"The cut and thrust world of logistics has undergone drastic changes in recent years. Increasing overheads such as fuel, wages, driver training in the form of CPC legislation and other unavoidable liabilities, place an ever-tightening squeeze on the wallets of hauliers and customers. Those halcyon times of truckers setting off early Monday and returning back to base on Friday is now a distant memory, as customer needs shift from keeping a plentiful stock, towards ‘just in time’ deliveries. Urban vehicles, especially in the 7.5 tonne market, still earn their corn by being skilled in the art of cutting a dash through sticky inner city traffic, taking full advantage of weight limits and being small enough to refresh the parts larger vehicles cannot reach, but even this sector is equally prone to change.
I admit, I love tradition and old school methods, but there again, I also embrace modern technology too, which is why I jumped at the chance when I was asked to drive the Paneltex Zeroed electric truck in the 2012 RAC Future Car Challenge. With anything new and revolutionary, speaking as an ex-salesman, it’s all about education and perception-changing in this ‘customer knows best’ society we live in. On a personal level, I am as keen to learn and face change as the next person, so one was keen to see how and what was compromised moving over from diesel to electric propulsion. Electric cars are commonplace, especially in the larger cities and of course make perfect sense for the green-minded commuter, but what about trucks? And more to the point – do they work?
The vehicle in question is based on the current Isuzu N75.190 ‘Forward’ chassis, which for the purpose of this test feature, has a GVW of 7500kgs, but gone is the 4HK1TC Euro 4 engine. From a short distance, there is virtually nothing to give the game away that this truck has a silent heart, rather than a beating diesel one. Obviously, there is no fuel or Ad blue tank in sight, with much of the space behind the side rails being given over to the dry cell energy pack. But a passing glance makes you think it’s just like any other refrigerated box truck; which of course… it is. The truck is fitted with a 16′ 8" insulated and refrigerated Paneltex body, double rear doors and a one tonne Dhollandia tuck under tail lift – all fitted out at Paneltex’s Hull manufacturing facility and the quality seems superb.
The route involved a departure from Brighton to Crawley and onwards into West Central London, terminating in Regent Street – an ideal acid test for any vehicle, let alone an electric type. This route even included a short burst along the M25, so all in all, a real world scenario to put any vehicle through its paces. Paneltex Electrical Manager Phil Carrick, an engineer of passion and the rare ability to be able to explain the complex in layman’s terminology, met me on the day. Climbing into the cab on a very cold and wet morning, the power / ignition is flicked on and straight away it’s surprising at how well the heater system warms up the cab. Phil explains how they designed a specific unit using a separate water heater – it’s certainly efficient.
Features & Comfort
Sitting there scanning the cab before we picked our way through the busy Brighton suburbs, it became notable just how good the quality is, not only with the conversion engineering, but also with the Isuzu-based chassis. The fit and finish seems to be much better than some market leading light trucks, no squeaks or creaks and no flimsy feeling handles or switches, just a nice bright and airy interior with a decent level of standard equipment too. The driver’s needs are catered for with a nice Clarion radio / CD with MP3 input, electric windows, suspension driver’s seat, remote central locking and really deep door windows which offer a commanding look out. There is a lack of proximity and blind spot mirrors but these are available upon request.
All of the essential controls fall to hand with wipers, lights and washers operated via two traditional stalk-type switches on the steering column. Cab entry is easy, with just a single step and a short hop into the fully adjustable driver’s seat. Soft velour trim that appears hardwearing feature on the seats, with a good quality wipe-clean vinyl floor covering to the lower area of the cab, once again seeming to be of a hardwearing variety. Good rustic door handles and a sensibly sized steering wheel, that includes an airbag, all adds to an overall impression of nice build quality on the inside. While on the outside, good-sized quad headlamps and a rounded shape to the cab make it pleasing on the eye, though the styling cues are most certainly from the Far East.
Yes, the cab is certainly smaller than your offerings from DAF or Iveco for example, but by no means a cramped environment. Coming in at just over 2.00 metres wide, the cab provides more than adequate space for a driver and his bag and coat; good sized door pockets and a generous floor space area take care of paperwork and other relevant clutter. OK, so it’s no Volvo Globetrotter, but bear in mind the core user of such a vehicle will be operating in urban or inner city areas on a regular or pre-set route; it’s a case of electric horses for courses. Another impressive attribute was the refinement, even on a blustery morning as the journey proceeds northbound on the A23; the absence of mechanical thrum is at first; strange yet soothing too – a far cry from a rattling four pot Cummins.
