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Electric fleet management and its dynamic potential: an interview with Heriot-Watt University

6 min

c. Heriot-Watt University

Heriot-Watt University’s role in an intriguing new project explores the benefits of EV charging that could have major implications for fleet. Quadrant Transport chats to Professor Phil Greening, deputy director for the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, and professor at Heriot-Watt University, to find out more!

Heriot-Watt University will play a key role in its latest partnership on trialling wireless charging for light commercial vehicles, following the awarding of £1.6m of Innovate UK funding for the trial.

The university, part of a consortium featuring Flexible Power Systems and the City of Edinburgh Council, will explore how fleet stakeholders can utilise wireless charging. Additionally, the consortium will assess the potential of shared micro-logistics hubs for charging to accelerate the transition to EV fleets and reduce the cost of charging.

Prof. Phillip Greening, project lead of the charging trial

The project will assess challenges around the logistics of charging of electric fleet vans using wireless pads, exploring the potential of wireless charging whilst static vans and load and unload freight loads in its operations.

“The idea is that we get some operational experience of using wireless charging to develop coordination platforms,” said Prof. Greening, project lead and deputy director at the Centre for Sustainable Road and Freight, which is based at the university.

“One of the attractive elements to this is that you could have a hub that is a sitting shared resource across companies. But, for commercial operations, it’s absolutely essential that you can coordinate access to that, so that you haven’t got vehicles queuing waiting to be charged.”

Wireless fleet charging brings a multitude of benefits to fleet management for local governments and logistics providers, including greater ease of access due to no cables, reduced trip hazards, and the potential for future autonomous vans that do not need a driver to plug a charging cable in.

In a UK first, Heriot-Watt will create two wireless charging hubs for the commercial light vehicles: one installed at the university’s campus in early 2021, and another for the City of Edinburgh Council, who will purchase two converted electric vehicles from the university. Heriot-Watt will also purchase two vehicles to be converted for wireless charging.

“Wireless charging is, in my view, an enabler to autonomous vehicles and its commercial operations,” explained Prof. Greening. The project lead went on to note that logistics providers could benefit from the shared wireless charging facilities at hubs where vehicles are dropping off or picking up freight, being able to automatically charge whilst static.

Wireless charging is, in my view, an enabler to autonomous vehicles and its commercial operations

“What typically happens at the moment is that they are charged in a different location to the loading or unloading locations,” Prof. Greening noted. This project will try to not only assess the wireless charging capabilities for fleet, but also a “dynamic planning capability” to ensure that commercial operations, whose routes change from day-to-day, can maximise production in haulage and reduce waiting times for recharging.

Prof. Greening and the team at Heriot-Watt will be building large-scale high fidelity models as “virtual worlds” in parallel to the hubs, to evaluate the management of fleet vehicles. The platform will also take into account consumer demand and points of supply, so the system can self-organise the logistics between supply and demand.

“That’s one of the clever bits. And then you can see where vehicles will need to charge. If you can do that across multiple organisations, you can build a collaborative platform for that access to that charging. You can test the sensitivity of that design, against statistically-varied demand and supply.”

One of the objectives is to minimise the number of vehicles needed to move freight, making sure the vehicle moving is as “full as possible for most of the time.”

“The biggest challenge in any sort of collaborative exercise is the coordination costs, and also who benefits from that collaboration.

“The fair distribution of benefits, plus the actual cost of doing the coordination. The automation of the calculation of benefits, and who they get allocated to, plus the use of intelligent smart coordination systems go a long way to mitigate that.

Where driverless comes in

The project will also assess how in the long-term connected autonomous systems can be implemented into the vehicles to allow the van to park and recharge without a driver.

“It’s hard to say with certainty, but as far as I’m aware, this is the first time in the UK that this has been done,” Prof Greening explained.

“It will be absolutely essential when you’ve not got a driver to plug in a cable to be able to do things wirelessly – and autonomous vehicles offer new opportunities.” 40% of logistics costs is for employing drivers, Prof. Greening added.

“Clearly, if you have an autonomous vehicle, then you don’t have that. By freeing up that capital, you can invest in new, intelligent, and smart logistics.”

Future innovations in fleet

During the interview with Quadrant Transport, Prof. Greening highlighted the far-reaching implications the trial, and the savings a shared logistics charging centre could have for future business models.

“There are other technology solutions that again speak very much to a smart city environment,” commented Prof. Greening. The project lead said that fleet vans in existence now have a forward-facing camera that can project the view the driver has of the vehicle, so vehicles can see the road ahead if they’re preparing to overtake.

It’s only through the virtual world simulations and pilot schemes that you expose the potential for those new business models, which are exciting

“You could see a small start-up that can develop a screen that dynamically changes on the side of a vehicle according to where it is,” he said. The likes of Sainsburys, Tesco, or Waitrose could place their branding on the dynamic screen on the electric vans, for example, utilising the unbranded vans according to customer demand – with the shared logistics hub creating savings due to wireless charging and micro-fulfilment, for example.

“It’s only through the virtual world simulations and pilot schemes that you expose the potential for those new business models, which are exciting. They are technology-led, essentially.

“But crucially, you must be able to find the technology that allows those organisations to get targeted brand presence through technology, and knowing where the vehicle is. It’s a whole new business model.”

The project is funded by the Office for Low-Emission Vehicles and delivered through Innovate UK.