Incorporating the word green into the name of a company brings with it a certain pressure. And if that implied environmentally-friendly promise is not kept, then that business could end up with a red face.
However, this is not something London-based Green Tomato Cars is in danger of receiving.
The company was founded a decade ago with a fleet of four Toyota Prius hybrids to provide an eco-friendly private hire service in the capital.
Ten years later this has grown to a fleet of a little more than 500 vehicles, and the company has remained true to its principles as almost all of these are Prius models.
Despite the environmental benefits these have over diesel vehicles, the company is keen to further its green credentials and switch to emission-free vehicles as soon as it becomes feasible.
“We have a history of innovation,” says James Rowe, finance director and head of fleet for Green Tomato Cars.
“We were the first all-hybrid private hire fleet when we launched in 2006 and we were the first to have Wi-Fi across our cars, but our challenge now is to push that forward to the next step: how can we go cleaner?
“Two years ago we became the first private hire company to use a Tesla and in November last year we became the first one to take on hydrogen fuel cell cars when we introduced two Toyota Mirais.
“We need to test out these technologies. Clearly they are different and we can’t gamble on which one is going to get to the mass market quicker.”
Pure electric vehicles (EVs) are becoming more widely available, but Rowe says the current crop is not suited to its needs, either through range, cost or practicality: Green Tomato Cars needs its cars to seat five people, including the driver, in comfort.
The Tesla Model S, which has a range of more than 250 miles, fulfils two of these requirements but remains too expensive in Green Tomato Cars’s view. However, it is providing invaluable pointers as to how the technology may work for the company in the future.
“With the Tesla we need to look at how often the driver has to charge the battery and how long that takes, so we can move quickly on EVs if that turns out to be the best technology,” says Rowe.
“It’s the same with the Mirai. We want to be ready if hydrogen turns out to be the best option.”
The average annual mileage of a car on the Green Tomato Cars fleet is 35,000: equivalent to around 175 miles a day, says Rowe.
This is just out of reach of the claimed maximum range by the best of the mainstream EVs currently available.
“The charging infrastructure is much better than it was a few years ago, but given our requirements we would still have to tell our drivers they will potentially have to stop somewhere twice a day. There’s no option to say ‘we’re busy now, let’s move that back an hour-and-a-half’,” says Rowe.
“We obviously don’t want cars off the road any longer than necessary, and the drivers don’t want to be waiting around when they could be earning money.”
The Green Tomato Cars’s experience with the Mirai, which can travel up to 300 miles on a tank of hydrogen, has been positive so far, Rowe says.
“I don’t know if it’s because we were reasonably well prepared, but for us it has been really quite simple,” adds Rowe.
“There are four refuelling stations in London we can use and there have been times where one has been closed for a while, but it just means we need to be selective with the routes we send the cars on to make sure they can refuel.
“It’s a massively exciting vehicle for us as it takes about the same time to refuel as a petrol car so it doesn’t mean you are off the road for the 35-40 minutes an electric car needs to charge.
“The Mirai and Tesla are pretty much at the same price point and match our Mercedes-Benz S-Class, but we want to get to the stage where we can get that type of technology into a car at the same price as our Prius hybrids.
“There are many debates about which one of these technologies is best, but from our viewpoint that’s irrelevant because we don’t know what is going to happen.
“That is why we have got to keep an open mind, back both horses and see which way the technology in the market goes.”
The requirement for London private hire companies to adopt new technology is being driven by Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ)regulations, which dictate that from 2018 all newly-licensed taxis and private hire vehicles (PHVs) are required to meet new emissions standards.
From January 1, 2020, new vehicles (those up to 18 months old) licensed for the first time as a PHV must have CO2 emissions below 50g/km with a minimum zero emission range of 10 miles, or up to 75g/km of CO2 with a minimum 20-mile zero emission range.
