The electric van market, which can be measured in tens of thousands of annual sales, is led by the Renault Kangoo, Nissan e-NV200 -- and a new entrant, the StreetScooter Work, made by a subsidiary of logistics company DHL. Ford has started production of larger vans for StreetScooter. The Peugeot Partner and Citroen Berlingo round out the Top 5, according to the European Alternative Fuels Observatory.
"There are companies such as Street-Scooter that have the potential to make somewhat of an impression," Shepard said, "but the larger impact is going to be felt when the major automakers are able to bring together a solution that can be produced at scale."
Electrification will come to the LCV market in two waves, said Hristova of IHS. Electric vans now for sale are built on traditional platforms, "which isn't profitable or cheap, even considering that new batteries will get less expensive," she said. However, the next wave of vans -- likely to arrive after 2022 -- will be built on dedicated battery-electric architecture such as VW Group's MEB, which will decrease overall costs.
PSA Group will begin selling electric versions of its next-generation midsize vans -- the Opel/Vauxhall Vivaro, Peugeot Expert and Citroen Jumpy -- which will be built on PSA's e-EMP2 multi-power platform starting in 2019. The newest small vans, on a modified EMP2 platform, will follow, said Philippe Narbeburu, PSA's LCV business unit head. He added that PSA expects 12 percent to 15 percent of buyers will opt for full-electric versions within three years. "The initial cost will be higher but the intent is to get the same total cost of ownership for diesel and battery-electric vehicles," he said. "For fleets, it will be the same at the end of the day, because maintenance and running costs will be lower."
There have been a few recent growth spurts. Renault has nearly doubled Kangoo sales this year compared with 2017, and Nissan said it had taken more than 7,000 orders this year for its upgraded e-NV200.
Paolo D'Ettore, Nissan Europe's LCV director, said extending the e-NV200's range was the key to increased orders. A 40-kilowatt battery gives the van a range of 200 km (124 miles) on the WLTP type approval cycle, and 300 km in urban driving, D'Ettore said. "Based on our data, we believe that with this kind of range we can cover up to 40 percent of the daily usage of a small van," he said. Nissan has also seen its customer base diversify from municipalities and utilities to delivery businesses and shuttle services.
Aman Atak, an analyst at IDTechEX in Cambridge, England, who studies electric mobility, said the electric van market was likely to grow at a faster rate than passenger cars because fleet owners and government agencies tend to order in large quantities.
"An essential part of it is getting the fleet operators to see the benefits of adopting electric vehicles,” she said. "Whether they feel pressure by regulations, they need to participate in some of these pilot programs. They will be able to understand some of the potential savings."
The possibilities of Europe's electric LCV market have lured China's largest automaker, SAIC, which has begun limited sales of the Maxus EV80 large van, with up to 192 km of range (measured on the NEDC test cycle) and a two-hour charging time, ahead of a full launch of the brand next year. Prices start at 47,500 euros and SAIC says total cost of ownership is "within 5 percent" of diesel-powered competitors but could be less depending on use and government incentives.
By comparison, the similarly sized Renault Master Z.E. van starts at 46,700 euros in France and has the same NEDC range as the EV80. Pieter Gabriels, SAIC vice president for vehicle sales in Europe, said the Maxus brand was well positioned to capitalize on electric van growth because the EV80 has been on the market for five years in China, the world's largest electric vehicle market.
"Bringing another 5,000 vehicles to Europe is not a big deal," he said "If you order 1,000 with me today I will get you that within three months. We're not better or worse than anybody else -- the difference is we are ready to supply," Gabriels added.
Ford, Europe's best-selling van brand, is taking a different path. The company will launch a plug-in hybrid version of the Transit Custom in the second half of 2019. The front-wheel-drive midsize van, which has been undergoing real-world trials in London for more than a year, will offer 50 km of electric range and a total range of 500 km. A 1.0-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine is combined with an electric motor that is used to charge the batteries. Ford says the plug-in hybrid offers the same load capacity and payload as a diesel version.
Ford has not announced a price but officials at the Hanover show said it would be higher than diesel versions, adding that operators will save on fuel costs and avoid congestion charges in London, where they currently pay 11.50 pounds (12.85 euros) a day. "From an engineering perspective it [the plug-in hybrid] makes a lot of sense," said Shepard of Navigant, but he said that Ford's advantage could be negated as the cost of batteries falls.