Company car fleets: setting sail for a low cost and low carbon future

In an attempt to counter the fact that in 6,000 miles a conventional car produces roughly its own weight in carbon dioxide, a new climate-friendly company car tax regime based on carbon dioxide emissions is being introduced to the UK by the Inland Revenue on 6 April 2002. However, it appears that many small to medium-sized companies, in particular, are not planning to make any attempt at cutting emissions from their vehicle fleets, despite the plethora of alternative vehicles and fuels available to them (see related story). The question is, are fears of high costs, difficulties with refuelling, and poor performance well founded, or will firms be missing out on an important opportunity?


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Despite the negative attitude from some companies, a number of
organisations are putting aside such worries, and are preparing for the
future by either converting existing vehicles or upgrading to a lower
emissions alternative. The options currently available in the UK include
liquid petroleum gas (LPG), compressed natural gas (CNG), electric, and
electric hybrid vehicles, with hydrogen-consuming fuel cells looming large
on the horizon (see related
story
). Such organisations are finding that not only does such technology
result in cleaner air, a more sustainable atmosphere, and a clear conscience,
but the alternatives are also producing considerable savings on companies’
fuel bills.

One organisation that in the mid 1990s predicted future changes in government
policy towards motoring and who decided to act rather than to react was
the 460-vehicle-strong Humberside police force. The organisation now has
the UK’s largest fleet of LPG-powered vehicles, so Helen André spoke to
Fleet and Supplies Manager Alan Hocking to find out more.

The project started in around 1995, when it was felt that the political
environment was moving in such a way that as a local authority police
force, Humberside Police might be forced to become more ‘green’. Hocking
decided that, as far as transport was concerned, it might be more
beneficial if they were to plan their own route into environmental
sustainability, and so decided to carry out some research into the
suitability of LPG vehicles for the Force.
“… in five
years, we’ve saved ourselves probably close on half a million pound.”

“Vauxhall gave us two vehicles for long-term evaluation,” says Hocking.
“We had them for about six months, when we monitored fuel usage, etcetera,
and we gave them quite a good pounding to make sure they would stand up
to police work. We then collated all the figures together, took it to
our chief officers – who liked what they saw, and decided that ‘yes’,
it would be the policy for the Force to go down the LPG route wherever
we possibly could.”

…it’s even possible
to obtain a grant to convert your vehicles to cleaner fuels.
Six years ago, however, this was not as easy an option as it is
today, with very little advice available for vehicle conversions.
Fortunately, in the early stages of the project, Humberside Police
were able to work with a local company, Autogas 2000, that had already
carried out some work on LPG, says Hocking.

Now, however, the situation has changed dramatically, with a large number
of garages able to carry out conversions, and it’s even possible to obtain
a grant to convert your vehicles to cleaner fuels. TransportAction, run
by the Energy Saving Trust, which was set up by the UK Government following
the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, is designed to deliver innovative solutions
to the environmental problems wrought by transport in the UK. Two programmes
that are included in the scheme are PowerShift and CleanUp, the first
designed to ‘kick-start’ markets for clean fuel vehicles that run on LPG,
natural gas – including CNG, and electricity, and the second designed
to encourage the fitting of emissions reduction equipment for larger diesel
vehicles and taxis.

The PowerShift programme offers grants worth 30-75% of the additional
cost of converting an existing vehicle or buying a clean fuel vehicle,
but the model must be listed on the programme’s register, and grants will
only be awarded for conversions on vehicles already complying with certain
emissions standards, which will be predominantly vehicles manufactured
from 1997 onwards. To aid individuals and companies with finding a suitable
low emission vehicle, PowerShift also has an independent register of over
300 clean fuel vehicles, including technical, safety and emissions standards.

There is also Motorvate, a Government-backed award scheme that sets
simple targets for improving fleet fuel efficiency and reducing fleet
mileage. The core target is a reduction of 12% in the fleet’s total carbon
dioxide emissions over a 3-year period, 3% of which must be achieved through
reduced business mileage.

Hocking investigated the suitability of a number of lower emission fuels.
“We looked at electric cars – but they are very limited in range, and
obviously, we can’t have something screaming down the motorway at 120
miles per hour and need to put another penny in the meter,” he jokes.

once there is an infrastructure
in place, CNG would be suitable for HGVs … not least because of
the considerable cost savings involved
Compressed natural gas was also ruled out. “The tank was very heavy,
and refuelling them was either very expensive … if you wanted a
quick fill, and still reasonably expensive if you wanted a slow fill,
and slow fill was no good to us because we really needed to keep the
vehicles on the road 24 hours a day,” said Hocking. Back in the mid
Nineties, a slow fill could take about eight hours, he explained.
“So that was a non-starter,” he said.