“The regulations look like they are moving towards plug-in hybrids, but from our point of view they are the worst of both worlds,” says Rowe. “They are still petrol and you still need to charge them.
“Clearly, your CO2 will improve, but do you need that stepping stone to go emissions-free, or could you go straight there?”
He says Green Tomato Cars wants to continue to be “way ahead of the market” and meet these emissions requirements well before 2020.
“We have a lot of leases ending in September 2018 and, if the functionality is there, we would love to be putting something quite dramatic on the road in comparison to the hybrid by that point,” says Rowe.
“We are keeping a close eye on the market and there seems to be a number of vehicles coming out in the next year or two which will be pretty well emissions-free or certainly a more viable plug-in option.”
However, while the vast majority of its fleet is hybrid, a lack of alternatives means Green Tomato Cars is obliged to continue to run diesel MPVs.
“That’s been a particular problem with the six- and eight-seaters,” says Rowe.
“Theoretically, running the diesels is a green option if you look at the passengers you are getting in viewed against the CO2 you are giving off, but there aren’t any viable alternatives to diesel available to us at the moment.
“We normally commit to four-year leases on our vehicles, but for our MPVs we’ve halved that to two because we feel there’s got to be something better coming on to the market than is currently available.”
While its fleet is the most visible sign of Green Tomato Cars’s environmental ethos, Rowe says its commitment stretches beyond its vehicles.
For example, last year it offset 1,000 tonnes of CO2 – double the amount its fleet produced – through investment in a wind electricity generation project in India.
The company’s dispatch software is set up to minimise the distance its drivers travel without passengers on board, while it also introduced a GreenRoad telematics system this year to improve driver behaviour and reduce collisions.
“The telematics has had a massive impact on our accident costs,” says Sophie Jacobsen, head of service delivery.
“Last year our accident costs were £3,200 per active driver over the course of a year, but now we are looking at £2,300.”
Across the fleet, this means an annual saving of around £250,000.
“This is partly because of telematics, but also because we have completely changed the way we manage our drivers,” she adds (see panel, right).
Employees also directly feel the benefit of improved driver behaviour.
“They are responsible for their fuel, so the more economical they are and the better they drive, the more money they earn,” says Rowe.
The company has also improved its procedures in the event of a collision by appointing accident management company Kindertons.
“If a driver has an accident, rather than go through their driver handbook to find who to call, they can now click on a smartphone app,” says Rowe.
“This will alert Kindertons to the fact that something has happened, the company will then call the driver and talk them through what to do.
“This helps us look after the driver a little bit more and also reduces our downtime by allowing Kindertons to manage the process and sort out a replacement car as soon as possible.”
Encouraging drivers to feel more involved
Making drivers feel valued and a greater part of the company was behind a restructuring programme at Green Tomato Cars in April.
The initiative saw three divisions which managed drivers merged into one larger team to increase efficiencies, with four agents each responsible for 80-100 drivers.
“The big step change for our drivers this year was to make them feel more of a member of the company rather than just somebody we only see now and again,” says James Rowe.
“Now they have only one port of call if they have an issue. Historically they had to go to different people dependent on what the issue was.
“The new system means we have a closer relationship with drivers. We feed back to them more than we did before, and we get feedback from them too, which is good.”
The initiative also involves giving starters a two-day induction into the company and its values.
“They are fully prepared when they go out on the road,” adds Rowe. “It makes it easier for them to do their job when they know what the expectations are.
“After two months we have a review where we go through all the stats, the telematics score and their accident history if there is one.”
A performance plan is put in place if improvements are needed.
Sophie Jacobsen adds: “It’s all about optimising drivers’ earnings, happiness and effectiveness, and, for us, optimising how we use cars on the road and how long they are on the road. The more efficient we can make our drivers, the more money they can earn.”
Employees are also incentivised to drive well, says Jacobsen. “Each driver can get a £25 weekly bonus if they have a low telematics score and a high customer rating,” she adds.