According to the 2001 Fuelling the Future conference, held at the Millbrook Concept Centre, energy efficiency is not just about climate change and air quality, but also results in considerable financial savings for companies. One such success story is that of the Humberside Police Force, which has a fleet of 499 vehicles travelling an average of 9,500,000 miles per year. Of these, 72 are of a type that cannot be converted to ‘alternative’ fuels, such as motorcycles, but of the rest, 420 have already been converted to liquid petroleum gas (LPG), resulting in an annual saving of more than £150,000 in fuel costs. “Every penny saved helps to put another bobby on the beat,” said Alan Hocking, Transport Manager for Humberside Police.

“We are now one of – if not the – largest LPG fleet in the country,” added Hocking, who has also advised other organisations wishing to convert their fleets, including the Hong Kong police, and the British army.

According to Don Potts, Environmental Advisor to Volvo, of a vehicle’s environmental impact, 20% is divided equally between its manufacture and disposal, with the remaining 80% resulting from its use. In order to reduce this, the Environment Agency has developed an index of environmental impact for a variety of vehicles, with a variety of fuels, and in a variety of driving conditions. Compressed natural gas (CNG) came out as the cleanest fuel, closely followed by LPG in all driving situations. With regard to traditional fuels, diesel is the least ecological in urban driving, but is better than petrol in rural driving conditions.

Conversion of a fleet – which can consist of a variety of vehicles including vans, buses and lorries – to LPG can occur either through buying new vehicles, or by converting existing petrol fuelled vehicles. But, warns John Hunter, Chairman and Managing Director of LPG Autocentres, conversion should only be carried out by reputable companies, and he called on the Government to bring in a licensing scheme in order to weed out the cowboys. Conversion consists of the addition of a second, crush-proof fuel tank in the rear of the car, and a fuel gauge on the dashboard. Tanks should also have an electronic shut-off valve in case of accidents, but in many cases, less reputable mechanics are installing systems without this essential safety device, said Hunter.

A ‘chicken and egg’ problem has previously dogged LPG and still does to some extent with CNG, where fuel companies would not provide filling stations because there weren’t sufficient cars on the road to make it profitable, but people would not buy the cars due to the difficulty in locating fuel. However, the atmosphere in Britain towards these ‘alternative’ fuels is now beginning to warm, particularly with the introduction of ‘dual fuel’ technology which allows vehicles to run on both petrol and LPG. Currently, there are over 800 filling points in the UK, said Hunter, and more are being introduced all the time. However, Britain is still lagging behind other European countries, where LPG has been in general use for a considerable amount of time, and has not been viewed as an ‘alternative’ fuel for a number of years.

Further fuel savings can also be made through driver training, said Steve Johnson, Head of Communications at Drive and Survive, a company which retrains around 30,000 drivers per year. “Research proves that the average driver only thinks about driving about 25% of the time [whilst driving],” he said, which means that they are neither concentrating on efficiency nor safety. Johnson pointed out that a real-time miles per gallon meter on the dashboard “would really open a drivers eyes as to how much fuel they waste”. Among the skills which the company’s advanced driver training produces in its students are a smooth style of driving without unnecessary and hard breaking and accelerating, looking well ahead, and correct use of gears. Average fuel cost savings for retrained drivers are 5-8% for cars, and 7-12% for trucks, but can be as much as 30%, said Johnson. Drivers also need to look after the condition of the car, and should keep tyres pumped up to the maximum recommended pressure, whether or not they are fully loaded. “Fleet drivers cannot duck responsibility for their vehicle just because they don’t own it,” he said. “Just think about that tap connected to your right foot,” he added.

edie test-drove a couple of cars at the event, on the only alpine testing track in the country. A dual fuel Vauxhall Astra, which uses petrol when starting up and then immediately switches to LPG, appeared to have no difference in performance when compared to a standard petrol fuelled model, except for a slight sluggishness on the steepest slopes. However, the car can be converted back to petrol as and when necessary at the flick of a switch on the dashboard. A petrol powered Vauxhall Corsa with an Easytronic gear box, which is reported to produce 45.6 miles per gallon, was a little more difficult to drive for one used to a normal manual gear box. The car can be easily switched between manual and automatic, but with no clutch, manual gear changes do not require the usual pumping on the accelerator peddle, saving fuel. Other drivers testing LPG vehicles reported no changes in performance.

There was also a hybrid vehicle present at the conference – the Toyota Prius. This technology is a combination between petrol and electricity, with the engine switching itself automatically to the power source which is most suitable for the driving conditions. In urban driving, the car produces a fuel efficiency of 61.4 miles per gallon, with the electricity required being generated by the car itself. Fuel cell vehicles were not present at the event, as such vehicles are currently still at the prototype stage and highly expensive due to the cost of platinum which is required in the cell. According to Ford and DaimlerChrysler, the pioneers of fuel cell vehicles, the technology is not expected to hit the garage forecourts for a couple of decades.

Currently, the UK Government offers grants for both conversion to more efficient fuels, and for the development of new efficient technology, through the CleanUp and PowerShift programmes. Further information can be found on the Transport Action website.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie