Electric van promises slow reduction in city pollution: Christian Wolmar finds Britain is lagging behind in use of battery-powered vehicles

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THE LATEST attempt finally to rid electric delivery vehicles of their milk float image was made yesterday with the launch of a van which its manufacturers claim has a range of 50 miles and a speed of 30mph.

The Envirovan, made by the Peterborough company John Bradshaw Ltd, is an attempt to cash in on the growing demand for less environmentally damaging forms of transport in urban areas. The company's sales manager, John Lott, said the van was an improvement on previous attempts to make electric delivery vehicles for use in towns because of its range, speed and ability to carry nearly three-quarters of a ton. 'The big advantage over previous electric vehicles is that the Envirovan goes faster and it is relatively cheaper, at pounds 17,900 for the de-luxe version and pounds 11,800 for the 'Combi' glass fibre cab and chassis model.'

While this is considerably more expensive than conventional vans, there are enormous fuel savings. An overnight charge, which takes nine-and-a-half hours, costs just 50p in electricity and the battery pack only needs changing after 1,000 uses - four years of five days a week - costs less than pounds 1,000.

Previous attempts to promote widespread use of electric cars have foundered, even though Harrods, the Knightsbridge store, first used them in 1910 and continued to do so until recently. Only the milk float has survived, partly because of the low cost of operation, but mainly because its stop-start use would wreck a diesel vehicle very quickly.

The problem for electric vehicles has always been their short range. John Wishart, Bradshaw's area manager, accepted this: 'The van is only viable for companies using them for set journeys every day, such as bakeries or local authorities.' The company claims that several councils, including Edinburgh, Cardiff and Coventry, have already expressed interest in buying the van.

On a test drive around Tower Bridge, central London, the Independent attempted to assess the company's claims for the van's performance, and found that, even downhill, its acceleration was slow and it was impossible to go much faster than 25mph. The van is wonderfully quiet, so much so that it has two warning systems to alert pedestrians who are in the habit of using their ears rather than their eyes.

Driving the Envirovan slightly resembles driving a dodgem car - there are just two pedals and very few instruments on the dashboard since electric engines are much simpler. The fuel gauge has, of course, been replaced by one showing the state of the battery charge.

The van uses conventional lead acid batteries because Bradshaw argues that more advanced types are not yet ready for widespread use.

Mr Lott said his target for sales was a modest 50 to 60 in the first year, hardly likely to make an impact on urban environmental problems.

By contrast, in France, electric vehicle development is proceeding much faster, with the support of Peugeot and Renault. Twenty-three towns across the country are being wired up with chargers to enable electric vehicle users, armed with a smart card, to leave their vehicles on charge while parked.

According to David Porter of the Electricity Association, 'ten years ago, Britain had a lead in both the technology and the products, with Bedford and Freight Rover making very good vehicles'. But since then, the two companies have stopped making electric vehicles and the firm developing an advanced battery using sodium and sulphur electrodes at a temperature of 350C, which are much lighter and offer the possibility of a 100-mile range, has been sold to a German company.

In Britain, not even the electricity companies are using electric vehicles and there is very little research and development work being carried out.

Leading article, page 16

(Photographs omitted)