Practical testing of electrified commercial vehicles – are they ready for day-to-day operations yet?

Reading time: approx. 5 minutes
Text: Oliver Schönfeld
Photos: Hellmann

How reliable is an electric drive in the axle? Are the ranges sufficient for day-to-day long-distance transport? How will the customers respond – and what do drivers think of the electrified drive system of the future? A six-month practical test of the BPW eTransport axle at Hellmann Worldwide Logistics has returned some revealing results.

The electric revolution is making quiet progress in commercial vehicles and – as it silently glides along the roads – it is therefore all the more sustainable. Matthias Magnor, Chief Operating Officer Road & Rail at Hellmann Worldwide Logistics in Osnabrück is convinced. ‘Our industry has a shared obligation to try out new things and to find sustainable drive concepts to suit the needs of the different areas of logistics in which they are used,’ says the logistics expert. When BPW Bergische Achsen suggested testing the eTransport electronic axle in real-life conditions, they were welcomed with open arms by Hellmann: ‘We are delighted with the trusting relationship. Collaborating with BPW was perfect; the teams worked together in harmony.’

Six months of harsh everyday operation

Both partners were agreed from the start that this wasn’t about fair-weather test drives. The 7.5-tonne test vehicle supplied by BPW was therefore integrated straight into the everyday processes at Hellmann for a whole six months, starting with frosty temperatures in February 2019 and reaching the heat of midsummer in August. By selecting Bielefeld, Lehrte and Osnabrück, Hellmann also chose three locations that put very different demands on the electric-only drive and the batteries. ‘There was a bit of everything, from city traffic to plenty of country roads, with very different topographies and routes. This meant that we could gather valuable experience in practice,’ continues Magnor.

»The pilot project was a resounding success for us. We learnt an incredible amount.«

Matthias Magnor, Chief Operating Officer Road & Rail at Hellmann Worldwide Logistics

The COO Road & Rail draws a clear conclusion from the six-month test phase: ‘The pilot project was a resounding success for us. We learnt an incredible amount.’ It reportedly enabled the company to gain extensive practical experience, to get to know the requirements for the charging infrastructure and route planning, and to find out what the drivers thought. One key fundamental finding was that the technology in the eTransport axle works reliably and smoothly in all of the varying conditions.

Customers welcome alternative drives

The drivers at all three test locations were all met with an extremely positive response from Hellmann customers. ‘The huge interest among our business partners shows us that we are on the right track with the trial of alternative drive concepts – and that the market is expecting us to find sustainable solutions. Our collaboration with BPW to test the drives of the future today sent out a very good and strong signal to the market,’ says Matthias Magnor. As well as the reduction in pollutants compared to fossil fuels, the test also focused on noise emissions. Many customers rate the silent drive system as a key factor in achieving better acceptance, in particular in inner-city transport. One interesting observation was that the electric drive is also so quiet in the driver’s area that drivers suddenly noticed auxiliary units such as water pumps for cooling the system much more – or even suspected that there was a fault.
Hellmann tested the 7.5-tonne vehicle extensively for six months at three locations with different requirements, integrating it directly into the day-to-day processes. Markus Schell, personally liable managing partner of BPW, described the benefits of the eTransport axle to Hellmann COO Matthias Magnor (at the wheel).

Optimising range and charging times

It also became clear during the pilot project that more progress is needed in battery development – towards higher energy densities and the associated larger ranges. ‘A daily range of around 100 kilometres is not enough for our long-distance transport on a permanent basis,’ admits Magnor. Simply increasing the battery capacity would not solve the problem though, as the added weight would come at the expense of load. However, the Hellmann manager is confident that the technology will make progress in this regard in the coming years. The test vehicle was used to make deliveries to 12 customers per day on average. Unlike in normal operation with conventional vehicles, Hellmann did not drive to extra customers on the way back to the depot and pick up new transported goods, due to the limited battery range. ‘The charging times would also be difficult to incorporate into our processes in the long run. Of course, this also depends on the local charging infrastructure, which can certainly be improved with future investment,’ says Magnor, highlighting another area where action could be taken.

Powerful torque wins the drivers over

By contrast, most drivers found it extremely easy to switch to the new vehicle. The first feedback was practically euphoric, due to the manoeuvrability and powerful torque of the electrified vehicle. Magnor reports: ‘Our drivers were very open throughout and were enthusiastic about the technology.’ Despite this, it was still challenging for some of the drivers to cope with the limited range and gather the relevant experience. Even so, the vehicle was not ever left stranded with empty batteries during the entire six months. The radio and air-conditioning in the vehicle were, however, switched off in many cases. More battery reserves would therefore be welcome, to improve comfort for the driver.

New drives and their prospects

Many experts expect that a wide variety of different drives will take the place of classic combustion engines, each tailored to meet different requirements. But which concept is suitable for which applications, given the current level of technology? From Magnor’s perspective, the electrified drive is already ideal for city logistics – not least given the impending bans on diesel vehicles in major cities. The experienced logistics specialist also sees excellent prospects for electrification in the area of light commercial vehicles, such as with the BPW test vehicle with eTransport. ‘The battery technology will continue to develop and thereby open up entirely new opportunities for logistics companies such as ours. For long-distance transport, however, I don’t really think that it will be possible for battery-powered electric vehicles to prove their worth within the next five years. Hydrogen and LNG are other interesting solutions here.’ The path to the future of commercial vehicle drives has only just begun – and so it is all the more important that manufacturers and transport companies get involved and actively participate.
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