Cities around the world are looking at ways to create zero-emissions zones to tackle poor air quality but for now full-electric vehicles are still too expensive to be a viable alternative to internal combustion cars.
Plug-in hybrids, which run on electric power for short distances, are increasingly seen as a stop-gap. One problem with them is how do authorities make sure the car is being driven by the electric motor and not the engine in city centers?
Ford Motor and Transport for London (TfL) are testing geofencing as a way to ensure hybrid cars only run on zero-emission electric power in polluted city centers.
Ford is providing 20 of its new Transit plug-in hybrid vans for a 12-month fleet customer trial in London that starts early next year.
The trial will use GPS-activated technology that will turn off the gasoline engine and force the van to run on electric power in the city center.
"TfL has a strong air-quality agenda and they want to see what benefits this will bring," said Mark Harvey, director of Ford's urban electrified van program.
Ford has said it will bring its hybrid Transit van to market in 2019, and has announced the specification already: a 1.0-liter three-cylinder Ecoboost gasoline engine that charges a battery to give a 50-km (31-mile) range on electric power only and a full gasoline power range of 500 km (310 miles). There is no direct connection between the engine and the wheels, making it a range-extended EV.
The lithium ion battery pack is located under the load floor, preserving the van's full cargo volume.
Bus, taxi pollution
London Mayor Sadiq Khan plans tough measures to cut diesel emissions in the UK capital. Starting 2020, diesel vehicles rated Euro 5 or less will be banned from an ultra-low emission zone in the city center. Starting Jan. 1 all new London black taxis must be zero-emission capable with diesel banned as a power-source. Khan's ultimate goal is a zero-emission zone in central London.
TfL has already begun geofence testing on its hybrid buses, targeting one of the three main sources of diesel pollution. Taxis are the second, and London's ubiquitous delivery vans are the third.
Harvey said it will be difficult to ensure there is enough charge battery remaining in the battery to cover the 21-square km zone, particularly given the abrupt acceleration technique of most couriers and delivery drivers. If there is no charge left, the van switches on its gasoline engine to top up the battery.
But it's clear the best way commercial vehicle manufacturers will appeal to city mayors – and maybe win contracts from them - is to go down the plug-in hybrid gasoline route for vans. London cab maker LEVC, owned by China's Geely, will launch a plug-in hybrid van related to its new hybrid taxi, also in 2019.
The future-proof solution of course lies with pure electric vans, something Nissan has with the eNV200, which uses the drivetrain from the Leaf electric car.
China's SAIC has just entered the European market with the Maxus EV80 electric van, which has a 209-km range. The company says it already has an order of 200 from Germany's Maske Fleet, a lease provider.
Ford however believes plug-in hybrid is the right solution for more conservative fleet managers. Harvey said: "Fleets don't want range anxiety, they want range assurance."