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Challenges for cargo vans

December 13, 2018 | By Bob Raybuck

Photo courtesy Mercedes Benz

December 13, 2018 – While cargo vans are already a staple for many commercial vehicle fleets, including those used by electrical contractors, today’s cargo van has evolved, with many original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) offering a variety of roof heights, lengths and towing capacities. This variety translates into increased flexibility in terms of the functions these vans can perform.

Getting inside your vehicle to gather your tools is an easier task with a high-roof van, for example, while larger cargo capacity vans are used for more than just carrying parts and tools. Some professionals are now using their vans as mobile workshops or combining functions to include the transportation of both personnel and cargo, transforming them into ‘do-everything’ work trucks.

Industry best practices have adapted significantly to match such progress for cargo vans. In fact, some commonly held myths now call for a debunking, given the market’s new requirements and challenges.

Complying with safety standards
The evolution of van design has triggered advances in vehicle safety regulations and vice-versa.


Challenging safety standards apply to most vehicles with a 10,000-pound or lower gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), the vast majority of which are cargo vans. Safety standards, such as those for interior or side impact, roof crush and ejection mitigation, can make compliant cargo van modification a tricky exercise in terms of planning, engineering and design.

By way of example, both ejection mitigation and side impact requirements have resulted in the incorporation of side curtain and driver/passenger seat air bags, located in the outboard sides of the seats.

Adding seat covers
Previously, fleet managers often added covers on top of the chassis manufacturer-provided seats for improved durability. Today, however, with seat air bags coming out of the sides, the chassis manufacturer’s seating material is designed to rip open, allowing each air bag to deploy and protect the occupant in a side crash. So, an aftermarket seat cover might not be designed to meet the OEM’s specifications that allow the air bag to properly deploy through the side of the seat, which means the addition of such a cover could comprise vehicle occupant safety.

With this in mind, before adding any aftermarket seat covers to your cargo van, be sure to ask your supplier or manufacturer if it has been tested in combination with the specific OEM seat to confirm proper air bag deployment compliant with Transport Canada’s safety standards for vehicles.

Installing partitions
Side curtain air bags that deploy from the roof, meanwhile, are used for side impact protection and ejection mitigation. They are typically configured specifically for cargo vans and only cover the front driver and passenger seat locations. As such, they will affect partition installation.

Side curtain air bags in passenger vans will typically cover the entire glass area and rear seating positions. For this reason, the location and installation of any partition within the vehicle will need to be carefully planned, so as to avoid interference with the deployment of the side curtain air bags, while still meeting interior impact dimensional requirements.

Though partition installation may seem to simply require fastening to the cargo van interior, there are actually specific positioning and attachment locations that will help a completed cargo van meet and maintain interior safety regulatory compliance, with consideration of the potential effects of roof crush, interior impact and ejection mitigation. Improper partition installation could jeopardize the function of other interior safety systems that are used to protect the vehicle’s occupants.

Increasing seats and side windows
Many electrical businesses and other organizations are interested in the flexibility today’s cargo vans can provide in transporting both cargo and people, so they elect to add seats behind the front row. Adding seats to a cargo van requires careful planning and engineering, however, so as to accommodate the extra safety standards that become applicable when carrying passengers.

All passenger seats in a vehicle, after all, are subject to safety standards that apply to seat belts, seat belt anchorages, seating systems (i.e. the seats themselves and how they are attached to the vehicle) and the flammability resistance of the seat materials.

Seat structures and belts are subject to pull tests, which require the use of certain attachment systems that are designed to interact with a specific OEM’s van floor design. Any modifier or seating system supplier should have specific instructions about the seat and seat belt attachment points and the method used to affix the seat to the vehicle floor, all based on testing of the specific cargo van model.

If side windows are added to a cargo van (which is usually only done at driver and passenger locations), care must be taken to ensure the extra windows meet ejection mitigation requirements. Passenger vans typically use side curtain air bags to meet these requirements, which cover most of the side interior, but any cargo management systems that attach to walls in the rear of a cargo van—such as shelving systems—can interfere with side curtain air bag deployment. It is therefore very important to understand and follow the OEM’s recommended attachment scheme, to preserve side curtain air bag performance. Indeed, specialized glass that meets pre-breaking and ejection mitigation requirements will need to be used if a cargo van is modified by installing additional windows with new seating systems.

Typically, a total systems approach must be used when adding seats and side windows to a cargo van to assure it meets all safety standard requirements after modification.

Planning ahead
Hence, when electrical contractors plan to purchase and modify a cargo van for their particular needs, it is important to plan for full use before choosing the specific vehicle model and add-on options. If additional seats are desired, for example, you must ask how they will be integrated and ensure all associated safety standards will be met. This may require the purchase of additional options not formerly ordered.

Many modifications that were typically performed in the past have now become more complex, due to new safety standards and system options. Asking questions about how a modified cargo van will align with the relevant standards will help you determine which component systems and installation partners can deliver compliant vehicles for you and your employees to operate and perform their tasks.

Today’s cargo vans have been designed to support a wide variety of uses, but careful planning is required to ensure correct modification.

Bob Raybuck is director of technical services for the National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA). For more information, visit www.ntea.com/canada.

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Electrical Business Magazine.

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