Last reviewed 7 July 2020

The Government has already announced that no new petrol or diesel-powered cars or vans will be allowed to be sold after 2040 and is consulting (until 31 July) on bringing this date forward to 2035, or even earlier. This will also include hybrids using petrol or diesel engines. This article looks at the consequences and considerations for operators.

Although the proposal does not affect larger vehicles there are some other measures that already do, and more may be expected in the longer term. Some local authorities are already imposing bans or charges for access by all types of vehicles except those classed as ultra-low emission or “zero-emission” vehicles. There are also likely to be longer-term indirect effects.

What is being proposed?

The proposals relate only to “new petrol and diesel cars and vans” but there is no definition of “cars and vans” and no indication of whether fuels such as LPG or CNG will be included at any stage. The Government is seeking views on a definition of exactly what should be phased out. Other subjects being consulted on are:

  • the phase out date

  • barriers to achieving the proposals

  • the impact of these ambitions on different sectors of industry and society

  • what measures are required by the Government and others to achieve the earlier phase out date.

Changing tack — again?

This might appear to be yet another change of direction in government policy that first saw financial incentives for people to switch to diesel as a means of reducing CO2 emissions, then shortly afterwards penalised them for doing exactly that, when air quality in towns and cities plummeted as a result of the increased emission of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM), particularly associated with diesel combustion.

In fact, the new proposal covers both angles since CO2, NOx and PM all result from the combustion of hydrocarbon fuels, so eliminating hydrocarbon fuels will clearly serve both ends.

Options

The range of options for operators wanting to start phasing in new technology now – and it must be remembered that 2035 is only about two or three typical replacement cycles away – will be:

  • battery-electric vehicles (BEVs)

  • hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (HFCEVs)

  • hydrogen internal combustion engine vehicles

  • hybrid arrangements of the above.

While diesel engines will remain viable for some time in larger vehicles, some sort of hybrid arrangement at least, will certainly be needed to comply with some new low emission zones.

Impact of issues on operators of larger commercial vehicles

While the ban on sales will not affect existing vehicles and does not concern larger commercial vehicles, a number of other issues will be of concern to operators, some of them already taking effect and others that will increasingly do so as the intended switch away from petrol and diesel gathers pace before the cut-off date.

Local bans and charges

Clean Air Zones (CAZs) and Low Emission Zones (LEZs) will not have any impact on operators of newer vehicles. Euro VI has been the required standard for all new registrations of heavy-duty vehicles since the beginning of 2014 (Euro 6 for light vehicles since 2015) so any such vehicle bought new since that date will automatically comply with CAZ and LEZ requirements. Operators of older vehicles will have either to pay the daily charge, source newer vehicles or cease to operate in areas with CAZs or LEZs.

Euro exhaust emission standards are really irrelevant, however, when it comes to the ULEV zones being introduced by some local authorities, which are based on CO2 emissions. The current Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA) definition of a ULEV is one that produces less than 75gm of CO2 per kilometre, which implies at least a hybrid vehicle involving a battery-powered electric motor. The adoption of the WLTP test standard has meant that some older hybrids that formerly were classed as ULEVs no longer are, so any hybrid vehicle that does comply must automatically meet the Euro 6/VI standard.

However, unlike CAZs, which operate to a single standard, LEZs and ULEV zone standards are determined by local authorities and they may impose different standards - commonly a CO2 limit of 50gm/km (which VCA expect to become the standard from 2021 anyway) and a certain zero-emission range, eg 20 miles for free access to the London Congestion Charge zone. There is a somewhat more complicated specification for the Oxford so-called “zero-emission” zone (see Low Emission Zones) and it is proposed that this might apply to all vehicles city-wide (including the eastern ring road) by 2035.

Fuel availability

Operators may wish to consider the long-term economic effects of reduced demand for petrol and diesel fuel. As the demand for these fuels declines the price is likely to rise as producers and distributors seek to cover fixed costs from reduced sales. At some point it may even become uneconomic for some distributors to operate, at least in some areas.

While “early adopters” of the new technology may be faced with a similar problem now in finding a battery recharging or hydrogen refuelling point, this should at least be a diminishing problem over time rather than an increasing one. Nevertheless, it is almost certain that fleet operators of battery-electric vehicles will have to install their own charging points.

Operational factors

Alongside fuel availability, operators will also need to consider their options with respect to their operating requirements and the availability of vehicles to suit them. Operators of small vehicles on local work might very well be able to switch to battery-electric vehicles now without compromising operations. There are also larger battery-electric vehicles available with adequate range and short recharge times that could be viable for most operations, albeit with changes to scheduling and routing. Buses, for example, would need to return to the depot for recharging at intervals throughout the day. It should be noted that a typical range of two hours followed by a quick recharge time of 30 minutes is only a little more restrictive of what should be considered best practice within the EU/AETR requirements for driving and breaks. Hydrogen combustion engine or fuel cell vehicles might better suit longer distance operations in the future.

What should operators do?

Operators of smaller vehicles must begin to consider their options now and it might be sensible to start planning for a gradual switch to some form of alternative energy not involving petrol or diesel, although new vans with those engines will still be available up to 2035. Operators of larger vehicles have more time and may choose to move directly to BEVs or HFCEVs when suitable ones become available or to adopt a halfway house of diesel-electric hybrid power in the first instance.

Government grants are currently available to assist the purchase of ULEVs of all classes but these are limited and will run out sooner or later.

Financial considerations will be critical and a detailed comparison of the whole-life cost of the different options should be made as far as is possible, and constantly updated alongside the technical feasibility. This may be difficult as although running costs of diesel vehicles will certainly only rise, it seems inevitable that those for electric vehicles will have to rise too as the Government will need to recover the lost revenue from VED, fuel duty and VAT.

Operators may also, of course, stick with what they have, at least for the time being, if their future forecasting indicates that it remains viable operationally and financially. This might particularly be the case for those who have already invested heavily in CNG bunkering in recent years.

Whichever course they take now, operators should constantly investigate technology as it becomes available and how the refuelling infrastructure develops relative to their needs.