When vehicles are discussed from a policy perspective here in Brussels, I often caution other stakeholders that they shouldn’t lose sight of the many different roles that motor vehicles play in our daily lives. This is especially the case when talking about light commercial vehicles, or vans as they are commonly referred to.
Light commercial vehicles are key players in the logistics chain, enabling the last-mile delivery of goods in urban areas. Thanks to vans, businesses can deliver goods right to their customers’ door steps. In addition to freight transport, vans enable a broad range of economic and social activities. Think for example of construction work, postal and courier services, ambulances, policing and rescue operations, mobile workshops, as well as passenger transportation (such as school buses or the transport of disabled people).
Largely used by SMEs as business tools, vans empower European businesses, helping our economy to thrive. Each light commercial vehicle is chosen, built or modified, and used according to the requirements of a specific mission within the value chain. Serving very different purposes, vans can thus not be easily replaced by other transport services, such as public transport or carsharing.
Tomorrow’s transport needs will increasingly be catered by light commercial vehicles. First of all, urbanisation will continue in decades to come and vans are perfectly suited for cities and urban areas. Secondly, digitalisation is changing almost every aspect of our lives and has a strong impact on transportation as well. Just think of the surge in online shopping, with consumers expecting rapid and direct deliveries. The impact of these two trends is already becoming visible. Today, there are some 29 million vans on Europe’s roads and that number is set to increase in the near future. To give you an idea of what we can expect: 1.7 million vans were registered across the EU in 2015, almost 12% more than just a year before.
Especially for small and medium-sized companies vans are nothing less than the essential tool that helps them to get their job done. That also means that manufacturers of light commercial vehicles (LCVs) can only increase the efficiency and performance of vehicles without affecting key factors such as payload, towing capacity or loading space. The total cost of ownership is crucial for operators of vans, especially smaller businesses have to carefully keep track of their fleet costs. So, when it comes to drawing up new legislation, it is always necessary to take into account the differences between passenger cars and vans, which play a special role in the business plans of entrepreneurs.
This is exactly what makes it so hard for manufacturers to provide the best possible solutions for individual end-users, while at the same time meeting regulatory requirements that apply to the whole LCV segment. Fortunately, I can assure you that the industry is making good progress in improving the environmental and safety performance of vans. And at our customers’ request, we have also succeeded in increasing the payload and loading capacity of light commercial vehicles.
In the past, an average vehicle could load between 12 and 15 cubic meters. Nowadays, a van can carry up to 22 cubic meters of freight. The result is as simple as it is effective: more loading space means less trips, leading to fuel savings and lower emissions. Overall, CO2 emissions from vans have been cut significantly. From an average of 181 grams of CO2 per kilometre in 2005, emissions fell to 168.2 grams per kilometre in 2015. To that end, van manufacturers have made significant investments in further improving engines and gearboxes, as well as by using more lightweight materials. Reaching the European CO2 targets set for 2020 remains a challenge, but the industry continues making the necessary investments to bring emissions down to 147 grams in 2021.
Beyond 2020, further reductions in CO2 should be driven by a smart mix of existing technology and future innovations. There is no one-size-fits-all solution and customers demand a wide range of choices. An often-discussed option for further decarbonising transport is the use of electric powertrains for urban parcel delivery and last-mile logistics. However, the success of such vehicles depends on their uptake and the total cost of ownership, as it needs to be an investment that pays off for their operators.
Moreover, it is important to remain neutral towards different powertrain options, as no single technology can cover all the many and varied use-cases that apply to vans. While alternative powertrains could prove to be very suitable for inner-city delivery, conventional combustion engines will remain the most efficient option for long-distance transport. Not every powertrain is ideal for all tasks, so in each case we will have to identify the most suitable option. When we look at the multi-stage production of light commercial vehicles it becomes particularly clear why it is so important to keep the practical use of vehicles in mind when developing policy measures.
Multi-stage vehicles are not completely built by the manufacturer but instead finalised by a body builder. Typical multi-stage vehicles include camper vans, ambulances, refrigerator trucks, mobile cranes and tippers. Every year, more than 10,000 body builders complete some 150,000 multi-stage vehicles. These companies are mainly SMEs specialised in providing tailor-made transport equipment for a wide range of specific tasks in crafts and industry. But when it comes to decarbonisation on the political level, this highly-specialised approach makes things very complicated.
Today, when testing the CO2 emissions of a van, the measurements are based on the semi-finished vehicle (which, for example, comprises the chassis, cab and engine of a van but not the refrigerator unit), while in the future the completed vehicle will be used instead. This means that the upcoming WLTP emissions test will only calculate the CO2 emissions of an LCV after final completion by the body builder. In practice, the original manufacturer would only get the figures the year after the CO2 values were measured. This new approach would make it almost impossible for our industry to properly monitor CO2 emissions or develop a corresponding compliance strategy.
These examples clearly show why policy measures should not be based on theory or assumptions for a whole segment. It remains vital to consider the many different possible applications of a single vehicle and the way it is built, as well as the various production stages. I would like to stress that, unlike what is the case with cars, it is not clear for a manufacturer what purpose a van will serve when it rolls off the assembly line. As an industry, we are dedicated to further reducing the environmental footprint of vans, but for policy to make sense, the final mission of an LCV should always be kept in mind.
Secretary General of ACEA