Photo: Richard Mann

A recent Motor Transport roundtable debate sponsored by Fraikin looked at what will a zero-emissions truck look like as we start off down the 'Road to zero'.

Steve Hobson, editor, MT: Good morning and welcome to this roundtable on low emissions vehicles. To my mind there are four distinct areas: Carbon emissions and local emissions such as NOx and particulates; and then there is urban transport and long distance haulage.

A lot of people have accepted Euro-6 diesel is going to be OK in the next buying cycle for the current crop of low emissions and clean air zones, but what’s going to happen after that as we head towards zero emissions zones? What does a 32-tonne or 44-tonne zero emissions vehicle look like? No one really knows. Is diesel dead? If it is, what’s going to replace it?

Before we start I’d like to go around the table and introduce ourselves.

Neil Campbell, process safety and quality manager, Greenergy: We are a large fuel supplier in the UK. My background is as a chemical process engineer.

Jack Semple, consultant: I worked for Motor Transport, and then for 10 years as director of policy at the RHA until last July and I’m currently spending a lot of time working with manufacturing and engineering trade associations.

Colin Melvin, sales director, Fraikin.

Richard Clarke, commercial director, O’Donovan Waste: I’ve been involved in TFL’s LoCity project from 2016. We are a London-based company, and we have 90 trucks.

Lee Anderson, head of transport, Menzies Distribution: I’m a HGV driver myself, since I left school up to 15 years ago, and I’m involved with the Edinburgh CAZ.

Gary Lang, head of supply chain, Lactalis: I’m responsible for our vehicle acquisitions.

Carl Milton, supply and logistics manager, Cemex: The big interest for me today is low emissions technologies, as we’re a major supplier to the construction industry.

Paul Allera, technical director, Road Haulage Association: I joined the RHA in July before when I was in operations, most recently with Fowler Welch.

David Batty, consultant: Now in my 55th year as a fleet engineer, most recently with Abbey Logistics.

James Walker, commercial director, Fraikin: We want to understand what solutions the market will want from us over the next two to three years.

Sean McGrae, senior manager national transport, Lafarge Tarmac.

Brian Robinson, CV emissions consultant, Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership: My background is that for most of the last 30 years or so I’ve been working in and around safety and environmental research, much of that at what is now the Transport Research Laboratory. I’m now a freelance consultant and spend most of my time with the LowCVP where I cover commercial vehicle emissions.

Sam Clarke, head of business development, Gnewt Cargo: I founded the business 10 years ago, and we do the last mile for different companies using electric vehicles. I needed to start with the small stuff because that’s where the technology was available.

Hobson: I’ve asked Brian to give us a short overview of where we are with low emissions vehicles.

Robinson: From an air quality point of view, for commercial vehicles, the Euro-6 diesel is, for the time being at least, the standard requirement and I know most probably the big operators here today are aiming to be fully Euro-6 compliant at least in their London or other clean air zone city operations by 2020-21 when these things start to kick in.

Looking forward, the only real way to go beyond Euro-6, from a local authority point of view, I suspect are zero emissions zones.

Whilst there probably will be a Euro-7 coming from the European Commission at some point, that's unlikely to make a massive difference to particulates or NOx because Euro-6 is already so low.

Air quality benefit

Neither gas nor biofuels give you much of an air quality benefit over Euro-6 diesel. Some of the drop-in diesel substitute fuels may have a small NOx saving, but what testing we've done on gas so far is clearly showing no major air quality advantage over a diesel Euro-6.

How quickly fleets transition to Euro-6 or beyond is the crucial determinant as to whether clean air zones actually work or not.

When we talk about a zero emissions world, and I'm looking forward maybe another five or 10 years, then the question is, what do we mean by zero emissions? I think it means zero emissions capable. It doesn't necessarily mean entirely zero emissions at all points in the operation.

For smaller vehicles, certainly up to 7.5, 12 or maybe 18 tonnes, or anything that’s predominantly urban delivery, then in that kind of time scale, fully electric zero tail pipe emissions options will be widely available, quite viable and therefore common. For the long haul operation, it is much more challenging to go fully zero using electric, hydrogen or other zero tail pipe emission options.


That’s where I see range extenders and hybrids coming in - a mix of combustion engines to do the bulk of the miles and a battery big enough to do the city centre operations.

On greenhouse gas emissions, it's in long haul where the bulk of the miles are done and the bulk of the fuel is consumed. Around 75% or so of the carbon emissions from road freight in the UK come from that type of duty.

With electric vehicles in urban centres, on grid average electricity, just plugging it in and not worrying about where the electricity comes, you're probably going to get something like a 50% to 60% saving on greenhouse gases emissions over a diesel vehicle. If you’ve got a source of renewable electricity or you are on a fully certified 100% renewable electricity tariff, then you’re down to nearly 100% CO2 savings from an electric vehicle.

Long haul

For long haul, there are some electrification options which might come in by 2025. Probably not overhead catenaries, but maybe as batteries get cheaper and more energy dense, then battery swapping starts to become an option. If a battery does 150 miles you can pull into a service station, drop that out and drop another one in with another 150 miles range. But I don't see that happening in the shorter term. In that short to medium term, I think the options are much more around gas and biofuels.

