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Now is the time to reimagine our approach to ULEV adoption

In the latest article in the 'Reopen, Recover, Reimagine' series of pieces from Atkins, Joanna Bundy, a senior consultant in Atkins transportation division, discusses the opportunities to reimagine our use of Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (ULEVs) and what authorities need to consider in accelerating their adoption

Joanna Bundy
21 August 2020
ULEV diagram
ULEV diagram
Year to date vehicle registrations
Year to date vehicle registrations
Joanna Bundy, a senior consultant in Atkins transportation division
Joanna Bundy, a senior consultant in Atkins transportation division


Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, there were many reports that lockdowns were having a dramatic impact on emissions, especially those from air and road traffic. NASA reported a 10 to 30 percent reduction in NO2 in China from the levels observed in 2005. Here in the UK, some cities saw NO2 fall by up to 60% year on year within a two-week period.

This, in part, has driven calls for the Government to announce a green regeneration of the UK economy; leading to the speech given by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in which he said: 'To that end we will build, build, build. Build back better, build back greener, build back faster, and to do that at the pace that this moment requires' – Boris Johnson, 30th June 2020

This all comes at a time when the uptake of Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (ULEVs) was increasing at a dramatic rate. The latest figures released in June from the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT), shows that in the first 6 months of this year Diesel vehicle sales dropped by 64.9% and Petrol vehicle sales by 52.3%.

During this same period, sales of Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) increased by 158.6% and Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles (PHEVs) by 28.9%. Whilst these figures are taken during a time of economic shock, this decrease in Diesel and Petrol with a counter increase in ULEVs has been part of an ongoing trend over the past few years. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the automotive sales market has almost ground to a halt, risking the stability of an industry responsible for employing roughly 800,000 jobs.

The government’s commitment to a green regeneration from the economic impacts should hopefully accelerate the move to ULEVs and continue to drive the change in buying behaviour that we are already witnessing.

Navigating the ecosystem

However, as a country, for us to achieve our climate change goals and the ban of Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) sales by 2035, we need to take a holistic view of the wider ULEV ecosystem. ULEVs impact several sectors, most notably Automotive and Energy, who traditionally have little to no history of working together. This dynamic and fast-paced marketplace is rapidly producing new business models, competitors and technologies which we will need to navigate effectively, if we are to ensure a fit for purpose and future-proofed, green transportation system.

The impacts of this wider ecosystem are being felt today by those wishing to implement ULEV technology. For local authorities looking to harness their benefits by incorporating ULEVs into their fleet or to accelerate the uptake within their region, several questions will require research before they can develop a strategy. 

First, what technologies should they target? – BEVs, PHEVs or Mild Hybrid Electric Vehicles (MHEVs) to name a few; or should they consider a different energy source entirely, such as Fuel Cell Electric (FCEV) or Biofuels? Each of which comes with both pros and cons. This basic decision will depend on their particular use case, but even that is not simple to define. 

What distances do they travel? What is their driving style? How much weight will they be carrying?

Where will they be located and where will they be travelling to? Do these areas have enough publicly accessible charge points? Will there be any long-distance unexpected journeys to remote areas?

But the complexity only increases once you have determined the vehicle of choice. If these authorities want to install lots of charge points, they will need to ensure they have the correct charging rates, be this Slow (7kW), Fast (22kW) or Rapid (50kW) and, looking into the future, possibly 150kW. Depending on the type and number of chargers they decide upon, they will need to understand whether they have the energy supply required. If not, they may need to investigate grid reinforcement.

This could be expensive in time and cost. Or, they could investigate other mitigating measures such as battery storage and renewable energy generation. Where a local authority wants to increase the adoption of ULEVs within their region, these charge points will need to be available to the public. So, they will need to consider the business model and the associated costs to ensure the deployment is viable. 

