NACFB: on emissions

It’s not just Beijing that’s holding its breath. Camelford, is every bit as choked up over concerns about air quality.

The finger of blame is pointing at the near-invisible nitrogen dioxide, 2017’s new chemical whipping boy in the fight for clean air. The Mail’s shouty headline earlier this year was: “Homeowners in Cornwall could be EVACUATED due to EU pollution laws.” All of this feeds into a growing disapproval of diesel engines. It turns out it’s not only the black visible particulates that can make you unwell; it’s the invisible bits as well.

There is lots of evidence from the world of politics to suggest that what the people vote for isn’t always the best result for the people. The ability to get a story out to the attention of the masses is crucial if you’re looking to tip the voting balance one way or the other, and electricity has nearly two centuries’ headstart over hydrogen, for example. Electric taxi cabs were cruising the streets of London more than a hundred years ago. But hydrogen has one big advantage – you can go from empty tanks to full tanks within five minutes, six times faster than the fastest electrical charging station today and whole hours faster than the charging speed most owners of electric vehicles have become used to.

In the haulage world, where every minute lost is a red rag to a charging accountant, hanging around one hour to “superfast charge” an HGV-sized battery isn’t really an option. Swappable batteries might be an answer in the future, but that’s the whole thing about the future; we’re not in it.

In the meantime, hydrogen has infrastructure problems of its own, and that’s putting it mildly. A big fleet operator might not worry about infrastructure, if the vehicles know where they are going to be on a regular basis. That’s why it works so well for London’s small fleet of hydrogen buses.

The hiccups attack when you start trying to randomise your journeys.

It took a long time to build an infrastructure that allowed you to set off in a petrol-powered vehicle and be able to rely on filling stations wherever you went. The builders of any future electric, hydrogen or maple syrup equivalent are going to want reassurance that they are backing the right horse. Speaking of which, we used to have a terrific infrastructure for horses; turn up at an inn on a tired and hungry one, and simply switch to a refreshed and nourished stallion. It was the organic equivalent of the swappable battery. But I’m not suggesting we go back to that.

Right now there are very few places to fill up with lovely cold hydrogen, and most of them are in the south; Hendon, Teddington, Heathrow and Swindon. There’s one in Wales (Port Talbot) and you can also fill up at two universities (Coventry and Birmingham), which is doubtless handy for all those students who have a spare £50k to invest in a Hyundai iX35. Add Nottingham and Rotherham to the list, and that’s your lot. If your business operates in those areas, or you’re looking to lease vehicles out to workers whose commutes take them around those places, converting to hydrogen still doesn’t make a lot of sense right now; the savings aren’t there compared to electricity, and the ecological arguments are shaky so long as hydrogen (and electricity) are mostly created in the first place by burning rain forests, dolphins and bunnies.

But there is something else to consider; future-proofing.

When fleets are forced to replace their diesel vehicles, as London is threatening to pressure companies into doing, they might take the view that five years down the line in 2025 the same pressure might be put on them to abandon petrol as well. As indeed it might. Diesel might not be flavour of the month in April 2017, but that doesn’t mean petrol is home free. In particular, businesses that pride themselves on having ecologically worthy credentials, or which champion new technology, or which want to appear affluent, cannot afford to turn up at a customer’s doorstep running on yesterday’s fuel.

I imagine that by 2025, turning up in a vehicle that runs exclusively on fossil fuels will be like a wedding photographer who still shoots on rolls of 120-format film. You wouldn’t get judged on the end result so much as on what you brought with you and the signals that decision sends out.

That’s when it will be time to reanalyse the infrastructural alternatives, and then take a calculated gamble, or hedge your bets. A fleet that’s two thirds electric, and one third hydrogen? We’re now in the awkward phase of major manufacturers trying to have a foot in two or three camps. Toyota will sell you a hydrogen powered car or an electric one. That sends out a message of its own; the smart fleet is the one that hedges its bets. Which, in turn, means the smart finance broker is the one who understands the pros and cons of all the available solutions. My guess is that in the next five years, motor finance could become much more complicated; no one clear winner, lots of viable competitors.