Government proposals now under consultation to bring forward a ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol vans and cars to 2035 or before have sparked a mixed reaction from the haulage industry. While there is no evidence that the government has serious plans to curtail the use of diesel as a fuel for heavy trucks, buses or coaches, many transport businesses in both the freight and passenger sector are dependent upon using diesel vans for at least part of their operations.
Logistics giant Wincanton described the introduction of electric vehicles to the freight sector as a “balancing act”, pointing out that it is already trialling electrics in certain applications.
Group procurement and fleet director Carl Hanson said the company already had some electrics on final mile deliveries suited to smaller vehicles. In deciding how much further to go, he said, three questions had to be answered: “Is the infrastructure in place? Are there accessible facilities for fast, safe charging that cover the UK’s major transport routes? “Can we get the vehicles? Are the electric-powered vehicles that offer the range and size needed available?
“Is it feasible to invest? Can businesses afford to onboard these vehicles, deliver the necessary training and supply equipment for them to operate, all while remaining profitable?
“Unless all of these questions are addressed and the factors balanced, the widescale adoption of electric commercial vehicles will be limited. For example, a lack of infrastructure blocks the locations in which they can function; too few suitable vehicles being available means they cannot be widely used; and high costs make them uneconomic.”
He was concerned that emphasis on electrics might shut down other, alternative, technologies that had much to offer.
“Electricity could become a viable long-term option to support the transport aspect of the entire logistics industry if the above factors are properly addressed through a combination of government, operator and manufacturer activity,” he said.
“But until its potential can be fully harnessed, a series of different approaches and marginal gains could put the industry on the right path to reducing its environmental impact, at least in the short-tomedium- term.
“New diesel engines that meet Euro 6 standards remain the top choice for fleet operators due to the range and efficiency they offer. Currently, electricity cannot match their capabilities, but alternative fuels, such as LPG (liquified petroleum gas) and LNG (liquified natural gas) can.”
“There’s also the option of electric-fuel hybrid HGVs,” he continued. “There remain similar cost and availability issues around these vehicles, but they don’t require the same compromise when it comes to range. What they do offer is the benefit of efficient diesel engines for long-distance travel, alongside the cleanliness of electricity when travelling at lower speeds in urban areas and in traffic. Issues around charging still need consideration; but with this a less frequent activity, the same level of infrastructure is not needed.”
At parcels carrier DPD, there is a firm commitment to turn 10 per cent of the parcel delivery fleet over to electric vans by the end of 2020, in both urban and rural depots. The firm is to add 300 electric Nissan e-NV200 vans to its UK delivery fleet by May, taking the total number of electric vehicles on its fleet to 450. The vans will be used on selected runs from each of the company’s 68 depots, each covering up to 100 miles a day. Overnight charging will be carried out at the depots.
Olly Craughan is head of corporate social responsibility at DPD, and he retained an open mind as to whether electric vans could replace diesel by 2035.
“The technology is moving at a rapid rate, and who knows where it will have got to by then,” he speculated. “Even in the past 12-24 months the advances in battery range have improved.
“At the moment, the Nissan EV is the predominant electric vehicle in our fleet; however, we have recently ordered 100 MAN eTGE 3.5-tonne electric vans that will be delivered in Q3 of this year. This size of vehicle is ideal for our business and provides capacity and flexibility.”
But he said there are constraints in the 3.5-tonne EV market. “Typically, these vehicles are only built as left-hand drive, so we are having to get them converted to RHD. The UK being a righthand drive market is currently slowing the introduction of electric vehicles, for sure. But the MANs’ success will be a key for us, as the majority of the parcel delivery fleet is 3.5 tonnes.
“Bigger vehicles are a bigger challenge. There isn’t really a vehicle of this size readily available; however Tesla are starting to produce a semi-truck, and companies such as Arrival and Volta are starting to design and produce 7.5t-18t electrical vehicles. Only time will tell.”
Christopher Snelling, head of UK policy at the Freight Transport Association (FTA), said that the 2035 target was “very ambitious for the van market”. “Unless the government takes urgent action to solve the challenges around power supply and the availability of electric vehicles, it will not be an achievable feat,” he said. “FTA and its members fully support the government’s ambition to decarbonise the road transport industry – our Electric Vehicle Report shows that operators want to switch to electric – but we need to see urgent action from government to ensure the right infrastructure is in place and the market is ready.
“According to FTA, the key issue is power supply; the depots and homes where vans are currently stationed do not have sufficient power supply to charge the vehicles. Logistics companies do not control or own this power supply infrastructure; FTA is calling on the government to share its strategy on how it plans to power the UK’s fleet of millions of vans.
“Until the issue of power supply is resolved, it is very unlikely – in the view of FTA – that 100 per cent of new vans bought after 2035 will be electrically powered.”
Road Haulage Association (RHA) chief executive Richard Burnett said that while everyone wanted to tackle climate change, the means had to be “realistic and manageable”.
“Changing the UK’s car fleet to electric is one thing: they are increasingly available, with improving range and infrastructure that will work for users,” he said. “For vans this is less clear cut because payloads and duty cycles are much more demanding.
“The changeover process for heavy goods vehicles is different again. Research into alternative fuels is already widespread. However, because of the nature of the road freight industry and the distances covered, there is still a very long way to go before an efficient, cost-effective alternative to diesel-powered trucks can be found.”