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The Latest Buzz Around Electric Vehicles in Construction

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There’s currently a real buzz around electric vehicles. However, while zippy passenger vehicles are growing in numbers on Australian roads, they aren’t ideal for hauling tools, materials and equipment around to construction sites.

The good news is this year the Australian market is likely to see a growing number of practical commercial vehicles entering fleets, including a dual cab all-electric utility, electric commercial vans, and all-electric light trucks, according to auto industry pundits.

The Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) is also adding fuel to the momentum, backing initiatives like Victorian company SEA Electric—technology that can convert a conventional combustion-driven truck or commercial van to an all-electric system.

The CEFC has assisted with $5 million in debt finance for the company, which has already delivered a number of vehicles, for instance, electric garbage trucks for waste management fleets and electric trucks used for freight operations.

According to a survey conducted by the CEFC in conjunction with an EV Drive Day expo held in November, approximately half of the 60 fleet managers and buyers who attended planned on introducing EVs in their fleets within the next 12 to 24 months. A further 38 per cent are expected to be purchasing EVs by the end of the first quarter of this year.

Fleet managers reported that the major attractions of EVs were reduced fuel and maintenance costs, followed by lower vehicle emissions.

“Electric vehicles offer an exciting opportunity to tackle our greenhouse gas emissions, from family cars through to light commercial vehicles and heavy-duty trucks,” CEFC chief executive Ian Learmonth said. “The EV market is maturing rapidly, as demonstrated by a large number of EVs available at our EV Drive Day. We’re also seeing major investment in the essential charging infrastructure, which will give drivers increased confidence about the suitability of these vehicles.”

Ray Wills, Managing Director of Future Smart Strategies and Adjunct Professor at the University of Western Australia, says the future of the construction industry will see a convergence of electric vehicles, automated technology and advances in project software changing the game as we know it.

The future of the construction industry will see a convergence of electric vehicles, automated technology and advances in project software changing the game as we know it.

Wills tells Jobsite ANZ that companies will be making their future vehicle purchasing decisions not only basing on cost metrics but also the safety aspects of vehicles.

EVs are safer than conventional ones, he explains. For a start, EVs are brand-new, and newer vehicles are inevitably safer than older ones since manufacturers opt for more sophisticated safety features in newer models.

The design of EVs also delivers a fundamental safety gain—there is no longer an “exploding device in the front of the car,” Wills points out.

The data shows that for every billion vehicle miles driven by combustion engines, 55 of those vehicles will explode at some point. The rate for EVs, by contrast, is only five vehicles for every billion vehicle miles driven.

There is also an environmental dividend. Unlike conventional vehicles, EVs do not emit airborne pollutants. These green positives create a reputational benefit for buyers, which is becoming increasingly important in the emerging digital economy, he says.

“Reputation building is key to a successful consumer market,” Wills says.

Another upside to EVs for those with access to charging via their own renewable energy system like on-site solar PV is the fleet becomes extremely cheap to operate.

Even charging from the grid is three times more affordable than petrol or diesel, Wills explains.

Even charging from the grid is three times more affordable than petrol or diesel, Wills explains.

By 2020 or 2021, he says, the supply and demand curve for EVs will see them becoming affordable in the general market. There will be a “phase change” into the electric mobility era, one that will also see tradies potentially using electric ride-share vehicles.

However, the key to making shared vehicles work for construction trades will be changing habits around what is being carried and when.

Wills says tradies will want to look at optimising what they carry for the specific tasks ahead, instead of hauling around everything, including the just-in-case tools.

Another emerging trend that will interface with the rise in EV use is greater deployment of automated vehicles including cars, trucks, vans and also task-specific AVs, such as delivery robots.

Wills predicts that by 2025, there could even be regulations that mandate driving be done by technological systems rather than humans. The reason, he says, is insurance. Just as using mobiles while driving was banned for safety reasons, he expects that the dangers posed by human drivers will be targeted.

Currently, there are a growing number of prestige vehicles with inbuilt AV systems, for instance, BMW and Audi. While purchasers can decline to pay the additional cost to have these enabled, Wills says there may come a time when these systems are automatically enabled by law.

AVs may also reduce the share of human driving required to get materials and equipment to the worksites. He foresees the possibility of just-in-time deliveries becoming fully automated from warehouse via delivery AV to a worksite.

There is also a strong probability machine learning and artificial intelligence could be used to take off orders, quantities and timing from a 4D or 5D BIM model of a project. Materials and equipment needs could be communicated directly to the relevant suppliers, thus ensuring everything arrives when it should without the need for human intervention.

“These are some of the next phases of the evolution of the workplace,” Wills says. “It also brings costs down.”

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