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Ask Nigel: future of fuels

Nigel Trotman, Fleet News Hall of Fame member and two-time Fleet News Award winner, gives advice on your fleet challenges.

Q: Peter Kowalczyk, fleet manager at Gamestec, says: “We operate a diesel-only fleet and my concern is about the future of diesel. We operate vehicles in London and we could face a hike in vehicle costs if we stick with it. But we don’t know for sure what will happen with this fuel – it’s up in the air. When we replace certain vehicles for some of our London-based employees at the start of next year what vehicles should we acquire? We will need to consider small petrol vehicles, hybrid and electric, but we don’t want to commit to a vehicle for three or four years and discover it was the wrong choice. Electric is not that attractive, especially for our collectors because they might not have anywhere to charge the vehicles.”

Q: Eric Bristow, fleet manager – service division at Hobart, says: “I’ve been looking to introduce hybrid models into our current limited car policy sometime in the next 12-18 months. In light of the recent revelations regarding emissions and the possible introduction of real world tests, should I bring forward the project?”

Nigel says:
Peter’s question raises a whole range of issues that will be very familiar to any fleet manager faced with decisions about job-need vehicles, particularly those operating in London and other cities where air quality is becoming a significant concern. And, of course, there is no single answer. In my view, your starting point should always be fitness for purpose: whatever vehicles you select must be able to do the job for your business. 

On that basis, you have already identified a potential issue. There is a significant commitment in London to providing widespread public charging which, in time, will allay concerns. But, for the moment, it remains enough of an issue to be flagged.

We have started to see the popular press demonising ‘dirty diesel’ again as a result of the recent furore around NOx emissions figures. This could have a  knock-on effect in areas like London, as well as in fleets  generally. Prior to the controversy, there were already stories about cities charging an ‘entry fee’ for diesel vehicles in order to try to meet air quality targets.

There is no doubt that the latest generation of small, fuel-efficient petrol engines can provide a cost-effective solution to operating in cities, as their CO2 emission figures appear to be closer than ever to diesels (with the health warning around the figures themselves). As our second questioner Eric has observed, in cities hybrids can be a solution, provided that the majority of the mileage is actually urban. It is, however, also important to remember that costs and emissions are ultimately the result of the way in which the vehicle is driven – so don’t forget the driver.

At a time of uncertainty such as this, my advice would be to run trials of the alternatives. Manufacturers are keen to get their vehicles into limited job-need lists such as yours, so you could run a short pilot (maybe three months) of a couple of petrol options and a hybrid (and possibly a plug-in electric) to establish the real fuel consumption and operating costs and calculate some actual emissions based on fuel consumed. Use a plug-in telematics solution to collect the data.  

This advice is also appropriate for Eric: you need to be certain that hybrids will work for you before you commit. I have come across a number of instances over the years where fleets have found that they did not fully understand how vehicles were used before selecting hybrids and as a result have failed to realise the anticipated benefits. 

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Comments

  • Sage & Onion - 07/01/2016 12:35

    The problem with electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids is that as these become more popular, the number of "available" public charging points will diminish and we will then see a reversal of the popularity of plug-in vehicles as it reaches saturation point, unless there is huge investment in the public charging infrastructure. The charging infrastructure needs to be everywhere. At all supermarkets, at all fuel stations, at all car parks. Why not even install charging points in lamp posts where there is parking available in the road or street? And don't just focus on London. But plug-in hybrids are expensive to buy and some manufacturers are steering clear of plug-in hybrids because they recognise that some company car drivers only select them because of the low BIK percentage and don't actually plug them in that often so there can sometimes be little or no environmental benefit. I operate a PEHV and I plug mine in as often as I can and I get almost 50% emission-free mileage. But as a fleet manager I am trying to lead by example. We introduced convention hybrids onto our choice lists in 2012 but only took two up until this year where we now have about 10 conventional hybrids and 1 PEHV with another PEHV on order. Conventional petrol hybrids will soar in popularity over the next couple of years with the 3% diesel BIK penalty now remaining in place. If you imagine that a diesel car should easily average 47-53 mpg in mixed driving and then compare that to a petrol hybrid that should easily return 55-65 mpg it becomes a no brainer. But Nigel is correct in identifying the driver as the main influence in achieving maximum efficiency. The other big issue of being fit for purpose does mainly depend on what loads you need to carry. I would urge every fleet manager to consider converting at least 5%-10% of their car fleet to hybrids where they can, and I would also urge manufacturers to introduce affordable petrol hybrid power units into vans up to 2.8-t.

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