Parcel collection and delivery specialist Hermes has placed a landmark order for 168 fully electric Mercedes-Benz eSprinters.

The zero-emission vans should all be on the road before the end of the year. They will be assigned to the popular ParcelShops service which operates from more than 5,000 convenience stores and other locations nationwide.

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The company’s first substantial investment in battery-powered vans follows successful trials from a depot in Enfield, north London, of a pair of eSprinter demonstrators supplied by UK dealer Intercounty Truck & Van.

The dealer, based in Wellingborough won Hermes’ tender and will be fulfilling the entire order which also included 132 diesel 315 CDI variants.

Hermes has commissioned Pod Point UK to install charging points at its depots. This is already under way with the focus initially on London and other cities which have introduced low emission zones.

Hermes plans to undertake all ParcelShop collections with electric vehicles as soon as it can. The company has ordered the diesel vans to ‘tide it over’ pending completion of its infrastructure programme and the introduction of next generation battery powered variants.

The first eSprinters will therefore be on longer Mercedes-Benz Finance contract hire agreements while the diesels will be on one-year terms with Athlon UK which is owned by Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler. This arrangement will allow Hermes to replace the diesels once charging facilities are in place and electric versions with longer ranges and higher carrying capacity become available.

The core ParcelShop fleet is about 450 units but growing, supplemented with rental vehicles during busy periods. The owned fleet includes 30 smaller electric vans that work from a depot in East London, while “French-built diesels” will be stood down to make way for the eSprinters.

Hermes head of fleet David Landy said: “The transition to a zero-emission electric fleet is integral to our ESG (environment, social and governance) agenda, and we’ve been keen to take the next, major step forward towards this goal.

“However, we are under no illusions… this will not be an easy journey. From a purely operational standpoint, and given the current state of the technology, whichever way you look at it – whether in terms of range, payload or volume – a van with an internal combustion engine beats an electric one hands down.

“Only when it comes to tailpipe emissions does the battery-powered vehicle outshine the diesel. So we know there are constraints and compromises to make, and we recognise that this is going to put extra pressure and increased demands on those colleagues out in our depots who are doing a difficult job, day in, day out.

“This is new technology, so product support will be crucial. There are electric vans out there that offer a longer range than the eSprinter but any electric vehicle is going to break down, and it’s going to do so in new ways too.

“When that happens we want to know there’s an army of people out there who are fully clued-up and able to get us back on the road as quickly as possible. Mercedes-Benz Vans gives me that confidence.

“It’s reassuring to know that we’re starting out on this journey with the backing of the right people, a global manufacturer that will help us to overcome operational hurdles as they arise, and dealers who appreciate the importance of restricting vehicle downtime to an absolute minimum.”

The eSprinter has a 114 hp electric motor which drives the front wheels. It will travel 95 miles (combined WLTP with 80 km/h/50mph speed limiter) on a single charge, which is ample for the majority of urban delivery and last mile applications; recuperative energy recovered when decelerating supplements the batteries’ output.

The vehicle is based on the L2 (medium length), H2 (high roof) Sprinter. Its 55 kWh high-voltage battery pack is securely mounted beneath the body, so does not intrude into cargo carrying space. As a result, the eSprinter’s 11sq m load volume is identical to that of its ICE FWD stablemate and half a cubic metre larger than its RWD equivalent.

For diesel, Hermes has opted for the long-bodied L3 H2 variant, which offers a 14sq m load volume. The reduced parcel carrying capacity of the eSprinter compared to the L3 version represents the biggest operational compromise that Hermes will have to make. Initially, therefore, it will be allocating the electric vans to those routes best suited to their smaller cargo areas and restricted range.

Landy acknowledged the electric revolution was still in its infancy and that Hermes would face fewer operational challenges as Mercedes-Benz Vans’ zero-emission product range evolved.

“This technology is moving so fast that the vehicle we’re about to start putting to work will not be the vehicle we’re still running in a year or two’s time,” he said.

“Not only does the agreement we’ve reached with Mercedes-Benz Vans mean we can swap out diesel vans for more battery-powered ones as our charging infrastructure programme progresses, but it also allows us to transition our first electric vans to new-generation versions that will cover greater distances and carry more as these become available.”

Hermes operates its own driving academy, whose instructors have already received eSprinter product familiarisation training from Intercounty Truck & Van. They will shortly begin to ‘cascade’ what they have learned down to members of the front-line driving team, with particular focus on battery management and range optimisation.

And while the vehicles will be recharged overnight, the dealership is also using Hermes’ ParcelShop routing data to plot additional points at which they can be replenished. Using an 80kW DC fast-charging cable, the eSprinter’s four parallel batteries can be restored from 10% to 80% of maximum capacity in just 30 minutes.

Landy added: “I like the fact that Mercedes-Benz Vans and Intercounty Truck & Van have come to us with a forward-thinking proposition that is entirely realistic about what this transition is going to entail. It’s not going to be easy, but we’re confident that we have the right partner to help us achieve our sustainability goal.”