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Where cars lead trucks are sure to follow – alternative fuels

The move towards low emission vehicles is both rapid and irreversible. Led by London, a number of towns and cities within the UK are at the point of either introducing or announcing very high charges for any but the most modern low emission vehicles entering their centres. It is entirely reasonable to conclude that the pace of change is now so fast that within a relatively short period of time even the most modern low emission petrol and diesel engines will also be subject to some form of discrimination. Car manufacturers recognise this reality and to varying degrees have well developed plans for the widespread introduction of zero-emission vehicles.

Whilst there are greater challenges involved in replicating the speed with which alternative fuels are being introduced to passenger cars by commercial vehicles manufacturers, progress is now being made.

Given that low emission zones are initially springing up within town and city centres, it is operators of vehicles that serve the retail market that need to address the issue as something of a priority. One trend has been an increase in the use of light commercial vehicles in urban areas at the expense of larger trucks, given that there are currently a greater range of low emission options for smaller vehicles.

That is not to say that manufacturers of heavy goods vehicles are ignoring the issue and both battery and compressed natural gas (CNG) powered engines are being developed.

CNG is a fuel that powers an internal combustion engine but can reduce emissions by about 80%. At the end of 2017 Waitrose, the UK supermarket chain, announced the introduction of ten Scania built trucks with a gas storage capacity sufficient to offer a range of 500 miles. Furthermore, although the vehicles cost around 50% more than their diesel equivalent to purchase, fuel savings are estimated to be as much as £20,000 per year. Therefore a return on the extra investment will be achieved within two to three years, with an associated significant reduction in the comparable total cost of ownership over the lifetime of the vehicle.

Electric vehicles are also increasingly available for all types of commercial vehicles but their use is limited by having a maximum range of around 180 miles. Renault Trucks will shortly be launching their second generation of electric trucks. Using Lithium-ion batteries that can be fully DC charged in about two hours, the Renault Trucks Z.E. models range from 3.5 to 26 tonnes. These vehicles are designed for a variety of urban applications such as distribution, delivery and refuse collection.

So far as light commercial vehicles are concerned changes are more advanced and as a short term solution there has been a small increase in the proportion of cleaner petrol powered vans at the expense of diesel. However, replacement of older vehicles with Euro 6 diesel engines will be sufficient to avoid the planned low emission charges in London and other cities and therefore offers the most popular short-term solution to meeting clean air targets.

Zero emissions remain the ultimate goal and electric the probable solution. Nissan, Renault and Mercedes are amongst those leading the way in the UK market for electric vans. Whilst new technology is increasing vehicle ranges, battery power remains unviable for longer-distance commercial drivers such as couriers and for these applications hybrid in certain situations might produce an interim low emission solution.

Hydrogen, which powers a select number of fuel cell cars is also being considered for light commercial vehicles. Refuelling is very quick (minutes) and range can be greater than battery powered alternatives but there are currently very few hydrogen sites within the UK.

Compressed natural gas (CNG), as explained above, has been the conserve of HGVs, but manufacturers including Iveco are amongst those introducing this fuel source to some of their new models.

There is an increasingly urgent requirement to reduce commercial vehicle emissions and this is a factor which fleet operators need to consider when deciding the timing and nature of vehicle replacement. Given the rapid changes underway in terms of both legislation and technology vehicle operators might consider short term leasing and contract hire agreements as alternatives to outright purchase or long term finance agreements when replacing their equipment. The key requirement is to avoid a situation where changes to the law or the introduction of new technology renders older vehicles expensive to run and where such vehicles cannot be easily removed from the fleet.

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