Zero Emission Vehicles: how reality can match the ambitions

10 September 2018 | By Joe Marshall

What will speed up the transition to zero emission vehicles? We asked businesses what they are already doing - and what they need to happen next

The destinations on the government’s Road to Zero vision are clear: 50-70 per cent of new cars sold in the UK will be ultra-low emission by 2030 and by 2040 the UK will end the sale of petrol and diesel cars and vans entirely. These milestones are ambitious, with the first less than twelve years away. But the transition to zero emission vehicles is picking up pace.

The number of electric vehicles (EV’s) on the market is increasing each year, with nearly all car manufacturers offering some version, while other players have announced stretching targets. Volvo, for example, has stated its desire to make up to 50 per cent of sales fully electric by 2025. Car sharing firm Zipcar wants its entire fleet to be electric by then. Even Russian arms manufacturer Kalashnikov has got in on the act, having recently unveiled its own version of an electric supercar with which it hopes to take on Tesla.

The obvious benefits of a significant reduction and long-term eradication of harmful vehicle emissions cannot be overstated – and diminishing fossil fuels and a rapidly changing climate are challenges that affect everyone. That is perhaps why there is cross-sector support for this strategy

But while options for the consumer are increasing all the time, demand will remain low until barriers – including affordability and range anxiety – are tackled.

Initiatives such as the Plug-in Car Grant which offers buyers £4,500 towards brand new Electric Vehicles (EVs), the 100 per cent discount on the London Congestion Charge and Road Tax exemption status are already in place to tempt buyers. But it’s technological advances that could open the market up and make the biggest difference.

Better batteries

Batteries currently make up one third of the cost of an electric vehicle; a technology that is constantly improving and thus reducing in cost – a factor that is vital if the government’s Road to Zero Strategy is to succeed.

“The automotive industry in the UK and further afield are very focussed on vehicle electrification,” says Professor Paul Shearing of University College London and Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Battery Technologies. “We have lithium-ion batteries. Then there’s next generation batteries such as solid-state that Toyota are championing. And there are other technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells which companies like Hyundai and Honda have invested in big programmes around. All of these technologies will provide a portfolio of options by the time we reach 2040.”

Innovation has a huge part to play in this and is being encouraged in the UK by initiatives such as the Faraday Battery Challenge – a programme of research and innovation backed by the Industrial Challenge Fund and designed to put the country at the forefront of global developments.

The government’s investment of £247m is being split three ways:

  • The first chunk is paying for the foundation of the Faraday Institution – which is funding university research into improvements in current generation battery technology and next generation innovation.
  • The second goes to collaborative R&D which is being led by Innovate UK for university/industry collaboration.
  • The third will help to build the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (UKBIC) – a factory space and testing facility based in Coventry and set to be opened in 2020. It will be on a scale large enough to cater for future demand.

The combined goal is to deliver against targets set by the Automotive Council to reduce battery cost by around 46 per cent by 2025, and to 65 per cent by 2035.

Infrastructure innovation

When it comes to range anxiety, better infrastructure, including access to high voltage charging stations, will provide a big part of the answer. Currently available EVs have an average range of around 200 miles and charging times of between 30 minutes and 17 hours depending on battery size and speed.

Charging stations for EVs can be found from Stornoway to Southend but the high voltage charging necessary to replicate that customer experience of refuelling a car in 7-9 minutes is not yet in place. Car buyers want vehicles that give them the option of longer distance travel as well as the short distance city use that current EVs offer.

The answer to that problem could lie with the National Grid’s high voltage transmission network, which conveniently runs alongside the UK’s motorway network. “Access to high voltage charging gets around the issue of range anxiety, says Rhian Kelly,” Head of UK Public Affairs & Policy at the National Grid. “If you made 55 motorway stops across the English and Welsh strategic road network, you would probably have 99 per cent of the population within 50-miles of a high voltage charging point that could replicate that experience of refuelling a conventional car.”

Access to that network is not yet in place, and who pays for the estimated £800m it would cost to create those strategic motorway stops is the subject of debate.

Professor Gavin Walker of the Technologies Research Institute at Nottingham University points to an alternative – or additional – option: hydrogen fuel cell technology.

“Hyundai are bringing out the Nexo in 2019 which has a 500-mile range,” he explains. With hydrogen offering higher energy density, this could provide a solution for heavier vehicles. But advances in this technology are still a little behind other options and government investment in hydrogen infrastructure would again be needed.

Lowering emissions for HGVs

According to figures from the Department for Transport (DfT), road transport made up 91 per cent of total transport emissions in 2016. Of that figure, 62 per cent came from passenger cars, while 35 per cent came from commercial vans and HGVs. For the government’s Road to Zero Strategy to work, those businesses responsible for heavier vehicles will need to have their sights set on the future too.

