Can Fleets Survive The Drive For Clean Air?
The quality of our air has become a hot political topic in the past few years, and its impact has been felt by fleet owners large and small. In their draft Clean Air Strategy, the Department Of The Environment, Fisheries and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) sets out both ambitious plans and the stark realities of polluted air. Their aim is to reduce particulate matter emissions by 30% by 2020, and by 46% by 2030. They are looking to do this as air pollution now ranks as the fourth greatest risk to public health behind cancer, heart disease and obesity. Indeed, it is thought to account for over 20,000 premature deaths in the UK and cost over £1 billion a year by 2020, rising to £2.5 billion every year from 2030.
These are sobering figures and any right-minded person would doubtless agree that something radical needs to be done. Unfortunately, the action that seems most likely to be taken will have a massive impact on drivers, especially fleet drivers owing to their mileage levels and traditional reliance on diesel power. So, can fleets survive the coming clean air storm or will businesses be forced to look into a whole new transport solution? Let's consider the evidence on both sides.
While this idea may sound dramatic, there's no doubting the war that is being waged against motorists of all kinds. Since the VW emissions scandal broke, diesels in particular have come in for a welter of public negativity and the cash-hungry government has seized upon the opportunity to raise some extra funds.
Tax levels have become a potent weapon for the cause of clean air, since 2007 fuel duty has surged from 48.35 pence per litre to a staggering 57.95 pence today. Given the mileage the average fleet driver does, this is a massive extra burden for fleet owners to absorb. And it's not just fuel duty that has gone up, vehicle excise duty (VED) has also been on the rise. The changes of April 2017 saw charges of £140 per year introduced and Chancellor Phillip Hammond has already announced a 'review' in this autumn's budget. With uncertainty over Brexit looming large and the economy slowing, it would take a brave man to bet against this review being anything other than another increase.
Another way by which fleet owners will be hit where it hurts –the wallet – will be through the introduction of Clean Air Zones. Cities including Glasgow, Leeds, Nottingham, Oxford and Bristol, all have plans to make at least some of their city centres pollution-free zones. This will either take the form of some parts being prohibitively expensive to drive into – in the London boroughs of Hackney and Islington it can now cost as much as £130 per day to bring a diesel into the area – or, as is Oxford's proposal, to ban anything other than ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs) altogether. While such action is understandable in terms of protecting public health, having to pay such sums or the expense of having to make alternative transport arrangements to access key parts of important centres surely doesn't bode well for the future of fleets.
If there's a villain of the pollution piece, then it has to be diesels. Diesel's death has been widely reported and reached a 17-year low in July when they accounted for just 37% of sales. Diesels have always been the fuel of choice for fleets, and while it lost its crown to petrol this year, that, in the context of a debate about air quality, isn't going to help matters.
The VW scandal has galvanised public opinion around emissions and fossil fuel usages, but the simple fact is that the fleet sector – and the motoring community at large – cannot switch to ULEVs yet as neither the charging infrastructure is available nor models with sufficient range to satisfy modern driving demands. The UK government has pledged to ban new petrol and diesels by 2040 and the Scottish government has announced it will do the same by 2032, but that potentially leaves fleets either having to pay through the nose for polluting vehicles or switch and use limited range vehicles while the technology plays catch up. Neither of which is economically viable.
Finally, but by no means insignificantly, public opinion has firmly swung behind the cause of clean air. As recently as the late 1990s, climate change and environmental concerns were at the largely fringes with most pay lip service to the problem without being willing to make changes in their lives. The rise is in disorders such as asthma in children, the much-publicised rise in early deaths owing to particulate levels and a tangible change in the quality of air – especially in cities – and the loss of trust in the car industry have brought the issue into the mainstream. The government is also under pressure from the EU and legal challenges have already been successfully made over their failure to meet emission targets. This will undoubtedly lead to further, even more stringent restrictions that will leave all but the cleanest of vehicles an economic non-runner.
The one thing that has remained constant in the motor vehicle industry since its inception has been innovation. 20 years ago, things we now take for granted such as satellite navigation, airbags and computerised engine management were only for the few. In another 20 years low emission electric and hydrogen vehicles, super-efficient self-driving vehicles and other environmental advances we've yet to encounter will be mainstream and through these fleets will survive and thrive.
First of all, let's take a fresh look at diesels. In terms of emissions diesels have really got their act together. European legislation introduced in 2017 dictated that no new passenger car can emit more than 168 milligrams of NOx per kilometre and that will be reduced to 120 milligrams by 2020, so cleaner vehicles are on the way. Bosch have created a thermal technology that can reduce emissions to just 13 milligrams of NOx in standard legally-compliant RDE cycles, so the idea of clean diesels is a realistic one and one that could be with us soon…
ULEVs are being widely trumpeted as the saviour of the fleet sector and it's hard to argue against that. The HMRC have Benefit in Kind (BIK), Vehicle Excise Duty (VED), capital allowances, and salary sacrifice regimes all to help incentivise businesses to switch to electric vehicles, and congestion zones such as in London don't apply to electric vehicles. Of course, range has always been a significant barrier to adoption and the lack of charging points has hobbled the sector still further. This, however, is changing fast. It's predicted that by 2020 there will be more charging points than petrol stations – thanks largely to charging points going into petrol stations – and the new range of electric vehicles have a far greater range. Tesla's Model 3 is said to be capable of over 250 miles on a single charge and with manufacturers as diverse as Mercedes, Audi, Dyson and Apple all investing in electric car technology, range parity cannot be far off. Add to that the exciting and seemingly limitless possibilities of hydrogen fuelled vehicles and we're set for a clean car revolution.
Whilst concerns around the quality of our air are universal, so is the demand for a company vehicle. Company cars remain the 2nd most attractive employee benefit and for many businesses they are simply a necessity. Yes, technology in terms of video conferencing and remote working generally has made the necessity of face-to-face meetings less important, but the fact remains that many businesses need to move goods and materials around and that requires vehicles. Even in the heavier, most polluting end of the vehicle sector – in trucking and construction – electric plant and special types vehicles are coming through, safeguarding even this area of fleets.
The answer to this has to be a resounding, 'Yes' although probably not in their current form. Companies need vehicles, employees like having them and in many sectors there's no alternative on offer. What they will have to do is clean up their collective act, get more creative in their transport requirements by using techniques such as fleet mobility and adopt new technology as it comes on stream. The future of the fleet industry is bright; so long as we balance the needs of the planet.
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