However, despite these fuels’ lack of suitability for Humberside Police,
they would be appropriate for other fleets, Hocking points out. For example,
once there is an infrastructure in place, CNG would be suitable for HGVs,
he says, not least because of the considerable cost savings involved.
“You’re looking at least a cost of a third of conventional fuels.”

“And electric fuels for local councils where they don’t do more than
say 60 miles in a shift or a day,” said Hocking. “But with electricity
you’ve got to remember that there is still an environmental impact because
the power has to be generated.”

So Humberside Police decided to choose LPG. The fuel’s virtues include
90% fewer particulates and 50% less oxides of nitrogen than conventional
diesel, and 75% less carbon monoxide, 85% less hydrocarbons, 87% ozone
and 40% less oxides of nitrogen than conventional petrol. LPG engines
are also 50% quieter than diesel engines and marginally quieter than petrol
engines. As the fuel is, in essence, fully vapourised petrol, it can be
used with no modifications to the engine itself, requiring no more than
a crush-proof tank to be installed in the boot of a car, with a system
to deliver the gas from the tank to the engine, and a fuel gauge on the
dashboard. This also means that following conversion, a vehicle retains
the ability to use petrol, making it more flexible.

It is of the utmost importance that tanks should have an electronic
shut-off valve in case of accidents, says John Hunter, Managing Director
of LPG Autocentres. He warns that less reputable mechanics are not
installing such devices, and fears that a serious accident involving
a poorly converted vehicle could give LPG a bad name.
“… with electricity
you’ve got to remember that there is still an environmental impact
because the power has to be generated.”

“The main thing is to make sure that your conversions are done by a reputable
company, preferably they’re LPGA approved and make sure that you are getting
the right conversion kit for that particular vehicle,” said Hocking.

Of Humberside Police’s fleet of 460 vehicles, including motorbikes and
trailers, to date 264 have been converted. A number of those remaining
on conventional fuels, such as motorbikes, cannot be converted, says Hocking.
“We haven’t converted any HGV vehicles as yet, but we are now looking
at a system that combines diesel and LPG being burnt at the same time,
which gives you more complete combustion – which reduces the diesel emissions
by about 70% we are being told,” explained Hocking. “This is very new,”
he added.

Inevitably, as with all the fuel options, there is a disadvantage with
LPG, with a slightly higher fuel consumption than conventional fuels.
“It varies on what sort of tank you are getting, but we’re looking at
roughly between 10 and 15% less than what you would get on a conventional
fuel,” says Hocking.

However, the low cost of the fuel outweighs any financial burdens that
higher fuel consumption might have imposed. In fact, the savings are so
considerable, says Hocking, that the scheme has already paid for itself,
and at the moment is saving between £100,000 and £150,000 each year.

Organising fuel for the vehicles is not a problem, either. “We’ve got
16 in-house re-fuelling sites, and three local retail sites that we have
contracts with, or they are via PAHH All Star cards,” he explains.

Nor are there any problems with supplying vehicles for long journeys
to areas where there are no LPG facilities, explains Hocking, “…because
they are dual [fuel] vehicles they still have their petrol tank so you’ve
got a full tank of gas when you set off and a full tank of petrol, and
the majority of times you can get where you’re going and back without
refuelling”.

The reaction from the police officers who drive the converted LPG vehicles
has been favourable. “We had the initial ones that [said] – ‘we’ve got
a bomb in the back of the car’, and ‘it’s going to explode on us when
we have an accident’. But no, on the whole it has been quite favourable,”
says Hocking.

Humberside Police have also received favourable reactions from other
organisations, and, at times, has been inundated with requests for assistance
with similar projects. “We’ve had a request from Hong Kong for information,
and I know [Anglia Water] are now going down the road of converting some,”
says Hocking. “The army, they were interested, and I know in Aldershot
they’ve got quite a few [cars] that they have converted.” Other organisations
showing an interest include the local council in Humberside and other
police forces.

And what advice does he give to those companies that are unsure about
the benefits of low emission fuels? “I would say go for it. When we first
went for it, the argument was ‘ah yes, but the Chancellor will change
the tax on it as soon as it becomes popular’. Well, in five years, we’ve
saved ourselves probably close on half a million pounds – and he still
hasn’t changed it, apart from favourably. So why waste time. If he does
it in 12 months time so what, you’ve got 12 months’ savings. So I would
say, yes, go for it.”

LINKS
 
Cleaner
Vehicle Task Force
 
PowerShift
 
TransportAction
(including PowerShift register)
 
Motorvate
 
Energy
Efficiency Best Practice Programme, transport section
 
Energy Saving Trust
 
New Car
Fuel Consumption and Emission Figures
 
Inland
Revenue information on company cars
 
Humberside
Police
 
Natural
Gas Vehicles Association
 
LPG Association
 
Electric
Vehicle Association
 

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