According to new figures published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) last week, average emissions from new vans registered in 2016 were 163.8 grammes of CO2 per kilometre, down 2.7% compared to 2015.
Light commercial vehicles, more widely known as ‘vans’, power the European economy. They provide the means for businesses to deliver goods to their customers’ doors, as well as enabling other economic and social activities, including construction, postal services, ambulances and policing. With nearly two million new vans registered in the EU last year, the market for light commercial vehicles grew by 11.9%, a clear indication of their economic significance.
Van manufacturers have invested billions of euros in order to improve the fuel efficiency and environmental performance of their products. These investments have underpinned last year’s 4.5g drop in CO2 emissions per kilometre. The industry will continue to work to ensure that its new light commercial vehicles go on to meet the target of 147g of CO2 per km by 2020, but reaching this European CO2 target will remain a challenge. To that end, the industry continues making significant investments in further improving engines and gearboxes, as well as by using more lightweight materials.
Ensuring further reductions in CO2 emissions will also be dependent on greater market uptake of alternative powertrains, including electric, hybrid, fuel-cell and natural gas-powered vehicles. However, electric vehicles (including plug-in hybrids) continue to constitute a very small fraction of new van registrations in the EU, accounting for just 0.6% of all sales according to the EEA. In fact, a total of just 10,177 electric vans was registered across the European Union last year. Their market share remains very low, especially when compared to new passenger cars with electric and plug-in hybrid powertrains, which accounted for 1.1% of total car registrations in 2016 with 155,273 units sold.
More than 2.15 million vans were produced in Europe in 2016. However, they accounted for only 11.3% of all motor vehicles built in the EU and were dwarfed by the 16.5 million passenger cars that rolled off assembly lines last year. What these numbers make clear is that the lower production volumes of vans do not allow for the same economies of scale as for passenger cars, meaning that certain powertrain solutions available for cars are not directly applicable to vans, or at least not at a competitive price that provides a clear return on investment for transport operators.
Furthermore, there is a huge diversity between Class I, II and III vans; meaning that there are hardly any one-size-fits-all solutions. This further reduces the already marginal benefits of scale in the van segment. Something that becomes especially clear when looking at alternative powertrain options. As vans are first and foremost business tools used by SMEs, price sensitivity is extremely high, with purchasing and operating costs being the number one decision factor. This price sensitivity partly explains why consumer acceptance of the more expensive hybrid and electrified vans has been poor to date.
But there are also practical constraints that hamper the uptake of vans with alternative powertrains. Customers will only consider purchasing them if their cost and productivity are comparable to those of vehicles with conventional engines. After all, businesses are often simply not able to sacrifice payload for lower fuel consumption. Given the limited range of electrically-chargeable vans and their long charging times, such vehicles are generally only applicable for city centre distribution. That’s also the reason why diesel vehicles continue to make up the vast majority of the new van fleet, constituting 96% of sales in 2016 according to the EEA.
With a view to future CO2 reductions from vans after 2020, we will need to initiate a wider debate to identify the most suitable powertrain options for vans. Not every powertrain is ideal for all tasks and no single technology can cover all the many and varied use-cases that apply to vans, so we will need to jointly perform a ‘reality check’ to see which applications are realistic and identify the barriers on the road ahead.
That’s why ACEA is organising an event dedicated to powertrain options for commercial vehicles in Brussels on Wednesday 29 November 2017. Although the official invitation will only follow after the summer, I would suggest that you already mark this date in your diary as it promises to become an interesting afternoon. Especially because the above-mentioned discussions will be complemented by an exhibition showcasing examples of the different powertrain options that are available for trucks, vans and buses.
Secretary General of ACEA