Out On The Road
Looking down at the dashboard, only the absence of a rev counter and fuel / temperature dial lets you know there’s no engine. Paneltex even uses the original Isuzu automatic gear selector and a state of charge readout blends into the fascia rather well. The power comes in progressively and the regeneration mode kicks in upon releasing the throttle, giving a feeling of engine braking. Full regeneration mode is activated upon brake application. There is also a power boost button giving an increase in power for 30 seconds, but not once during this test was it used. There is no noticeable change in the feel of the power-assisted steering; the ride comfort and suspension control from the parabolic leaf spring system utilising front and rear anti-roll bars is superb.
It literally is as quiet as an average saloon car and a conversation with a passenger can be held at the same level in volume as you would use at your kitchen table, even at speed. Noise during power applications equates to nothing more than a melodic background high-pitched hum akin to a modern electric train departing – again, all very strange at first, but quite soothing once acclimatised to. Paneltex uses a 150KW (peak) traction motor sourced from Magtec in Sheffield and passive regenerative braking recovers the maximum possible braking energy. Allied with the 96kWh lithium Ion battery, this gives this zero emission truck a range of around 120 miles. An on-board 9kW charger provides a full from-flat charge in 10 ½ hours, and in-built remote diagnostics with tracking provide live management information 24/7.
Ascending the long Reigate hill, you are once again reminded of the power available. The torque is there the moment you press the pedal and the Paneltex Zeroed electric truck stormed up the gruelling gradient with power in reserve, easily keeping to the required 40 mph speed limit. Hopping onto the M25, the truck easily keeps up with the flow and the legal 56mph is attainable with, once again, power to spare. Motorway cruising was a sheer joy with the sublime refinement – so stress-free. The remaining route via Putney Bridge and some awful traffic congestion into Central London makes another case for electric power. The relaxing peace of no rough engine idling, the instant torque as you pull away from traffic lights and no rising heat from the floor as the engine sweats during crawling queues. Upon arriving at Regent Street, there was still 41% power in reserve.
Operator Benefits & Conclusion
But there are so many other credible factors too. Exempt from Road Tax and Operators Licence, no requirement for PMI inspections or even MOT either. It’s no wonder that on-line shopping leader Ocado is currently operating the Paneltex Zeroed electric truck with a view to purchasing more in the near future. Even aftermarket support is looked after, with Isuzu Truck dealers offering bumper-to-bumper cover 24/7, with Paneltex’s own field engineers on hand should a more serious problem occur. So confident they are with this conversion, that battery life expectation is expected to be around 7 to 10 years and the traction motor is reckoned to be one of the very best on the market. It’s a near perfect solution for the urban jungle, thanks to superb manoeuvrability and ease of use.
Everything about the vehicle engineering is impressive; it functions just like an automatic truck, albeit without the noise. The craftsmanship involved gives the impression that it was designed from the outset as an electric vehicle and not a conversion. No stray wiring or badly aligned trim in sight and the Isuzu truck chassis feels ultra tough – no creaks from the frame as you corner or come to a stop, not even any notable flexing during quick evasive style lane changes. Small it may be cab wise, but this little truck can hold its head high with the big players in both function and build quality. Smooth ride, silent and responsive power with effective brakes, near limousine-silence in the cab and a no-compromise top quality engineering programme behind it – it’s a great little truck all round.
Does it work in a real world environment? Most certainly yes with proprietors of food & beverage operations, local Councils and laundry companies who ply their trade whilst the rest of the populous sleep in our beds are bound to appreciate a silent hard grafting truck. For sure there is an element of higher initial cost to take into account, but other aspects like the ‘O’ licence, RFL, MOT, PMI exemptions and cheaper servicing at the dealer make any transport manager sit up and notice. The all important driver acceptance factor also plays a certain part too. No messy oil and water chores in the dark – just a walk round inspection then its switch on and go – what more could a driver ask for. Nicely engineered with surprisingly strong torque that’s 100% stress free to pilot from a UK based operation, I liked the Paneltex zero emission truck very much. It deserves to do very well indeed – of which I’m certain it shall."