In 2022 Fox Brothers took delivery of a pair of Volvo FE Electric 6x2 tippers. It was the first company in the UK to do so, and only the second in Europe. While the Blackpool-based family-run haulage and plant hire firm was already operating some electric plant, this was its first foray into electric trucks. After real-world experience, Paul Fox, CEO of parent company Fox Group, admits the experience has been a steep learning curve.
One surprise issue which manifested itself right at the start was ground clearance. “The batteries are low to the floor, so we have to be really careful where we use them,” explains Fox. He says this limits access to certain sites, which causes headaches for planners.
A bigger issue has been the trucks’ maximum range, which hasn’t lived up to expectations. Before ordering the trucks, Volvo arranged what Fox calls a “range anxiety meeting”, to determine exactly what work they would be doing. He explained they would be required to do seven loads a day, within a 20-mile radius of its Leyland site, and the tippers were specified accordingly.
Fox says the trucks can indeed do this on a single charge, however the conditions need to be perfect. Throw some unfavourable variables into the mix, such as hilly terrain and adverse weather conditions, and the range is drastically reduced. “Running 20 miles into the Ribble Valley burns a lot more juice than 20 miles to Southport,” explains Fox. “And if it’s raining, then the wipers, heater and lights all draw massively.” Sometimes the trucks are on charge by 1pm, having done just a few jobs. “It’s far from perfect, and causes issues in the planning office because there are outstanding loads, and we have to swap things around,” he says.
Another obvious drawback to running electric trucks are their eye-watering upfront costs. These particular tippers had £330,000 price tags, so whether purchased outright, leased or contract hired, are considerably more expensive than equivalent diesel-powered trucks. What’s more, being 6x2s, they don’t have the same revenue earning potential as the 8x4s on the fleet. With this in mind, Fox thinks we’re a long way off seeing a cost parity between battery-powered and diesel-powered trucks.
“If a business model was made around a fleet of these, it would not work. Not a chance!” he says. “But we’re lucky enough to be in a position where the business can afford to do it.”
Of course, the company was well aware of the economics before placing the order, the only surprise being the rising cost of electricity.
And now for Fox’s biggest concern of all – charging. There were some initial issues surrounding the charging of these particular vehicles, but these were rectified with the help of supplying dealer Thomas Hardie Commercials. But what Fox is less impressed with is the National Grid.
Wanting to plan ahead, he’s enquired about fitting four additional chargers at the Leyland site, enabling six electric trucks to be charged at once. However, for this to happen, he first needs to pay between £40,000 and £50,000 to upgrade the electricity supply. Initially he wanted to future-proof the site with 20 chargers, but was told that this wasn’t even possible at the moment. “We run almost 350 trucks, and at a weekend we have about 160 wagons at Leyland. Just imagine trying to charge that lot.”
Not only has Fox discovered that the UK charging infrastructure isn’t currently ready, but he has serious doubts whether it will be ready in the next decade. He believes there’s a huge disconnect between what he’s reading in the press and watching on TV, and what’s happening in the real world.
“People don’t know how far behind the infrastructure is. Not only are we talking about different pages of the book, but totally different chapters too,” he warns. “We have over 300 trucks on the road. It would be a mammoth task to electrify them all, and I can’t see it happening within the next 10 years. There’s more chance of me winning the lottery three times in a row!”
LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE
The electric tippers have brought some definite pros to the business too, not least the environmental benefits.
The Fox Group is on a drive towards carbon zero, and in recent years has made a number of green investments. Its depots are in the process of having solar panels on their roofs, and it operates electric plant too. There are also regular meetings with carbon zero consultants, as recommended by the local Chambers of Commerce.
“But if someone tells you that they’re buying electric trucks purely for that [environmental] reason, then they’re hypocrites,” he declares. “Yes, it’s good to be doing something for the environment and the community, and it’s great to be heading in the right direction, but the main drivers are positive publicity and your CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and ESG (environmental, social and governance) scores.”
Fox says not only has the company received a lot of positive publicity since putting the trucks on the road, but its CSR score has been boosted. “And from an ESG point of view, they’re gold dust,” he adds.
Their arrival on the fleet shows that the Fox Group is taking the environment seriously, and is ahead of the curve. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by some of the UK’s largest contractors, who are eager to have the electric trucks on site, allowing them to tick a box in their own carbon zero policies. “We’ve learned there is a drive within the construction industry [for carbon zero], especially amongst tier one and tier two contractors, and it’s started to fall into the tendering process,” he explains.
So, having weighed up the pro and cons, does Fox regret being an electric truck pioneer?
“Absolutely not! We are fully committed to electric vehicles,” he confirms.
In fact, he has already placed an order for two Volvo FMX Electric 8x4 Tridem tippers, for delivery in 2023.
He adds: “There’s a lot of hype surrounding the arrival of electric vehicles. Well they’re not coming…they’re already here. You can see it in the car industry, and wagons is a natural progression. You have to embrace it and take the jump. Unless somebody takes a leap of faith, then nobody will. It’s a learning curve. It’s the first step on a very long ladder.”
“I think Volvo are a lot further ahead with electric technology than other manufacturers,” reckons Fox. “Scania are on the way, but are massively out on cost at the moment. So, unless we have some sort of disaster, we will focus on Volvo for the foreseeable future.”