With fossil natural gas versus pump diesel you can get maybe a 10% to15% CO2 saving. Which is worth having, but it's not going to get us to zero by 2050 or the 50% to 60% reduction needed by 2030 to comply with the Climate Change Act and the Paris Accord.

Waitrose has been a pioneer of biogas vehicles with Scania, and biomethane, like renewable electricity, can get you into the 85% to 90% CO2 savings.

It's important to make clear that, versus fossil pump diesel, by switching to 100% drop-in biodiesel you will get similar greenhouse gas savings. There is a range of biofuel options, not just biomethane, there are biodiesels and these could come into play in long haul operations as well.


Campbell: The renewable transport fuels obligation is currently 9%, and it's heading towards 12.5% by 2020. But we're starting to see demand for 20% and 25% biodiesel blends. The standard that's been developed for B20 and B30 is available, and we are suppling to that. That's one option for achieving or getting closer to achieving the obligations.

Robinson: There are some using 100% - Martin Brower operates its fleet fully on biodiesel, I believe, or at least have plans to achieve that quite soon.

Campbell: One area which is hotly debated is land use and waste food. At present we’re having no problem supplying what we need for blending, and it's an area of the business that Greenergy is developing. We have two biodiesel plants in the UK that produce around about 300,000 tonnes a year of biodiesel purely from used cooking oil (UCO). That's all recycled oils, so it's all renewable in that sense. We have a new plant in Amsterdam which will start up next year.

Currently, if you look out to the Middle East and Asia, enormous amounts of cooking oil are simply disposed of, poured down the drain which has environmental implications. We’re creating supply chains that can give value to that by recovering it and converting it to FAME (fatty acid methyl ester).

Duty differential

Robinson: On the fuel duty differential between gas and diesel, we had a workshop with DfT early in September to present all that data. Our main conclusions was that there is no reason from the evidence we've seen to change the current duty differential. [In his autumn budget after this roundtable took place, the chancellor extended the duty differential between gas and diesel for a further five years to 2032].

There's no reason to put people off using gas vehicles from the evidence we've got. We should first encourage them to use it in long haul operations, and probably a fuel differential does that because those people use most fuel. Secondly if you're going to get a gas vehicle, if you can't get biomethane to start with, at least have a clear plan to be putting more biomethane in it over its life.

At the moment, the current duty differential doesn't really encourage that. Whether it's fossil or bio-derived gas doesn't make any difference from the point of view of fuel duty. We would certainly want that.

I don't see the death of the internal combustion engine anytime soon, but I do think that the death of fossil diesel is a necessity. It’s not something that might happen quickly but it absolutely needs to happen.

Moving goalposts

Semple: The situation has changed so much. The goal posts on gas have changed repeatedly since 1997 when gas was pretty strongly promoted for the first time. If you think back five years when the duty differential was introduced, it was about 30ppl roughly. It's about half the duty on diesel.

At that point, there was no explanation as to why the government was making the differential. We have a total absence of policy from the government. At that time, the DfT thought that Euro-6 was going to be worse on fuel consumption than Euro-5. It turned out that it’s better. The reality is that for the foreseeable future there is a very limited stock of biomethane.

A small number of very large operators in the main will be benefiting from this heavy taxpayer subsidy. What would be really useful from the government is to have an explanation of its vision for duty policy.


There is no equality of access to gas refuelling. It's almost exclusively retailers that are using it. If we had a vision then I think operators could have far more confidence, but what we have is in the ‘Road to zero’ strategy that was published three months ago. There was a lack of understanding in that document as to what the emissions from gas are compared with diesel.

Walker: From our side, in terms of supply, financing and maintenance one of the challenges, if you look at gas, is that we have to look at the total cost of ownership of the asset. So we have to effectively pre-book what we think residual values will be on assets, whether it's gas, diesel, etc.

If we take a gas truck, for example, there is a significant increase in capital cost, so we have to take a judgment in terms of where the residual value will be in three, four, five years’ time. Whether the market would have an appetite for that is questionable.

Richard Clarke: At Donovan’s our short-term programme has been a transition to Euro-6 and by the end of the year we will have bought 30 Euro-6 vehicles. We definitely want to move to alternative fuel vehicles. When it comes to HGVs we'd like to focus on electric vehicles, or maybe hydrogen, but mainly electric because, in our opinion, that is the future and we want to move away from fossil fuels.

Upfront cost

In terms of the electric HGVs, for an SME like us the upfront cost is just totally prohibitive. An electric skip lorry is in the pipeline, but it's three times the cost of a standard diesel.

Milton: Concrete mixers, because of nature of the product, only travel about 50 miles a day on each cycle. Many of these vehicles are traditionally run by small companies with maybe one to five trucks.

We have a life cycle of over 10 years and currently there is no incentive for those people to change to Euro-6 if they are on Euro-4 or Euro-5. It's a massive cost. A lot of these people are at the end of their career and there are not a lot of younger people coming in as it's a very marginal business in terms of profitability.

