Fake News & The Air That We Breathe

Let’s take time out from unreasonable customer demands, uncertainties around Brexit, and the current absence of a government in Belfast to look at an issue where haulage vehicles are in the lead – that is, air quality.

Lorries are not exactly top of the popularity polls. So when we get some good news about our industry, it is worth highlighting. The Euro VI trucks that the industry has been buying over the past three years are solving the air quality problem which is so taxing national government and local councils throughout the UK, and indeed Europe. But that is not widely recognised.

This is an important issue that could yet lead to restrictions on where older vehicles can deliver – Westminster government is drawing up proposals.

Let’s wind back a few years. The Euro emissions programme which has been running for all vehicles since the early 1990s had failed to deliver the intended air quality improvements. Cars, vans and trucks, all disappoint. Most notably for us, Euro V trucks have been a major disappointment in real-world operation spewing levels of NOx far in excess of the test standard.

That is what has led to the controversies and court challenges on air quality and it is why we are failing to meet mandatory air quality targets, set by the EU but enforced in UK law. Vehicles on the road are failing to get anywhere near their emissions test standard in operation.

There is a huge irony in all this. The EU set the air quality targets. The EU set the road map for getting there, with the Euro emissions standards. But now that the road map has taken us off in the wrong direction, the EU appears to evade all responsibility. The blame lands on the member states and the burden on vehicle users, who bought in good faith.

One day, perhaps, the full story of how the EU worked to such inadequate test standards may come out. But I am not going to hold my breath (although in some parts of the country that’s not such a bad idea for a while).

The significance of Euro VI heavy diesels – ie truck engines – is that they mark a turning point. The emissions standard was tightened, the vehicles perform to standard in real-world operation, and the result is transformation. It is hoped that cars will deliver from 2018 and vans from 2019, but they are not there yet.

Credit Due
Euro VI trucks are out-performing everything else on the road. But they, and the industry, are not getting the credit.

The Road Haulage Association was disappointed to see the Department for Transport in London pointing the finger, by implication, at trucks in its newly-published Freight Carbon Review. HGVs, it said, produced 21% of road transport NOx even though they account for “only 5%” of vehicle miles.

I wouldn’t think that record was particularly bad, even if it was true – which it isn’t. After all, trucks are the most productive vehicles on the road. A laden 44 tonne, double-deck artic may be producing far more pollution than a car, or even a van, but it is doing a heck of a lot more work. It could be carrying around 20 times more than a van and how do you compare it with a car with a driver and possibly one or two passengers?

Fake News
But the 21% percent NOx figure isn’t right. It is Fake News! It is based on figures published in 2014, which are used without reference to what has happened since – so it is reflecting in the past, rather than looking at the present and the future.

The RHA asked Volvo Truck in Warwick to guesstimate the proportion of HGV miles now being done by Euro VI trucks. Their very rough estimate was 33-40%, and rising month by month. This isn’t a particularly sophisticated calculation, granted, but as it happens it chimes almost exactly with a figures used at a big road user changing conference in Brussels last month.

The significance hits home when you factor in that Euro VI trucks are reckoned to be around 90% cleaner on NOx than earlier vehicles. (The exact figure differs from study to study.) Transport for London, surely the toughest HGV regulator in Europe, calls them “ultra-low emission”. So the 21% NOx figure is in reality around 14-15%, and falling. Even more graphically, press reports have suggested that real-world testing shows that the latest trucks are no more polluting than a VW Polo.

Credit is due to the Department for Transport – they took these points on board when we pointed them out.

The success of Euro VI is something of a double-edged sword. It does point up the deficiencies of previous trucks. But they remain the least polluting in terms of productivity and should be allowed to be replaced without further restrictions beyond those already announced.