Image credit: David Parsons via iStock
Emissions reduction is one of the most pressing concerns for commercial vehicle manufacturers - and indeed the wider vehicle industry in the UK as a whole. Practicality, convenience and cost-effectiveness must be balanced with sustainability and performance for emissions targets to be met - but how is the UK approaching this issue? Its current focus includes improving the accuracy of emissions testing, and investing funds in the development of greener speciality vehicles.
Today, we will examine these UK focal points in turn, as well as looking at potential regulatory changes in Europe - and what the future may hold once Article 50 has been triggered.
Vehicle emissions testing in the UK
One of the core challenges facing the drive to reduce vehicle emissions is the accuracy of testing. Earlier this year (April 2016), the UK government completed its vehicle emissions testing programme, which assessed an independent and representative sample of the best-selling diesel cars on the UK market. Its goal was to uncover if there was a disparity between results shown during testing and results in real-world conditions.
Overseen by Professor Ricardo Martinez-Botas of Imperial College London, the programme revealed that all tested manufacturers' vehicles showed higher levels of NOₓ emissions in test
track and real-world driving conditions, compared to during laboratory assessments. The degree of disparity varied significantly from one model to the next.
As a result, the programme concluded that current laboratory tests are not satisfactory. Fortunately, EU legislation has already slated a driving emissions test in real-world conditions to be introduced next year. However, how this will be affected by the UK's Leave vote remains unclear.
Investment in green vehicles
As well as being keen to improve testing, the UK is ploughing investment into green vehicles. For instance, in June this year, the Department of Transport announced that some £19 million will be available to the freight industry for the sole purpose of emissions reduction. The aim here is for firms of all sizes to be able to access the latest technologies to improve their green credentials, with bids for a slice of the funding opening this month (July 2016). The scheme, which also includes developing the country's infrastructure for alternative fuels, such as charge-points for electric vehicles, is being funded by the Office for Low Emission Vehicles through Innovate UK.
Earlier this year, the government also announced some £21 million being allocated to local councils across the UK - specifically for the promotion of green transport. The focus here is on providing sustainable transport options across the board. It is hoped that this move will help support the government's overall target of making virtually every car and van zero emissions by 2050.
The UK is not alone in its focus on testing; the European Commission (EC) is also focusing on improving emissions testing to get an accurate picture of how vehicles will affect the environment. And it is through the EC that the most dramatic changes may come to pass, with the body proposing tighter rules to encourage cleaner cars that safeguard the health of people and the wider environment. Of course, the UK's vote to leave the EU means that the nation's path may deviate from the EC's current plans; however, for the moment - and until Article 50 is triggered - these proposals provide an important indicator for the future of emissions regulation in the UK.
Announced in late January, the legislative proposals feature a series of changes, but the focal point is shifting where the authority to certify a car - or to take it off the road - lies. Currently, the EU creates the legal framework, and individual countries are responsible for testing and certification.
Once a car is certified in one member state, it can be sold throughout the EU. Under this new legislation, the EC would have the power to carry out spot checks on vehicles on the road, impose penalties on car makers and give individual member states the ability to recall cars - even if they have been approved by other members.
The regulations aim to achieve three main objectives:
To reinforce the independence and quality of testing that clears a car for sale in the EU
Financial ties between technical services responsible for testing a car's compliance with emissions legislation and car manufacturers is a concern for the EC. To avoid any potential conflicts of interest such associations may cause, the EC aims to change the remuneration system so such ties can be avoided. Plus, regular auditing of technical services will be combined with tighter performance criteria and peer reviews to maintain quality.
To introduce a market surveillance system to safeguard the compliance of cars currently in circulation
Current controls focus on the introduction of new vehicles on to the market; future controls, should proposals go ahead, will give both the EC and member states the right to spot check vehicles already on the road. This means that member states do not need to wait for the state that originally approved the vehicle to investigate, and can instead take immediate action to safeguard their local environment. The hope is that this will catch any models that fail to comply with required standards - even if they have successfully passed the initial testing stage.
Install stronger European oversight to reinforce the type approval system
Should proposals be approved, the EC will have greater powers in developing compliance strategies, as well as the authority to impose fines and to suspend, restrict or decommission underperforming technical services. It is hoped that these powers will help to discourage both technical services and manufacturers from allowing non-compliant vehicles onto the market.
While the emissions scandal may pertain to passenger vehicles, the implication for the wider industry in terms of testing and adherence to emissions regulation, is clear.
"With our proposals today we will raise the quality and independence of vehicle testing and improve the oversight of cars already in circulation. This complements our efforts to introduce the most robust emissions testing procedures in the world, which we will keep refining and reviewing to ensure the strictest emissions limits are really met," stated Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska, responsible for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs at the EC.
The draft regulation has been sent to the European Parliament and Council for adoption.
Whatever form future emissions targets and testing take, and no matter when Article 50 is triggered, the focus on reducing harmful emissions is sure to remain. Vehicles are likely to be required to meet more ambitious emissions targets and undergo stricter testing, meaning design engineers and vehicle manufacturers will need to innovate to adhere to - and, where possible, surpass - these targets to create a healthier environment for both planet and citizens.
For some, this will mean investing in electric hybrids and fully electric vehicles, while others may favour hydrogen cell technology or lightweighting when it comes to slicing emissions without compromising performance.