Last reviewed 16 March 2020

Having already proposed to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040 the Government is now consulting (see Legislation Tracker) on bringing that forward to 2035 or even sooner. In addition, towns and cities are introducing bans or charges for diesel-engined vehicles. In this article, Richard Smith looks at the options for transport operators.

What vehicles are zero emission?

As noted above, the announcement simply referred to “petrol, diesel and hybrid cars and vans” but part of the consultation asks respondents to tell the government exactly what that means. There is a certain difficulty when it comes to vans because there is no legal definition of “van”.

Official HMRC guidance defines a van as more or less the same thing as a “small goods vehicle”, as defined in the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Act 1995 but lacking any reference to a weight limit apparently includes every goods vehicle up to 44 tonnes.

A previous Government announcement in 2017 did not refer to hybrid vehicles but in this 2020 announcement, hybrids are specifically included, the new WLTP testing programme having made clear what should have been obvious all along: that in real life they offer no significant advantages in respect of fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions — and some are even worse.

“Hybrid” is not precise enough. There is a technology that combines a battery-powered electric motor with a combustion engine burning hydrogen — a hybrid by definition but not one that produces CO2 emissions — so that will also need to be clarified.

Technical options to achieving zero emissions

Various options that achieve zero CO2 emissions on the road are coming into service for commercial vehicles. Generally, these involve propulsion by an electric motor but with different means of production of the electricity.

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) within driving time range

Already becoming common in the car sector, BEVs have improved dramatically since their early days and most now offer an acceptable range and a short enough recharge time for most practical purposes. Indeed, their range/recharge characteristics can be seen as a positive feature with respect to petrol and diesel vehicles in that approximately a 2-hour driving time followed by a 30-minute recharge time represents best practice in terms of preventing driver tiredness.

For “last mile” deliveries the range of current small goods vehicles (quoted at between 90 and nearly 200 miles by various manufacturers) may well be adequate for an entire day’s operation before recharging becomes necessary.

There are also heavier goods vehicles available, ranging from 4x2 rigids at about 16t to a 4x2 tractor unit at 37t.

A 28t 6x2 chassis is also in production.

The range of these is quoted by one manufacturer as between about 270km for a 19t rigid and 100km for a 37t artic. Recharge times are in that 30-minute bracket, so best practice operation within the EU drivers’ hours should be possible.

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs)

An FCEV is powered by the same electric motor as a BEV but does not necessarily have a battery. Instead the electricity is produced as needed by a chemical process inside a solid-state fuel cell taking the place of an internal combustion engine. Hydrogen from an on-board fuel tank is combined in the cell with oxygen from the air to produce an electric current, with water and heat as the only other products of the process.

Already available in cars, fuel cells are now just starting to become available for heavier vehicles, with Hyundai delivering 1600 2-axle rigid trucks to Switzerland between 2020 and 2025 and Scania producing a 3-axle truck for a Norwegian company. Crucially, the range/refill time characteristic of FCEVs is about the same as for a diesel.

Hydrogen internal combustion engines

Hydrogen can also be used as a fuel for internal combustion engines (ICEs), which perhaps represents a quicker way to achieve zero carbon emissions since existing vehicles can be converted, as has happened with CNG. There is the possibility of some NOx emissions, but these are vanishingly small and can be dealt with by catalytic reduction if necessary. The currently available vans use hydrogen ICEs.


Various hybrid options involving combinations of batteries, fuel cells and hydrogen ic engines are also possible. DHL in Berlin has ordered a fleet of 4.5 tonne panel vans using a combination of battery and fuel cell technology.

Operational factors

The key operational factor is, of course, that the vehicle can do the job. For local delivery work with limited mileage and where the vehicle returns to base every night, a battery electric vehicle will probably be satisfactory. For longer distance and heavier loads the only answer is likely to be a fuel cell or hydrogen combustion engine.

For BEVs it must also be remembered that the range quoted is usually under ideal test conditions and may be up to 20% less in real working conditions. Furthermore, it will be reduced further when carrying a load and when the battery is also subject to extra demands from headlights, cab heaters, heated screens, etc. Lithium-ion batteries do not perform well in cold conditions anyway and range may be reduced by another 20% in cold weather. Recharging is also affected, with limited regenerative braking on the move and reduced charging rates (longer charging time) when connected to the mains.