“About 70 per cent of our vehicle emissions come from around 15 per cent of our fleet,” says Justin Laney, General Manager of Fleet at John Lewis. That lion’s share of emissions comes from the heavy trucks doing long distance routes. With access to suitable electric or hydrogen technology some way off, the company is taking alternative steps to drive change over the medium term. “Our strategy for the next 20-25 years is to use biomethane – natural gas derived from waste. That gives us an 83 per cent reduction in exhaust emissions.”

That strategy is expected to deliver a fleet of 500 hundred heavy trucks fuelled with bio-methane, significantly improving on the 53 they currently have in use. Another 150 are expected to be ordered in the next 12-18 months with a plan is to replace all diesel-powered trucks in the fleet with biomethane as they come up for renewal.

For smaller vehicles in the fleet, John Lewis wants to go electric – a move that is incentivised by the DfT’s recent announcement that the weight limit for vans is to be increased from 3.5-tonnes to 4.25-tonnes for electric models. “This is something of a game-changer for home delivery,” says Laney. “You previously entered a much more regulated area of operation once you go above the 3.5-tonne barrier.”

With the 3.5-tonne limit to a home delivery van, around two thirds of the vehicle’s payload is lost to the weight of the vehicle and any additions such as refrigeration equipment. So, the extra 750kg allowance has the potential to nearly double the weight of goods that can be carried. For a business such as John Lewis which has up to 1,000 vans on the road each day, that makes a big difference.

“Traditionally electric vans of that type were very unproductive,” adds Laney. “That was the main reason for not using them. It wasn’t the fact that they cost more it was that their productivity was lower and therefore the running costs much higher.”

An economic driver

For Gary Clark, Head of Fleet for environmental services company Veolia, it was the running costs of their Euro 6 diesel vehicles in 2014 that led him to look at alternative fuels. What Veolia found was that the newer, cleaner diesel standard was more efficient for vehicles travelling up and down motorways, but for waste collection services in the urban environment, where vehicles are typically running shorter distances for long periods, the fleet was burning more fuel, thus generating more CO2.

“This was before everyone was really talking about ultra-low emission zones, and clean air zones in cities,” says Clark. 

Veolia made modifications to their Euro 6 trucks, enhancing miles per gallon performance and reducing emissions. They also used a sophisticated fuel monitoring suite to provide accurate figures on the cost effectiveness of old vs alternative fuels to their customers. It now has electric street sweeping vehicles in London, and the new generation Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) vehicles operating in several cities.

It’s also embracing the circular economy. It has converted some of its 26-tonne refuse trucks to electric, recharging them at an energy-from-waste facility which burns non-recyclable waste to generate electricity.

While the long-term goal for Veolia is to go completely electric, Clark fears this is still a way off.

For the time being, the risk factor for many companies operating large fleets remains high. Current charging times for EVs are problematic for a fleet of vehicles that are not usually off the road for long periods – and investments in developing technology could be wiped out by further advances.

Supplying the change

“Leasing can provide a flexible way of providing access to new technology,” says Toby Poston, Director of Communications at the BVRLA which represents the vehicle leasing and renting industry. Its members own 5 million vehicles on British roads and buy almost half the new vehicles sold in the UK each year. They’ve pledged to increase their represented fleet of 50,000 electric vehicles to 720,000 by 2025.

These are big numbers for an industry that plays an important role in being a key supplier to the used car market. The BVRLA is fully onboard with the shift towards electrification and is talking to clean air zone cities about how they coordinate the supply of used vehicles.

Similarly one of its members, Gary Smith, Managing Director at Europcar, spoke to Business Voice about an initiative it is running with local authorities to help dispel consumer myths around EVs. 

But both voice concern about the tax regime creating an added barrier to change.

“The company car tax for plug-in vehicles is going up next year,” says Poston. “The year after that it’s going to plummet again. Which is basically saying to people, ‘there’s a big incentive for buying electric vehicles, but put it off for another year’. It seems sensible to put that tax incentive in as soon as possible.”

So, while the destinations on the Road to Zero are clear, firms are still calling for clarity on how to reach them. Alongside a tax regime that can better drive change, they need to see progress on infrastructure and on affordable access to technology.

The prize is also clear. For cleaner air. For less reliance on fossil fuels. And for UK Industrial Strategy. Combine the right infrastructure with cutting edge innovation and the unprecedented cross-sector support from British business, the UK has the potential to be a world leader in zero emission vehicle technology.

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