8 Oct 19

Why diesel hybrid vans could be the best solution

Diesel is under pressure, but it is cleaning up its act while still offering the lowest TCO for most fleets. Electric is what LEZs want and what we need to reduce CO2 emissions. Combining both seems the perfect recipe for LCVs. Then why is no-one offering them?

Today’s European van market is still dominated by diesel. How could it not be: the fuel has always offered the lowest TCO thanks to the longevity of diesel engines, the higher fuel efficiency and longer range, and the long service intervals. Moreover, diesel engines have the torque you need to move heavy weights, even in the hilliest areas.

There are hardly any green alternatives for diesel in LCV land. A few OEMs like Fiat, VW and Iveco offer compressed natural gas (CNG) models in their line-up, but they are not entirely convincing. The gas tanks absorb  load space in most cases, they compromise payload and do not offer the same range as a diesel-powered van. Moreover, CNG is only available for a limited number of body variants. Also, CNG can be hard to come by, although the distribution network is expanding.

Ever more OEMs are offering all-electric vans – Mercedes-Benz has introduced the eVito, VW the e-Crafter, Renault the Master Z.E., whereas PSA and Toyota will be launching battery-powered models of their popular vans soon – but they can never offer a solution for every scenario. In particular long-distance driving, heavy-duty use, refrigeration and payload remain challenges that are very difficult to overcome given the nature of today’s batteries. And let’s not forget the high investment cost and the downtime caused by having to charge.

Plug-in, the best of both worlds

Carmakers have long been advocating plug-in hybrids as ‘the best of both worlds.’ The smaller battery makes them cheaper to build than BEVs – also because the battery can be integrated in an existing platform – and they are easier to charge. Most importantly, when the batteries are depleted, the ICE is there to ensure business continuity.

For passenger cars, petrol has become the predilect fuel when combined with electric power. Volvo has long replaced the D5 diesel with a T6 petrol unit to power its Twin Engine models, PSA has dropped its maverick DS5 Hybrid4 and its technical cousin Peugeot 508 RXH and Audi has removed the diesel-burning Q7 e-tron from its catalogue.

Still there is one brand that dares to say that diesel and electric are a perfect marriage: Mercedes-Benz. The 300de model can today be had in the C Class and E Class and will find its way to other Mercedes-Benz line-ups, including the GLC.

In fact, the diesel-electric combo seems to make perfect sense for those who mainly drive long interurban distances and regularly dip into urban traffic. Indeed, that sounds like the use case of many a light commercial vehicle. The benefits are plenty:

  • The diesel engine offers all the benefits of a regular diesel van, with the added value of consuming and emitting less thanks to the electric assistance.
  • Like passenger cars, light commercial vehicles have to undergo the Real Driving Emissions test (RDE) to make sure their NOx and PM emissions remain within the legal limits outside the laboratory as well. Diesel engines today are therefore incomparably cleaner than before.
  • Regenerative braking charges the batteries while slowing down the wear and tear of the brake pads.
  • The electric range allows you to enter LEZs without emitting CO2, NOx (nitrogen oxides) or PM (particulate matter).
  • The electric motor boosts torque, making plug-in hybrid vans even more suitable for heavy loads.
  • The smaller battery does not compromise payload or load capacity as much as the full-fledged battery pack of an all-electric van or the gas tanks of a CNG model.
  • A plug-in hybrid is cheaper to build today than an all-electric vehicle.
  • You do not need to invest in expensive charging solutions.
  • You won’t get stranded if you don’t find a charging station.
  • The diesel engine can charge the battery before the van enters a LEZ.

Geofencing for LEZ

Some LEZs and ULEZs only open their gates to plug-in hybrids if they drive on electricity alone. But how do you make sure they are not burning diesel or petrol when entering the city’s heart? BMW is showing the way. From 2020 onwards, all its plug-in hybrid models will receive the so-called eDrive Zones function. In cities that establish “green zones” solely for emission-free driving, geofencing technology will be able to recognise these automatically. When the vehicle enters such a zones, it will automatically switch to pure electric driving, thereby receiving the same access rights as fully-electric vehicles.

In spite of all the arguments in favour, no OEM today offers a plug-in hybrid diesel van. In fact, the only PHEV in the LCV segment is the petrol-powered Ford Transit Custom Plug-In Hybrid, 20 units of which have been driving in and around London as part of a trial. The first customer feedback proves to be very positive. If Dieselgate hadn’t happened, it stands to reason that Ford would have picked a diesel engine for its PHEV project. Now that the fuel is regaining its eco-credentials, the time has come to put plug-in diesel hybrids on the table.

Vehicle fleet electrification is one of the main topics at the 2019 Fleet Europe Summit in Estoril on 6 and 7 November. Attendees also have the opportunity to test alternative powertrain vehicles. For more information and registration details please visit the event website

A further focus on light commercial vehicles in the context of parcel delivery and last mile mobility will be at the upcoming Connected Fleets Conference in Brussels on 28 and 29 January 2020. More details here

Authored by: Dieter Quartier