Julie Furber

Recent figures from business intelligence firm JATO revealed an astounding rise in global demand for electric vehicles, with sales of non-hybrid cars increasing by 92% over a 12-month period. This is perhaps the clearest sign yet that battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are finally a viable alternative in the consumer sector.

The factors making this possible include the improvements being made to battery technology, greater infrastructural rollout, and encouragement from policy-makers responding to an intensified public discussion about climate change and air quality.

The current framing of this BEV growth story – in the media, industry, and public spheres alike –focuses on consumer passenger vehicles, but this neglects the significant opportunity posed by the electrification of commercial fleets. Growing the share of passenger cars which run on electric powertrains generally demands educating and winning buy-in from consumers on a one-by-one basis. Commercial fleets, by contrast, can be transformed more cohesively, in large tranches at a time. With 35% of the UK’s transport emissions coming from light duty vehicles (LDVs), heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) and buses, there is a valuable and under-considered potential to diversify the country’s traffic towards low emissions vehicles.

The electrification of commercial vehicles is reliant on four factors – technological maturity, economic reality, regulatory surety, and infrastructural capacity – and some types of commercial vehicles are closer to meeting these four factors of readiness than others. In the case of HGVs, for instance, the mass and volume which a sufficiently powerful battery pack would take up may prevent the vehicle from transporting an economically-viable quantity of goods. As such, diesel and other power solutions are likely to be part of our transport energy mix for the foreseeable future.

Other blockers, however, are more tractable. Because the technology stack which makes electric passenger cars viable translates well to buses and delivery vans, moving the needle on infrastructure and policy issues could unlock significant changes – expanding the charging point network, especially outside of urban areas, is one example of this. There is also potential for governmental policy at local levels, similar to London’s ultra-low emissions zone, to help generate the critical mass needed for the transition to commercial electrification.

Looking ahead, the commercial vehicle sector will require greater investment in infrastructure to ensure that the economics work for companies looking to decarbonise their fleets. Ultimately, building policy around this more holistic picture of electrification – incorporating industrial and commercial vehicles, as well as broader energy supply context – will be the driving force in the UK’s journey towards electric viability.

Julie Furber, vice president of electrified power, Cummins