Payload weight is reduced, particularly in BEVs, but the increase of 750kg in permitted maximum weight of vans and 1000kg for 2 and 3-axle HGVs should recover most or all of that. Payload volume is generally not affected. It should be noted that the increase in payload weight is, at present, based on a temporary derogation from the EU that is due to expire in 2023 but as we have now left the EU, its continuation will be a matter for our government alone.

In any case the availability of a refuelling infrastructure must be kept in mind. For short-range work with a BEV the operator can make his own arrangements, with recharging overnight from charging points installed at the depot. Reliance on public charging points would not be viable; certainly not at the moment and probably never given the nature of BEV recharging. Whereas a single diesel pump (or hydrogen dispenser) is able to refuel up to about ten vehicles per hour, a battery charging point can cope with two at the most and only then if it provides (and the vehicle can accept) high voltage charging. This fact alone makes BEVs unfeasible for commercial operations except, perhaps, where dedicated high voltage charging points are provided at dedicated truck stops for longer distance operators.

Hydrogen refuelling stations are also currently few and far between but operators could well consider installing their own at the depot, as some have done with CNG.

When considering refuelling it will also be relevant to consider the eventuality of running out of fuel. This is rare with diesel engines but if it happens is easily fixed by a man in a van with a can or by towing to the nearest refuelling point. With either BEVs or FCEVs things are not so simple. Firstly though, running out of battery charge may be more likely when bearing in mind the reduced range in cold weather and the possibility of lengthy delays on motorways due to accidents.

Obviously refuelling is not possible and to make matters worse EVs cannot be towed; they must be put onto a low-loader and this will apply in any breakdown situation.

Costs for running EVs

Running costs for EVs will generally be reduced in a number of ways. Maintenance will be reduced because there is no ic engine and brake replacement will be less frequent because regenerative braking means that the actual friction brakes will be used less.

Hydrogen fuel is more expensive than diesel per mile, although it is difficult to quantify because hydrogen is sold in kg and there is little or no experience with heavier vehicles.

For a car, the fuel cost a 62-mile journey using a fuel cell (hydrogen at £12 per kg) has been calculated at £11.40 while the equivalent fuel costs for petrol and diesel are £7.11 and £5.81, respectively.

Recharging a battery is much cheaper and at current costs the electricity for the same 62-mile journey would be £2.28.

Electric vans

Electric vans under 3.5 tonnes pay zero Vehicle Excise Duty but there is, at present, no special rate for electric commercial vehicles over that weight. In any case, VED, like fuel duty, is heavily dependent on government policy and the government certainly cannot afford to lose the income it currently gets from VED and fuel duty.

Plug-in Van Grants

While costs of running EVs may be reduced compared to diesel vehicles there may be a heavy initial cost, although at the moment that is difficult to quantify because most of the vehicles available are either offered on a lease or the price quoted includes the government Plug-in Van Grant, which pays for 20% of the purchase price for eligible vehicles, up to a maximum of £8,000. Since late 2016 up to £4m funding has been also available for low emission vans and goods vehicles between 3.5 and 44 tonnes, which are now eligible for plug-in grants worth up to £20,000 for the first 200 vehicles purchased using the grant. These grants are, of course, time-limited and must be expected to end soon, when the money available has been used up. Evidence is that expected price of the planned FCEV heavier trucks is twice (or more) that of a diesel version.

The good news is that, admittedly based on evidence from cars, there is no great effect of age on battery life, at least over about five years or so. In any case, vehicles are generally covered by extended warranties of five or seven years that include the battery so replacement should not be a problem if necessary — at least for the first owner. Residual values for cars are also holding up well. All this may be different for more heavily used commercial vehicles, of course, and there is no information available for those.

What should operators do?

Operators of vans on local deliveries where the daily range can be achieved by a BEV could well look at moving to those in the short term, especially while grants are available.

  • If greater range (or reduced range anxiety) is required, (and refuelling is available) then a hydrogen ICE is also an option now with a fuel cell probably available to be considered in the near future.

  • Alternatively, petrol, diesel or hybrids could be continued with for at least the next purchase, although it has to be remembered that 2035 (or possibly sooner) is only two or three vehicle replacement cycles away.

  • Operators of heavy vehicles do not seem to be affected by this announcement but must take into account the bans and charges being put in place by various towns and cities as well as the certainty that they will be affected in the medium term so may wish to start preparations for introducing zero-emission vehicles when they become available.