Spotlight on... Light Commercial Vehicles (LCVs)

Choosing the correct van, or light commercial vehicle (LCV), for your fleet isn’t always an easy process. With countless options and accessories, as well as the increasingly important consideration of whether an electric van is suitable for the intended job, it can seem overwhelming. This is especially true for customers considering placing large orders, where the wrong vehicle could have a detrimental impact on their business.

But our trusted advisors are here to help customers make the right choice and ensure they’re getting a van that isn’t just fit for purpose but supports employees to do their jobs more effectively.

Choosing the right vehicle

Russell Adams, a senior commercial vehicle engineer at Lex Autolease, has been working with LCVs for more than 33 years, and his engineering team works hard to ensure that any commercial vehicle we provide is the right vehicle for the right job.

When choosing a vehicle, the question is always “What do you want your van to do?” explains Russell. This allows him to specify the correct size, weight and body type for the role.

To drill down into the function the van will need to perform, Russell has a roster of questions for customers.

“What are the characteristics of the load in terms of weight, size and volume? Does the load have any special transport needs?” For example, temperature control, the need to carry dangerous goods, or the need for ventilation.

“Next, where does the load typically need to be delivered, and what distances are involved? Does the customer need frequent offload use? This helps establish several important characteristics, such as the drivetrain needed,” he explains.

Russell continues: “Do specialist tools and equipment need to be stored and carried on the van? An affirmative response here is a signal that the customer might need racking to secure their tools, providing greater control of the stock being carried for safety.

“Do they need onboard power? Or ancillary equipment, such as trailers or platform lifts? This triggers different health and safety related questions, and allows us to ensure that the vehicle has a crane large enough to lift the weight required.”

This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a flavour of the sort of questions that help Russell understand his customer’s business and the type of vehicle they need. Choosing the right vehicle is critical to uptime. “A van that can’t support the intended job will be subject to increased strain. This leads to unreliability, taking the vehicle off the road, and increasing maintenance costs.”

Design and build

However, another barrier in the process is often that the person procuring the vans isn’t actually going to be the one operating them, meaning they may not fully understand the requirements.

It’s important to us that the customer knows we care about ensuring they have the right vehicle. “I want to do the job once and do it right,” Russell emphasises. This often leads him to conduct several site visits, meeting key stakeholders and hearing from those doing the jobs to get a real in depth understanding of the way they’ll use the van and the challenges they need it to overcome.

“If you ask a driver what type of van they want, they'll have a wish list as long as their arm. It’s important to understand which of these requirements are ‘nice to haves’ and which they do actually need. Then you can easily explain to the person procuring the asset why certain accessories and options are necessary to help the driver work smarter and safer,” says Russell.

He uses 3D CAD drawings to illustrate what the van will look like, based on the requirements given. This allows the customer to visualise the layout and design, from where the racking goes and the location of the ancillary equipment, to the business’ branding, fonts and colours, and easily make any tweaks before its built.

“It means there’s no ambiguity,” Russell explains. “We take a consultative approach, so the customer can see exactly what they’re going to get.”

Test, test, test

After a CAD drawing is agreed, the next step is often to build and demonstrate a prototype for the customer. A single van can then be sent out to be tested by drivers, allowing them to feed back.

With retrofit bills capable of running into the thousands, a prototype reduces the risk involved for customers placing large orders. It allows us to make the changes at an early stage, without the time and financial investment of building a large fleet of vehicles which don’t meet a customer’s needs.

Russell finds that this consultative approach particularly helpful when working on complex builds for specialised jobs. For these types of jobs, he likes to meet stakeholders at the premises the vehicle will be used at, to demonstrate how a prototype van might work ‘on the job’.

He gives the example of a custodial vehicle. “When we have the door aperture in, but not the walls, we invite the security guards to do a test run to check the clearance of the door aperture allows them to get a passenger in and out of the vehicle safely.”

Testing with the end user in this way ensures it is fit for purpose and provides efficiencies in the build, as it allows us to alter the door aperture before the walls go in, if needed. “There may be little tweaks that the customer has forgotten about, and this offers a great opportunity to fix these before all the vans are fully built.”

Russell emphasises the importance of also reassessing requirements on a regular basis. “Within a four-year contract, the company, services they deliver, and the job role their employees do will change.”

It’s essential that vans are monitored and reviewed in-life, and customers aren’t allowed to place the same order four years later, without another full assessment, as this could result in a vehicle which can’t support the intended job role.

“A van can be fit for purpose to carry goods, but if it doesn’t carry the goods that the customer wants it to carry, it’s not the right vehicle for the job.”

Maintenance and servicing

In addition to choosing the right vehicle for the right job, another important way to increase uptime is by selecting the right servicing option.

“Coming from a truck background, I’ve always believed in servicing while you sleep,” says Russell. Increasingly, van dealerships are extending their workshop hours, to allow vans to be serviced while their drivers sleep.

He believes this may incentivise businesses which are in close proximity to a certain dealership to choose their vans over a competitor’s, as the vehicles can be serviced more easily overnight. “While initial costs will differ between manufacturers, when considering the whole life cost of ownership, there may be a benefit to choosing the more expensive option, ensuring your vans are ready to go straight to work in the morning, having been serviced overnight.”

