With vehicle hardpoints largely dictated by regulations, there are few opportunities for automakers to express their individuality through styling, analysts said.
And, while manufacturers are adding more and more expensive technologies and driver aids to passenger cars, many won’t be found on future vans. “We have a lot of professional buyers, who will pay only for what is necessary, so only the most popular features from the passenger car market are introduced to the commercial vehicle market,” Hristova said.
What van customers will spend money on is technology that helps their bottom line directly, analysts say. “For example, emergency braking could keep down insurance premiums,” Glendinning said. For its part, Ford is adding modems to its lineup, which will enhance productivity and convenience for businesses, the company says. “Customers will only pay increased prices if you deliver high-quality, productive vehicles that add value to their business,” Ford’s Schep said.
Said Ashwani Gupta, who leads the Renault Nissan Mitsubishi alliance’s LCV business unit: “What we want to do first is deploy autonomous features from the viewpoint of driver safety.” Gupta said 80 percent of Nissan’s NV300 vans are fitted with advanced emergency braking. Nissan’s ProPilot, which allows for automatic steering, accelerating and braking in single lanes, will be available in the next frame-based LCVs from Nissan and Renault, he said.
‘Canary in a coalmine’
Van sales are closely linked to larger economic conditions, analysts said. Sales slumped starting in 2009 during the global recession following the collapse of Lehman Brothers and again in 2012-13 amid the European sovereign debt crisis. However, the market has now exceeded pre-crisis levels. “I’ve always used LCV sales as a sort of canary in the coalmine,” Glendinning of BMI Research said. “They’re always the first thing to go and to come back.”
Looking to the rest of 2018, analysts say the European market will have minimal or no growth, partly a consequence of those earlier dips. “We expect the market to stagnate” in 2018 said Hristova of IHS. She said vans sold in 2012-13, the market’s recent low point, are at the end of their useful life cycle, so fewer will be needed to replace them.
Glendinning is forecasting growth of 2 percent in 2018, and growth of an additional 11 percent through 2021. He suggested that tightening emissions standards, including restrictions on older diesel vehicles in certain urban areas, were actually driving more sales. “Fleet managers have to move toward the Euro 5 and Euro 6 emissions compliant vehicles rather than Euro 4 and below,” he said. “That’s creating a more supportive market.”
The shift toward online retailing is benefiting small vans, analysts said. It is the only segment, outside of pickups that has grown since 2008, with 529,681 sales in 2017 compared with 390,389 in 2008 before the recession, according to JATO.
Automakers are also looking outside of Europe for big gains in the LCV market. PSA has made a major push into South America and is starting van production at its plant in Kaluga, Russia. Renault is aiming to increase sales by 40 percent globally by 2022 and is targeting China in a joint venture with Jinbei Brilliance.
Such investments in commercial vans are a fairly safe bet, analysts said. “At the end of the day, you will always find customers,” Hristova said. “Industry and trade are always part of the economy.”