucks have advanced too.

Freightliner (Daimler) has a factory open and the prototype is in final tests. Tesla is also in final tests and has accepted several hundred orders. A company called Nikola has more orders for electric 18-wheelers on their books than Daimler or Tesla and is attempting to commercialize an electric/hydrogen combo that should be lighter. Volvo also has prototype electric freight trucks and is moving toward commercialization. BYD of China, the world’s largest EV maker, has an assembly plant and offices in California and is quietly working mostly on electric buses and big service vehicles right now.

ELECTRIC F-150 PICKUP TRUCK

Perhaps the biggest EV news concerns North America’s number one selling vehicle, the Ford F-150 pickup truck. Ford has announced that it will build an all-electric F-150 in 2021 with its partner Rivian. Rivian is an electric vehicle company that is now retrofitting a Detroit factory, which will manufacture a Rivian pickup truck, 100,000 electric Amazon delivery vans ordered by Jeff Bezos, and perhaps also the new Ford product. The delivery of all of the Amazon trucks is expected by 2023. There are rumours that Rivian is also friendly with GM.

Ford’s F-150 announcement/confirmation followed design launches from Rivian and Tesla. Both attracted attention in North America, and Tesla’s unusual looking Cybertruck has scored about 525,000 pre-orders since its unveiling in November 2019, and Elon Musk thinks its Model Y SUV that will go into production this summer could become its best seller. These threats and the fact that Tesla is now selling a half-million vehicles each year is in a leadership position in the electric category in numerous countries, has opened a plant in China, and is building another one in Germany, have all given conventional automakers something to ponder.

FORD MUSTANG MACH-E SUV

A week after the Cybertruck was launched, Ford unveiled a Ford Mustang Mach-E fully electric SUV. Mustang orders have poured in and Ford has been making a lot of related models, production and battery announcements since the launch. During February’s Superbowl more than half of the vehicle commercials, the world’s most expensive ads, were for electrics. Electric passenger car sales are doing very well in may countries, while the sales of gas and diesel cars decline. About 60% of Norway’s new car sales are fully electric.

GM FINALLY STEPS UP

After opposing California emission regulations during 2019, GM had a change of heart and has made some changes. It has closed its Detroit-Hamtramck plant, is retooling, and will reopen next year making all-electric Hummers and electric Cruise Origins.

DELIVERY VANS

In January of 2020 UPS announced it had placed an order for 10,000 fully electric delivery vehicles, with an option for another 10,000, from a UK company called Arrival. They will be delivered during the next five years and deployed in Europe and North America. Arrival is also working with the UK’s Royal Mail and Hyundai. UPS has also purchased stock in Arrival.

UPS had previously announced the purchase of 1000 vehicles from Workhorse, an Ohio EV maker, and 1500 vehicle conversions (from gas to fully electric) by Unique Electric Solutions in New York, under a deal that enjoyed State support.

In 2018, Ryder announced it would buy 900 Class 5 electric vans to lease to FedEx. They are made by a Los Angeles-based, Chinese-backed startup called Chanje. The vans can carry a 3-ton payload and their lithium-ion battery pack holds enough charge for a 150-mile range, which is about twice what delivery vans drive in a typical day.

The US Postal Service is also plodding towards an announcement for some 186,000 electric delivery vehicles. It is working with six companies on three electric and one hybrid concept. Workhorse is one of the companies and is expected to get some of the business.

TRADE VANS

As mentioned, the trade van segment has not advanced much. Some of the early innovators failed to commercialize while others have evolved their business. An example is Lightning Systems in Colorado, which a few years ago was planning to manufacture its own trade van, but now seems to be focusing on upfits and conversions of Ford and GM trade vans from gas or diesel to electric (as well as buses and class 5 trucks).

The Renault Kangoo ZE and Nissan e-NV200 are the leaders in electric van sales, but most of their success has been in Europe, and despite range extensions, they are considered aging models in the fast-moving EV world. Even the Mercedes eVito, launched in 2019, seems non-threatening, with a base price above $50,000 and a range of 150 kilometers.

Electric van projects have been announced by Citroen, Peugeot, LDV, Vauxhall and Volkswagen and are soon expected from both Ford and GM. Toyota seems to be a laggard, making quiet moves behind the scenes while talking in public about hybrids and minimal demand for fully electric vehicles.

WORLDWIDE EV DEMAND

But demand for electric vehicles does not seem to be lacking. Global sales of EVs went from almost none in 2007 to more than one million in 2017. In 2019 they were around 2.8 million, according to Frost and Sullivan.

In North America, there are about 1.5 million fully electric vehicles on the road today, and sales in 2019 exceeded one million units.

Car and truck sales of all kinds in North America totaled about 20 million and were dominated by the light trucks and SUV categories. So the light truck and SUV segments are expected to be a key part of the EV story on this continent. Tesla will go into production on the Model Y SUV during 2020, and the $39K Cybertruck in 2021.

A LOGICAL ENGINEERING EVOLUTION

Are electric vehicles a logical evolution in terms of engineering? Speaking simplistically, an EV is a capable computer controlling a simple battery-powered golf cart drive train.

From Plumbing Engineer magazine last year: “(An EV’s) mechanical simplicity is a modern, elegant solution to numerous challenges facing global automotive manufacturing, including carbon emissions and brutal new regulations coming to thousands of cities. Its connection ‘over the air’ to an artificial intelligence ecosystem and the journey to autonomous navigation, are the obvious next steps in smart electronics. They answer traffic gridlock, the integration of personal and public transportation, and the marriage of smart homes and smart cars. This mix of technologies will respond to contemporary consumer demand for greater personal security, family entertainment, simplified communications and a host of other computational functionalities.”