Mitsubishi Motors were one of the first vehicle manufacturers to take the plunge and produce an electric car in significant numbers, and it seems they might become the first to do the same for light commercial vehicles, too.

The company, who produce the 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV microcar due to hit U.S. shores in 2012 (you can find out more in our Ultimate Reference Guide), previewed a small panel van version of the i-MiEV known as the i-MiEV Cargo concept at the 2009 Tokyo Motor Show. The firm subsequently confirmed it for production, and trials have recently began in Japan with the vehicles being used for inner-city deliveries.

Light commercial vehicles are big business in Japan and in Europe especially, where they offer great maneuverability in tight streets whilst still offering a payload and cargo space sufficient for light duty, often being popular with local deliveries, bakeries, flower shops and other businesses that rarely need to venture outside of city limits.

The theory is being tested in Mitsubishi's trials. Tokyo-based delivery company Yamato Transport Co. is one of the businesses trialing the electric van. Company president Makoto Kigawa says that his vans only cover about 30 kilometers (19 miles) per day  in Tokyo and even its nationwide vehicles rarely do more than 60 kilometers (37 miles) per day.

For this usage, even the average 50 mile range that writers have highlighted when testing the regular i-MiEV is never troubled, meaning that range anxiety is never an issue for the drivers.

Osamu Masuko, president of Mitsubishi Motors Corp, points out that whilst passenger vehicles will often be driven at weekends and used for longer trips, most commercial vans and trucks do fixed distances every day that are well within the range achieved by most electric vehicles.

Mitsubishi plan to start mass-producing electric vans from the end of 2011 and are targeting annual sales of around 10,000 vehicles. They may even bring the prices down - with such short daily journeys, the company can confidently remove some of the batteries knowing that the reduced range won't impact on the vehicles' usage, lowering the price in the process.

Would users in the U.S. benefit in the same way? It's open to debate, since commutes are often longer than elsewhere in the world and cities are sprawled across greater areas, the term "local" being greater in context than the same term used in Japan or Europe.

However, as GM has told us, many U.S. commutes are still under the 40 miles its Volt can offer in pure EV mode, and it's feasible that small businesses operating within city limits would still find a sub-100 mile range adequate in daily use.

Lest we forget, Ford are also going down the route Mitsubishi are taking, in offering an electric version of their Transit Connect small panel van. The small EV van, converted by Azure Dynamics, will likely be used in a similar role to that of the i-MiEV Cargo, allowing operators to make deliveries with zero tailpipe emissions. The New York Power Authority will be trialling the 2011 Transit Connect EV alongside the 2010 MINI E and the 2011 Smart ForTwo Electric Drive as part of a move to reduce city center pollution.

The regular i-MiEV is already being used in a commercial role in the U.S. by Best Buy's Geek Squad, who are using four of the jellybean-shaped EVs to silently whirr from customer to customer. Once again, the car's short range is more than sufficient for the light local usage involved, and we could see it being no different for other local services such as pizza deliveries or cable T.V. services.

Will small commercial EVs catch on in the U.S? We'll get an idea when the Transit Connect EV is being used more widely, but until then we'll be watching Mitsubishi's progress. You can be sure that more manufacturers will catch on if the highly competitive commercial sector start buying large fleets...

[Wall Street Journal]