I recently wrote an article for East Anglia in Business magazine about how the skills gap is a huge issue in our move to a low and de-carbon economy (and let’s be honest, the latter is what we must be doing). Speaking to businesses around the county and region through my work with Anglia Ruskin University, it shocks me how little knowledge there is within SMEs about how they can be part of this Greentech revolution. Central and regional government talk about how this will be the future of business, and how the UK will be a Greentech leader, and yet the amount of funding going into it is in the tens of millions of pounds. It needs to be far more, and funnelled through training opportunities, innovation support and direct grants to enable business to move from high, to low or no carbon (for instance supporting small independent fuel retailers to transition to being EV charging hubs, or gas heating companies to installing and maintaining heat pumps). There is lots we can do, but its clear to me we need to do it faster and in a more joined up, and accessible (to SMEs) manner.
The biggest source of air pollution in UK cities is traffic, and in a new report, researchers discovered that a major contributor to the problem is the popularity of unnecessarily large and fuel-hungry cars.
Known disparagingly as “Chelsea tractors”, sport utility vehicles – more commonly known as SUVs – are highly polluting. Petrol and diesel SUVs produce 25% more CO₂ on average than a medium-sized car and, since 2017, they’ve outsold fully electric vehicles in the UK at a rate of 37 to one. Globally, rising SUV sales are the second-biggest cause of increasing carbon emissions.
Despite often being too big to fit in a conventional parking space, 75% of SUVs sold in the UK in 2019 were bought by people living in urban areas. The New Weather Institute, the think tank which produced the report, argues that the marketing strategies of car manufacturers have convinced town and city dwellers that it’s normal to go “shopping in a two-tonne truck”, regardless of the consequences for human health and the environment.
For a lot of drivers though, these vehicles simply appeal. Their elevated driving position gives a clearer view of the road and they are large inside as well as out, offering plenty of room for families. Manufacturers should be criticised for marketing a vehicle designed for rugged, off-road travel to people living in leafy suburbs, but ultimately, they’ll build what they believe buyers want.
Petrol and diesel SUVs are sold in their thousands every month and you can expect a car bought today to still be on the road ten to 20 years from now. This will frustrate efforts to decarbonise Britain’s transport sector just as the most significant action needs to be taken. So what can be done?
Remove, replace, revamp
There are three possible solutions. The first involves moving all these vehicles out of urban areas and into the countryside – where they are arguably designed to be – by banning their use in densely populated places. This won’t be simple though. Diverting SUVs to rural areas could swamp villages with more cars than people need. More challenging still is the fact that many of these “city” SUVs are actually the wrong type of specification for off-road use, even though they appear rough and ready, and so might not adjust all that well to rural life.
Another option involves the government and manufacturers creating incentive schemes to get SUV drivers to switch to zero-emission alternatives. But this kind of funding is actually shrinking in the UK and it suffered a further cut in March 2021. Many large electric SUVs, such as Tesla’s Model X, no longer qualify for the UK plug-in car grant, leaving fewer subsidised choices for urban buyers determined to keep driving SUVs.
The third option is more innovative. It’s possible that petrol and diesel cars can be converted to fully electric vehicles using bespoke or generic kits, depending on the model. This approach is not without its challenges, but a number of companies are carrying out such conversions already, and it’s perhaps the most sustainable way to eliminate the carbon footprint of vehicles that are already on the road.
In this scenario, no new cars would need to be built to replace the SUVs, saving an enormous amount of energy, and these once highly polluting cars end up with zero tailpipe emissions when converted. Most of the car can be used, and what isn’t, (generally recyclable steel and aluminium), can theoretically be turned into parts for new electric motors and batteries.
This approach is known as a circular economy, in which the old and defunct parts of a product are salvaged and turned into new ones. This will apply to the batteries in the newly converted electric vehicles too, which are highly recyclable. So while the rush to buy SUVs in recent years has piled up problems for the coming decades, some innovative thinking can prevent these white elephants blocking the road to a net-zero society.
Note: This article was originally published in 2019 for TALE (Transport and Logistical Efficiencies)
Is the future of logistics drone-based? Tom Stacey from Anglia Ruskin University’s Business and Law faculty looks at the argument and wonders if there is a better way.
As businesses look to more automation and AI (Artificial Intelligence) to drive towards efficiency and growth to meet the demands of a growing population, the idea that we can utilise small, cheap (compared to a delivery van) and intelligent delivery agents is appealing. The argument is that they remove the need to keep a fleet on the road and negate the need for a human operative. To massive global corporations, the idea of a drone to deliver your package or hot food is one that means they can replace a means of transport that has almost reached peak efficiency with one where advances can still be sought – after all, drones are getting smaller, more powerful, more accurate and more reliable all the time.
