FUSO eCanter - Hovis

The government’s announcement last week that it is cutting the grants for plug-in vehicles makes very little difference to HGV operators on the simple basis that only three commercial vehicles with GVWs above 3.5 tonnes are currently eligible for any kind of grant support. These are the BYD Auto eDucato 4.25-tonne GVW van, the FUSO eCanter and the Paneltex Z75. There is no grant funding under the scheme for trucks over 12 tonnes GVW anyway.

Wind back six months to the publication of 'SME Green Freight', commissioned by the Department for Transport from Ipsos MORI. DfT identifies barriers to small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) road freight operators from adopting 'greener' practices such as eco-driver training, telematics and switching to alternatively-fuelled vehicles.

Early in the report it states that there are three key barriers to SME hauliers adopting emissions reduction technologies, practices and behaviours, including two cost-related issues – the long payback period to recoup the initial purchase price and the high initial purchase price. The report then identifies three incentives previously explored, including financial incentives, then states, 'Financial incentives generated the most interest and offered the most potential to engage SMEs.'

The DfT doesn’t even have the excuse that the report was produced before the pandemic. Yet here we are six months later, still in lockdown and the government is cutting what provision there was.

'SME Green Freight' does attempt to quantify what SME hauliers could expect from adopting the various measures. Eco driver training could yield a 5% reduction in fuel used, with a payback period of between 12 and 18 months. Telematics systems offer savings of up to £3,600 per year per vehicle, while natural gas-powered vehicles offer a payback period between two and over five years.

What have hauliers experienced themselves? Alternative fuels seem to present the same issues – cost and fuelling infrastructure, as Derek Mitchell, MD of Caledonian Logistics, based near Aberdeen told motortransport.co.uk: “We’ve thought about natural gas powered vehicles but there is not much infrastructure in Scotland for the vehicles.”

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Another issue is the payback period. If it takes over five years to gain payback, it would run foul of the replacement cycles that Caledonian Logistics follows, which is to replace vehicles every three to five years. The company could risk not recouping the cost of the vehicle in that time.

Fuelling infrastructure was also an issue identified by Robert Wilcox, MD of Somerset-based Massey Wilcox: “We would need a supply in the depot as being based rurally, it’s not likely we will see a facility close to us for quite some time. Of course to have this in the depot would be quite an expense and would mean that room had to be found above ground, whereas our diesel is underground. So I can’t envisage this happening any time soon.”

Logistics UK's policy manager for vans and urban, Denise Beedell, highlights another issue: “SMEs operators on the whole are the ones that are much more reliant on the second hand market.” That would inevitably rule many out from the alternative fuel market, although Beedell adds that Logistics UK has seen a bigger uptake in leasing for vehicles of all sizes among its members.”

Massey Wilcox has used a fuel bonus scheme to incentivise drivers, but found that it created problems of its own. “We had a fuel bonus running and it was the same band of drivers that attained it. The consensus of the others was generally they couldn’t be bothered to try. It could be that the remuneration is already quite high driven by the shortage, and they didn’t need to put themselves out to get the bonus?”

Similarly, eco-driver training might not be as effective as it could be for reasons beyond the hauliers’ control, “We have a good central core of drivers who stick with us, have good accident records and look after their trucks”, says Wilcox. “It’s the 20% margin or so that come and go with increasing regularity looking for the “next perfect job”. This is a result of the underlying shortage and drivers walk out of one job (often without working a notice) and into another no questions asked, because they can.”

As 'SME Green Freight' finds, the surest way to reduce the barriers for SME hauliers seems to be with money, which could support those wishing to try alternative fuel vehicles. It’s difficult to escape the fuelling infrastructure issues too. At a time when the government seems keen to cut budgets, extra financial support looks doubtful.