Allera: There was a report recently on a company that has done trials with gas versus Euro-6 in an urban environment in a large Yorkshire town. They did tests at Millbrook as well and the Euro-6 diesel was far cleaner than the gas vehicle. Bear in mind they probably spent copious amounts of money so far in promoting these vehicles.

Robinson: We're hoping over the next couple of years to develop a set of low emissions truck standards. Once we've got a test process we can actually define what technology is a step change better than a Euro-6 diesel or gas. Then local authorities and government can start to use incentives based on that when specifying contracts.

Batty: As an incentive to invest in a gas truck it should be exempt from VED so over five or seven years, that's £7,000 or £8,000. The difference in price between a diesel 6x2 and gas is £40,000, and the difference in the back end price is about £5,000 to £7,000. So the net effect is probably about £35,000 to put some gas trucks on the road and the more people buy that it will start to go down.

For me, long haul has got to be gas. There is no doubt about that. They've got the range now. The fuel saving over the diesel is 40% with the duty differential so within 18 months you've paid for the price difference on the truck. You put them on fixed price maintenance with the manufacturer so you're not worried about the maintenance and there is a guaranteed residual value.

Waitrose cng

For me, any high street retailer now who runs back to base must be going gas. Everybody who is running 10 gas vehicles and are back to base, you just drop your refuelling skid on site. You've got Calor and BOC queuing up to give you these things. They'll put them on your site, pipe them up and deliver once a week. Anyone who is not doing it now is going to miss the boat.

Campbell: The problem is that LNG is still a fossil fuel and biomethane is limited by the availability of resource to make it. You need the right waste to make it. That's why the likes of Waitrose are doing it because they have the food waste.

Robinson: There are some interesting new technologies around biomethane production, but of the current standard technologies, anaerobic digestion is the main one. There is in energy terms about 100 petajoules of resource in the UK. To put that in context, the 500,000 HGV fleet gets through 300 petajoules worth of diesel per year. The biomethane resource can take out a big chunk of the CO2 output of diesel fuel.

Lang: At this moment, we don't run any of our own vehicles in this country. Our French operation has a considerable truck fleet and everybody is rightly concerned about which way they should go. For me, I've listened very closely to the discussion and I think gas would be the only way that I could conceivably say that we would go.

That has been our thoughts all the way through, especially with our milk collections and long distance trunking.

Anderson: Menzies runs a fleet of 3.5, 7.5 and 44 tonne vehicles. What we've done for the LEZ in London is re-distribute our fleet. We've not reduced our overall emissions footprint, we've just reduced it in certain areas.

We are discussing the use of gas vehicles, and are doing some work at the moment where we might potentially be swapping out vehicles on one contract for gas vehicles. The issue for me is the infrastructure. I know in Scotland there is a big filling station in Lockerbie but further north it's very limited. It's not a decision to be taken lightly.

Sam Clarke: The fundamental problem is that the technology is getting better but not at the speed at which we are being forced to make the changes, especially in your world of the bigger stuff. They push you in one direction but the technology just isn't there yet. It's getting there but not at the speed you need.

Hydrogen future?

Nikola One

Milton: I spoke to a technical expert who has just come back from the States, and he said he'd seen the future which was a Nikola hydrogen 1,000 horsepower tractor unit. It has big power and no emissions.

Robinson: There are a few hydrogen buses now, but they are still monumentally expensive. The problem with hydrogen is that from an energy point of view it's a basket case. You need to be swimming in renewable energy, enough to waste it producing and storing hydrogen and then turning it back into electricity on the vehicle.

Allera: Sam's a pioneer. One of the biggest concerns that anybody would have with battery electric vehicles currently is range. To achieve the range, I believe the future is possibly electric with hydrogen.

Sam Clarke: I've been driving electric vehicles for 15 years, and range anxiety is going to be around for a very long time. But now my issue is not range anxiety as much as charge anxiety - the ability to recharge is equally as worrying as the range of the vehicles themselves.

A major issue is that it’s a predominantly a self-employed industry and the guys take the trucks home. A lot of them do not have access to on-street or off-street charging, and even if they did, an electric Daily is £90,000. It's ridiculous.

Lack of capacity

But lack of grid capacity to charge EVs is a myth. We've got 60 smart charge points which is the second largest privately owned smart charging infrastructure in the country. All our vehicles are charged by 10pm. With smart charging we can charge very quickly but actually we don’t need to.

McGrae: We have an interesting problem as well. We run a lot of 8-wheel rigids. What you've got is lots of focus on gas for big trucks, electric for small vehicles and we're in the middle. We've got nothing because neither actually works for our operation.

The manufacturers aren't going to look at our market, specifically, because it's not big enough.

Campbell: There is another fuel option, which would work for Euro-6. Diesel engines will run on ethanol with the right additives. That's a clean biofuel. Obviously, you don't get any benefits in air quality but it does give you a big carbon saving. Bioethanol is very much an option.

Hobson: Thank you all very much for taking the time to attend today’s roundtable and thank you to Fraikin for sponsoring it.