In this latter case, we also cannot neglect the importance of customer experience, charge point reliability and availability when users require it. It is these factors that can negatively impact the overall uptake of ULEVs within the UK. The Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) states that a driver should never be over 25 miles away from a rapid charge point. However, if a user gets there and cannot use a charge point, whether it is already in use, out of order or not compatible with their vehicle; then this won’t reduce the range anxiety, or maybe more aptly, the charge anxiety that the user will experience.

Delivering the future

We have set out 5 key areas that will support society in realising the benefits of ULEVs and ensure we build back greener:

1. We need to continue the work that has already started to break down the silos that still exist, bridging the historical gaps between more traditional sectors. Remaining within our traditional silos will not only reduce adoption but may prevent us from achieving our climate and environmental goals. This is because there are several key points within our ecosystem where collaboration is the only way to achieve the innovation required to overcome the barriers. A good example is the interoperability of charge points. This has become a significant issue for end users, with drivers requiring multiple accounts and charging cards to ensure they have sufficient network coverage to reduce their range anxiety.  The government’s directive requiring charge points to provide debit and credit card payments by spring 2020 has led to a dramatic increase in the number of charge points available to the user. This has improved customer experience and help reduce the range anxiety that end users face, by enabling roaming and delivering increased interoperability. The success of collaboration from operators, manufacturers and government is clear to see.

2. Be clear on what you’re aiming to achieve with the adoption of ULEVs; it is key when looking to deploy new technologies that there is a clear understanding of your end goal. This could be a reduction in air pollution or a reduction in carbon emissions. However, it is important to note that replacing every petrol or diesel vehicle with an electric vehicle will not solve traffic congestion, but it will help reduce air pollution, primarily NOx. If this is part of the aim, then you should take a holistic view of your transportation network; to understand how you can encourage modal shift and how you can decarbonise the modes of transport within it. 

3. Know your intended end user and their behaviour. If we don’t know who we are targeting, then we won’t be able to answer any of the questions I previously identified. We won’t be able to identify a use case so won’t know what the best technology will be. We are therefore setting ourselves up to fail. It is key to understand who the early adopters will be and how demand will change. This would help in ensuring we develop the roadmap for providing the supporting infrastructure in line with expected demand, resulting in driving efficient operations and supporting user demand and need. 

4. Have a plan or delivery roadmap for the short, medium and long-term, we would suggest 5, 10 and 15+ years. Whilst this is a fast-paced, dynamic sector, we will get nowhere if we do not put a stake in the ground early. Maybe as time progresses, we will need to adjust our planning to account for changes. However, if we wait for certainty, we risk being left behind and failing in our climate goals and not meeting the user demand. Given that one of the key factors in encouraging uptake is for suitable infrastructure to be in place, local authorities must take the lead and provide the infrastructure before the demand arises. 

5. And finally, start now! When faced with the daunting task of incorporating ULEVs into your local area or fleet, this can lead to a tendency of creating large-scale trials that take time to organise, run, analyse and deploy. However, there are ways in which you can quickly deploy ULEVs into an area, this can be through a carefully orchestrated strategy or deploying on a small scale. This latter option does not replace the need for large-scale roll-out, but when done in parallel can enable you to realise benefits faster, generate confidence in exposure and help to bring stakeholders along with you from an earlier stage.

As we move into the reopen and reimagine phases of the post Covid world, it is important to capitalise the opportunity that we have to rethink investment decisions and investment priorities. With the government’s push to build back better and build back greener; supported by a pipeline of investment, there is an opportunity to speed up programmes to support ULEVs at a local level.

Like the significant advances we have made in making cycling and walking core to our cities and towns in a post Covid environment, there needs to be a push on making other modes greener. Only then will we be able to meet our climate change and net-zero targets. Although cycling and walking are a great way to shift short distance journeys into more green and sustainable modes, there will always be a need for other modes for long-distance journeys and the movement of freight.

Hence, now more than ever we need to reimagine our approach to ULEVs and think about how quickly we can adopt their use to enable more sustainable journeys and take the right steps towards meeting our climate change objectives. 

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