Roads minister Richard Holden (pictured) has rejected claims that urgent government action is needed to help operators transition to zero-emission HGV fleets and insisted the commercial sector will partner with the DfT on developing a charging infrastructure.
Speaking exclusively to MT, he added that the 2040 deadline for all new HGVs to be zero emission was a “very, very long way off” and told cash-strapped SMEs working on thin margins that the cost of the switch would greatly reduce over time.
“Look to cars and buses,” he said. “The differentials on price between zero carbon and non-zero carbon vehicles are coming down all the time and they’ll keep going in that direction.
“You’ve got to a situation with buses where commercial operators are now choosing to buy them, even without government low emission bus funding support.
“I left University in 2007 which is about the same time away as we’re going to move to zero emissions for HGVs. The innovation and change that’s happened over that period in this space has just been unbelievable, and that’s only going to accelerate, particularly when it comes to cost points because we’ve already got the technology. Now it’s about making it more efficient and reducing weight, and reducing costs, in a competitive marketplace.”
Holden added that the government’s long deadlines for HGVs “very much reflect the unique needs of the sector”. The sale of new, non-zero emission HGVs less than or equal to 26 tonnes will be phased out from 2035. From 2040 all new HGVs sold in the UK must be zero emission.
Responding to recent criticism from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) that the DfT still had no rollout plan for charging infrastructure, or incentives for fleet operators, he said: “We are very aware of the differences in this sector, and also the capital investment that will need to go in. That’s why we’ve set a long-term goal with a long-term plan.
“We also acknowledge that there will be a diesel fleet, albeit an increasingly efficient diesel fleet, on the roads for quite a long time to come. We’ve already seen rapid advances in terms of miles per gallon for the current diesel fleet.”
Asked what the government’s timeline was for developing a national charging infrastructure, he said: “This isn’t all about government acting, this is also about the commercial sector picking up in this space. Nobody is banging on to me saying the government must buy every petrol station in the country to ensure we have enough. So this is about partnership.
“Obviously one of the things we’ll be looking at is truck stops and the motorway services which are still owned by the government. But the bigger thing is that, as the switch happens, you’ll see the commercial model kicking in.”
Holden also hinted that the 2040 deadline for all new HGVs to be zero emission was not set in stone. “We’re looking at a 17-year phasing in period - at least,” he said. “And the point is that’s only going to be the planning of the new ones - there’s still going to be a phasing out of current HGVs fleets.
“Obviously we understand the need for broader action but we acknowledge that there are more challenges than in the car sector.”
He added the product cycles for HGVs was generally around seven years. “That means we’re probably currently in the product cycle before any switch,” he said. “The equivalent in the car sector was around the early 2010s. At that point you were still looking at innovation - at hybridisation, at charging on the go, at how you could use braking to recharge etc. All that work is still in development around HGV. There are a lot of lessons that can be learnt easily from what has already happened in car and van. There’s a lot of that technological change that can already be transferred to HGV.”
Asked for his gut feeling on where long-haul fleet operators would ultimately invest, he admitted the answer was “still up in the air”.
“When it comes to refrigeration units and things like that, I think the technology can move along a little more quickly in terms of decarbonisation,” he said. “But when it comes to HGV that’s the reason we’ve kept innovation funding going to both sectors, because HGV isn’t as clear as it is for car yet. Which is why we have a longer timeframe with which to look at that.”
Holden also pointed to continued investment in the DFT’s Freight Innovation Fund which aims to support SMEs and develop a future pipeline of solutions to meet the sector’s emerging needs.
The government has dedicated £7m to the programme to support SMEs through the Accelerator Programme and Freight Innovation Cluster until 2024.
“We’ve invested heavily here to see what we could do, not just on the logistics side but also in the vehicle side, so if there are improvements to be made we can really turbo charge them and get them out more quickly into the market space,” he said.
For more stories tracking the industry journey to decarbonisation see our new Freight Carbon Zero website.