Over recent years and months there has been plenty publicised about the use of drones to transport everyday goods to consumers, even directly to their door (or more likely garden). Amazon, Dominos and UPS amongst others have been testing drone deliveries and as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are very much still a hyped and rapidly changing technology these are perhaps done as much for positive PR as anything else.
Compared to road transport (for that last step of delivery to the customer) means potentially less pollution from exhaust emissions and the avoidance of traffic congestion on route. A drone can take a direct “as the crow flies” route too and isn’t affected by hills or rivers in its path, the latest machines even have sensors to avoid obstacles and map the route in 3D noting where obstacles or collision risks occur to avoid them on the return journey.
The argument to use a drone for deliveries would seem quite strong then – less people in jobs that tend to be zero-hours contracts, less pollution, faster deliveries and less traffic on the roads, but is it as simple as that? Well possibly not, as the technology has some practical and fundamental drawbacks that may prevent it ever becoming mainstream, and also, it would seem there are some other options that are yet to be fully explored.
One of the biggest issues with small UAVs is their range, the average professional level drone can fly for around 30 minutes at a speed up to 30 mph. Assuming it needs to get back to base this gives a workable maximum range of around 7 miles. This is fine in an urban environment, but you could argue in a rural one, you’d be better off to walk! After all, it has always worked for postal services. Then there is safety – accidents can and do happen and current rules do not permit the use of UAVs within 50m of people not under the pilot’s control or three times that in built up areas – this is mostly so there is no risk it collides with a person which could cause an injury. Noise is a similar factor when close to people – these propeller driven machines make a particularly unpleasant buzzing, I’m not sure most people would not appreciate it in their back garden as a pizza descends for number 6.
Perhaps more limiting though are what we might call the payload for a UAV – 10 KG would be a workable maximum for a large craft – i.e. the kind you’d want to be able to land in most people’s gardens. This is fine to drop a new tablet computer off, but you’d struggle if you’d forgotten the sugar too. Then you have the (Great British) weather; nearly all small flying craft will struggle in wind to fly and land as well as they do in none and so you will likely only safely fly them in calm conditions, during the day. Compare this to a delivery van or rider and you find they are significantly more capable in all weathers. Snow? Forget it, rain? This is a challenge for most UAVs – consumer level craft can’t fly in the rain and even high end professional ones take more waterproofing which adds weight and complexity which impacts on range and size negatively.
So there are certainly challenges that are being faced by making this technology mainstream, however, people like Amazon are continuing to invest heavily in the technology with a site in Cambridge, UK, and even have a special agreement with the UK Civil Aviation Authority to test drones for consumer deliveries.
But what are the alternatives? If congestion, the weather and the technology are meaning the very end of the logistics journey is becoming the bottleneck or the challenge on the ground, what else could you do? Well, Elon Musk’s The Boring Company are investing in the US in going underground to move vehicles and people. Humans have been tunnelling for generations, and it might seem the perfect answer to moving goods around too. Whilst the cost of tunnels is high initially, they provide a safe, fast and efficient way to move things around, without the constraints of range, weather and capacity that vans and drones have. As Subway systems around the world show – with frequent enough stop off points, users will happily travel to the closest entrance/exit point and collect their package, and automated agents could even do this ‘last mile’ journey on your behalf. It might provide challenges around keeping your pizza hot, but then again so do 6 spinning propellers blowing air onto it!
I recently spoke to the Daily Telegraph for their article entitled “Ford falls out of favour as drivers plug in to Tesla“. In my quote, I said that “Since the Tesla came out, we’ve always had a lot of small business owners, and sole traders buying them because of the tax benefits”. Now this is true for the most part, but of course applies to all electric vehicles, including Plug-in Hybrids as well as Full EVs, so its not just a Tesla phenomenon.
The sands have been shifting somewhat in the UK regarding the tax benefits that EVs give – in the 2020/21 tax year, company car drivers paid 0% BIK (Benefit in Kind) tax (part of P11D Class 1A National Insurance) on their electric company car, which no doubt led to the huge increase in registration figures, even in light of the pandemic and its effect on sales. Consider that many company car drivers pay around 25-30% BIK as a deduction from their pay packet and you can see why it would make sense for company car drivers to push their employers to give them electric options. in 2021/22 the BIK rate for pure EVs rose to 2% and will go up again in the next tax year to 3%, so it increases to balance the increase in adoption, but is still incredibly low compared to petrol and diesel.
It gets more complex when you look at Plug-in Hybrids, which are a popular company car choice – the amount of BIK tax is linked to the pure electric range, and in the UK, there are no PHEVs with a long enough range to qualify for 2021/22’s 1% rate, but some vehicles such as Volvo’s PHEVs just squeeze into the 7% (rising to 8%) rate, which is more than pure electric, but less than a diesel equivalent and certainly an option if you want a SUV that you can do reasonable mileage in per year.
What other benefits are there?
