Recent reports have suggested that a growth in van traffic in UK cities is among the major contributors to poor air quality in urban areas.
According to figures published in April this year, 3.8 million vans are now registered in the UK, an increase of 74% since 1996. Vans now represent 15% of all motor vehicle traffic, compared to 10% two decades ago.
This, of course, has an impact on air quality on UK streets, with vans thought to contribute around 30% of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from road transport, and up to 16% of carbon dioxide emissions.
For companies operating in the delivery sector, particularly in urban centres, tightening standards on emissions are becoming an increasing challenge for operations.
London, for example, is bringing forward plans to levy additional charges on the most polluting vehicles operating in parts of the city, while other cities around the country are looking at bringing in similar steps.
Among those leading the charge towards lower-emission, sustainable transport is the package delivery giant UPS, which has put in place an ambitious programme to upgrade its entire 170-vehicle strong central London fleet to use some form of electric power.
airqualitynews.com met Peter Harris, UPS Europeâ€™s director of sustainability, at the companyâ€™s Kentish Town depot in north London last month, to find out how this programme is being delivered.
Harris turned the clock back ten years to UPSâ€™s first step into the electric vehicle market, he recalled: â€œTen years ago when we invested in the first Modecs, and we thought we had a long term solution. It turned out Modec was not a long term solution, they donâ€™t exist anymore.
â€œThat is one of the chances you have to take in this space. If we were to wait until the solutions were as clean cut as they have been with conventional vehicles then we would be missing the race altogether, so there has to be a balance between these things.â€
From an initial order of 12 Modec electric vehicles, UPS began to test the performance of the electric vans across its London operations. While the closure of Modec in 2011 represented a setback, UPS was keen to continue to upgrade more of its fleet to operate using electricity, and oversaw a gradual shift towards electrification which resulted in around 52 of its diesel vehicles operating in London using an electric drivetrain by mid-2017.
A shift towards electrification placed an increasing burden on the power supply to the Kentish Town depot, which required an initial investment in the power grid. However, despite this work being carried out, limitations to the siteâ€™s infrastructure meant that the depot could only accommodate charging points for around 65 trucks.
In a bid to remedy this, UPS partnered with UK Power Networks and Cross River Partnership, on a project dubbed â€˜Smart Electric Urban Logisticsâ€™, which has concluded this year, to develop a system using on-site batteries to store up energy to ensure that all of the vehicles on the site do not need to charge simultaneously, reducing the demand from the power grid.
The smart system uses a central server which is connected to each EV charge post as well as the grid power supply and the on-site energy storage.
The system adopts an â€œintelligentâ€ approach to charging by spreading this throughout the night so that the building can use the power it needs to run the business of logistics (lights, sortation machinery and IT) and ensure that all EVs are fully charged by the time they are needed in the morning, but at the same time never exceed the maximum power available from the grid.
Having solved the charging challenge, the company is now working with suppliers including Essex-based Tevva Motors and the van manufacturer Arrival to realise its aim to bring its entire London fleet to the low emission standard by the end of 2019.
Reflecting on UPSâ€™s rationale for being an â€˜early adopterâ€™ of EV technology, Harris said: â€œThe risk management agenda has been a key part of it, without a doubt. Urban access, the fact that cities are making it very clear to us that we are moving towards a world where the diesel truck is no longer welcome. Clean Air Zones, low emission zones, ultra-low emission zones, that is a big piece of it, but what we have discovered as we have gone along is that there is a lot more to it than that.
â€œWhat has emerged is a series of advantages and opportunities. By putting ourselves on the leading edge of the transition in terms of technology development what we have seen come out of that is an ability to connect more effectively with our customers, ability to build better relationships with our employees; better relationships with the regulators that are shaping the world around us.â€
However, whilst UPS has been among the front-runners in the logistics sector in driving towards low emission transit, there is no sense of complacency. Harris, notes: â€œThe industry we are in is a very competitive space, and increasingly what we are starting to see is that sustainability is becoming a competitive differentiator for a lot of us.
â€œOur competitors are not slouches at all, and we donâ€™t have this space to ourselves, we like to think that we are at the front end of that race. It is becoming commercially advantageous and we are finding that customers increasingly want us to demonstrate an ability to behave in this way.
â€œ[For the] Larger more sophisticated end of our customer base it is becoming an entry hurdle into doing business. Thatâ€™s driving an upward spiral between ourselves and our competitors to deliver the best solutions.â€
With the companyâ€™s London operations moving rapidly towards EV, Harris sees potential for growth across the companyâ€™s 3,000-strong vehicle fleet.Â â€œThat would be part of our vision for the future,â€ he adds.