By choosing the right van for the right job, consulting carefully with the customer, including a period of testing and tweaking, and then ensuring that any maintenance is completed in the most efficient way possible, businesses can maximise uptime and make sure they are getting as much value as possible from their vehicle.

The road to electric

Andy Hill, a senior commercial vehicle manager, has been with Lex Autolease for 25 years, and involved with commercial vehicles his entire career. This has provided him with a unique insight into the way that the sector has evolved, particularly in the past five years. 

“For most customers, sustainability and electrifying their fleet is at the forefront of their mind currently,” says Andy. “This is largely down to the Government’s deadline prohibiting the sale of Internal Combusion Engine (ICE) vehicles in the UK after 2030."

“In my view, the LCV electric market is probably two years behind that of the car market, but it's catching up very quickly. There's new models, vehicles and technology coming to the marketplace all the time.”

Andy believes the journey to sustainability we’re currently on is the most significant change that the industry has experienced in his working lifetime. But change never comes without challenges. “You’ve got all the usual considerations around LCVs, and now these are compounded by concerns around range, how you’re going to charge them, where you’re going to charge them and so on,” explains Andy.

However, change is going to need to take place rapidly if fleet managers are to ensure their fleets are compliant by the 2030 deadline. “We should have two fleet change cycles maximum left before the ban on new ICE vehicles. When you consider an LCV fleet, which typically tend to run for a little bit longer than cars, it's not a lot of time before customers need to make quite fundamental decisions quickly.”

These issues are being exacerbated by the market challenges we’re currently seeing, with longer lead times for vehicles due to component supply issues. This is driving people to run vehicles for longer, meaning that some customers are now just one change cycle away from that all important target.

However, in Andy’s opinion, the future for electric van technology looks bright.

“If you look back a few years ago, we were lucky if we could get 50-70 miles range out of the early EVs which came to the market, and a pretty poor payload alongside. But we're now seeing some vans come to market with a range of 200 plus miles. Technology's moving apace and I’m optimistic that by 2030, or even before then, range really won't be a problem at all.”

Charging infrastructure

There has also been clear investment into the UK’s charging infrastructure to enable the transition.

“I recently took part in the GBEV Rally, driving from John O’Groats to Lands’ End in an electric commercial vehicle. I drove a Fiat Scudo with a 205 mile range, doing just under 1,400 miles across the whole journey.”

His biggest surprise was the investment which had gone into the infrastructure in Scotland in particular. He jokes: “I would almost say it was easier for us to find that charge point that was working and available in the Highlands of Scotland than it was on the M4 corridor!”

The A9 down the East coast of Scotland is nicknamed the electric highway, due to its availability of charge points. However, once he crossed the border into England there were also plenty of charging opportunities, with only short distances between each.

And his experience was also a comfortable one. “It was really no different to driving an SUV car,” Andy remarks. “A nice high setup, very comfortable seats and armrests, with everything to hand.”

Despite driving an electric car every day, the journey still taught him an important lesson about charging to avoid range anxiety.

“Don’t treat charging like filling up your tank up with petrol,” he advises. “Don’t choose to run it as low as you can – plan your journey and intend to charge at 15-20%, as that gives you the peace of mind that if you get to your planned charging point and it isn’t working, you still have plenty of capacity to get to the next.

“Similarly, when you do get the opportunity to charge, only fill it to 60-70%,” says Andy, as this provides the fastest charge, while preserving battery health.

Choosing the right electric LCV

But Andy believes the things that need to be taken into consideration when choosing an electric van aren’t so different to an ICE one. “We still need to look first and foremost at the job role of that vehicle. What does it need to do?” he gets customers to consider.

“And then we look at the charging element. When the driver takes that vehicle home, can they charge it? What sort of range are they expecting during the day? What's the driver’s work cycle like? What kind of payload will they need? EVs tend to be a little bit heavier than ICE vehicles, so we need to make sure we're not going to sacrifice payload, where possible, for the sake of going electric. At the end of the day, the vehicle still needs to fulfil the customer's role and needs.”

Despite the challenging economic environment, Andy emphasises the need for flexibility by customers. “While they would rather find a vehicle that fits into their current operations, I think it’s inevitable that customers will need to make some changes until the battery technology catches up with their needs.”

For those looking to go electric, Andy advises they look at their operation and identify the easiest area to transition first. “Perhaps vehicles which come back to base each day, and don’t have to travel very long distances with heavy loads.”

His second tip is to secure driver buy-in. Consider who in your staff is particularly open-minded and let them try it first, as they will positively influence the rest of your fleet.

But despite some people’s trepidation, there’s also a lot of anticipation for what will come next. “It’s a really interesting time in the market, and a really exciting one,” concludes Andy.

Choosing whether to go electric is just another consideration for fleets, like selecting the body type, size or weight. It might seem confusing at first, but with trusted advisors to help make the right decision, fleet managers can be confident they’re getting the right vehicle for the right job.