Photographer: Carl Court/Getty Images

Ford Targets London’s ‘White Van Man’ to Drive Down Emissions

  • Automaker trials plug-in hybrid electric vans from late 2017
  • U.K. wants more low-emissions vehicles to tackle pollution

Ford Motor Co. will trial plug-in hybrid vans in London in an effort to accelerate the uptake of low-emissions vehicles and tackle climate change and air pollution.

Aided by 4.7 million pounds ($5.8 million) of U.K. government funding, the automaker will test 20 of the vehicles, which mainly operate using an electric battery but can fall back on a combustion engine, Ford said in an e-mailed statement. Software installed in the vans will help route them to less-congested areas and find parking spaces.

Britain is banking on electric and hybrid vehicles to help cut emissions of both greenhouse gases and toxic air pollutants that have left London and other cities in breach of European standards. Ford aims to become the first automaker to mass-manufacture plug-in hybrid vans in 2019, and the London trial is as much about seeing how well suited the Transit Custom model is to London tradesmen, known as ‘White Van Man,’ as how it operates in a city environment, according to President of Ford Europe Jim Farley.

“We’re as interested to learn about the telematics as the driving habits,” Farley said in an interview on Friday. “Tradesmen are very different than Amazon delivery drivers and very different than Transport for London users, so we don’t know if the range is just right,” he said, referring to the capital’s transport authority, which will be participating in the trial.

Government Intervention

The van runs on electricity for the majority of city trips and has a range of about 30 miles (50 kilometers) on a single battery charge. It’ll be trialled by commercial fleets across London.

The government is pouring hundreds of millions of pounds into increasing the uptake of so-called ultra-low emissions vehicles (ULEVs), which parliament’s energy and Climate Change Committee said in September account for just 0.19 percent of cars on U.K. roads. Electric cars will “remain niche” until at least 2020, the panel said. 

“You could just say we’re going to let this market evolve, but our views is we need to shape and accelerate it,” Climate Change Minister Nick Hurd said in an interview on Friday. “There are three reasons for that. One is the carbon agenda, the second is the clean air agenda, which is critical now in places like London. But the third dimension is industrial for us.”

Barriers

Barriers to take-up of the vehicles include a dearth of charging points, public doubts about the travel range of the vehicles, and their high up-front costs. Jaguar Land Rover Ltd. said last year it wants to build electric cars in Britain if the government can overcome shortfalls in power supply.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced in November that 390 million pounds of funding will be available over the next five years to support ULEVs, including 80 million pounds for charging networks.

The automotive industry is “going through profound changes with big questions about what we drive, how we drive and whether we’ll drive,” said Hurd. “Obviously we’re interested in accelerating the progress of the electric car market for environmental reasons, but also because we want the research, the development, the technology, the manufacturing to be here and to build on the strengths that we’ve already got.”

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