It’s not just those you have to pay Benefit in Kind tax, business owners can also take advantage of the FYA (First Year Allowance) whereby they can write down 100% of the cost of not only pure electric vehicles, but also electric fuel used and charge points fitted at their premises up until 31st March 2023.
Of course, I’d suggest that you speak to your accountant for the exact, and most up to date advice regarding using an EV for your business use, but it is clear there are significant benefits in terms of reducing how much tax you pay both as an employee using an EV, or a business owner.
What about for private usage?
EVs are not just all about cost savings – albeit even as a private owner, you’ll benefit from significantly cheaper fuel costs and £0 Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) or Road Tax. By driving an EV, you’ll be being kinder to the environment, using less brakes and saving on maintenance too! If you have never driven an EV, they’re easy and pleasant to drive, with instant power, and if you pick a Tesla, you get a car that gets better with Over the Air (OTA) software updates like your phone or tablet.
Road transport accounts for around a quarter of all CO₂ emissions – reducing this is crucial to reaching net zero emissions in the next 25 years. When it comes to alternative fuels in passenger vehicles like cars, the automotive industry seems united around batteries and electric motors. In the UK, the growth in electric vehicle sales matches the decline in new petrol and diesel cars.
You can listen to more articles from The Conversation, narrated by Noa, here.
But when it comes to the haulage industry, with its lorries and other heavy goods vehicles (often abbreviated to HGVs), the path is not so clear. Each HGV weighs 3.5 tonnes or more and travels long distances. Diesel has been the fuel of choice, offering fast refuel times and long ranges on a full tank.
Of course, diesel engines emit CO₂, and so the industry and governments are trialling new technologies to clean up the sector. The UK government recently announced £2 million in funding to research the feasibility of installing overhead power lines on a section of motorway near Scunthorpe to power lorries without fossil fuels.
Known as e-highways, and similar to what you get above trains and trams, poles are set up along the inside lane of the motorway. From these, 700 volt power lines are hung which the lorries connect to via a device known as a pantograph, which provides the power to the motor.
Questions about this system of powering HGVs abound. How will the lorries overtake or leave the lane while connected to the power lines? What might happen if the overhead cables strike the vehicle’s load? Trials are ongoing across continental Europe to try to answer these questions.
While this system is undoubtedly the most efficient way to power a vehicle – no energy is lost between the power lines and the lorry – it is potentially the most difficult to coordinate, as it will require a whole new set of infrastructure on roads and an entire fleet of compatible vehicles, as well as a way of charging haulage companies for the electricity they use. All of this equates to higher costs for an industry that works on tight margins as it is.
Siemens, the German company leading many of these trials, suggests that lorries will need to have an engine or motor and fuel source such as batteries or diesel, as well as the pantograph system to make them compatible with the e-highway. This will surely make them more expensive to buy, though a study in the UK suggested that hauliers would recoup some of this on fuel savings by using electricity. The same study estimates the cost of building power lines to cover 65% of the UK’s lorry routes will be in the region of £20 billion.
There are two other technologies with zero tailpipe emissions available to HGVs. The first is the hydrogen fuel cell, which turns pressurised hydrogen into electricity and water (so not strictly zero emission, but certainly zero carbon) to power a motor. The second replaces the hydrogen and the fuel cell with a large lithium-ion battery, which can be recharged at conventional high-power charging stations, or HGV-specific “megachargers”, such as those planned by the carmaker Tesla.
Both of these options present similar problems to e-highways. The most significant is a lack of infrastructure – there are just ten hydrogen fuelling stations in the UK, and these are better equipped for refuelling cars than lorries. UK rapid charging stations for electric vehicles exist in their thousands, but they take hours longer to fully charge an HGV compared with a car, and so are more suitable for overnight charging.
The haulage industry will want clarity from the government over which technology it should back, as its vehicles cost a lot of money and must continue to generate income, as well as keep essential goods moving in the UK. This is no doubt the reason that trials are ongoing, to try and understand which option hauliers should take.
It’s doubtful that all three technologies will end up in mainstream use, so where does the industry’s future lie? E-highways will be efficient, and the technology is already well understood from use in the rail industry, so workers have the skills to implement them. But the most liberal estimate is still 65% road coverage by the late 2030s. Lorries would still need an independent way of moving when off the e-highway.
Which leaves electric battery power. The rate at which people are switching to battery electric vehicles and the availability of chargers is increasing exponentially, while the cost of the technology decreases. But the much-hyped Tesla Semi truck has been pushed back another year and the company continues to concentrate on passenger cars. And the issue holding all EVs back is supply of batteries, which is struggling to keep pace with the growth of ownership.
To lower emissions and get to market quickly, electric batteries may prove to be the better option, though an ultimate mix of hydrogen and electric is likely. On a large scale, e-highways might push upfront costs too far for hauliers.