Electrification of bus fleets is important, but its impact goes beyond transportation, to the way we actually exist in and use urban spaces
The internal combustion engine is reaching the end of the road. And time is already running out for commercial and public vehicle operators to act on the biggest disruption in the transportation sector since the horse and cart made way for the horseless carriage. Faced with the dual threat of a pandemic and a climate crisis that is already spiralling out of control, there is little room for delay.
The UK government wants to achieve an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050. To do that, sales of new diesel and petrol cars and vans will be banned from 2030. The green industrial revolution, it is hoped, will create 250,000 jobs, combat the climate crisis and also challenge companies up and down the country to think innovatively about how in the future they will get goods and people from A to B.
With more than five million vans and heavy goods vehicles on the road, the UK’s freight sector has a huge amount of work to do to successfully decarbonise a crucial component of our economy. In the coming years, every truck, van and car managed by commercial and public vehicle operators will have to switch from internal combustion to electric – and with it the whole system of fleet management will undergo a comprehensive and much-needed overhaul.
It’s a major undertaking. “This brings up a huge range of questions for a fleet operator that they’ve not had to think about before,” says Mike Nugent, head of fleet strategy and fleet business incubation at Hitachi Europe. From grid connections and depot management to vehicle range and the economics and practicalities of going all-electric, it’s a process that is fraught with challenges and risks. Take batteries as one example: in five years, the technology that underpins the best electric vehicles will likely be substantially different to what we use today.
Make the wrong decision now, and it could have major cost and efficiency implications further down the line. “Even in the last year, the world has changed so dramatically,” says Nugent. “We see the role of Hitachi as really simplifying that process because we understand all those different elements. We’re constantly horizon-scanning, we’re constantly thinking about what we can do in the future. Our job is to take some of that risk away.”
Hitachi Europe, in partnership with its sister company Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions, provides commercial and public vehicle operators a clear path towards a greener future through its end-to-end Intelligent Fleet Decarbonisation programme. With more than 30 years of experience in leading, financing and managing vehicle fleets for some of the UK’s biggest companies, including Network Rail and DHL, Hitachi not only has knowledge of what has worked in the past, but can draw on other parts of its business to work out what is needed for the future.
Nugent points to several parts of Hitachi’s sprawling business that are working together on the complex task of fleet decarbonisation. As well as Hitachi Europe and Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions, the project also draws on expertise from Hitachi’s consultancy and digital businesses, and Hitachi ABB Power Grids – the latter of which is focused on redesigning vehicle depots for an all-electric future.
“It’s a very different world from having diesel depots to having electrification in that depot,” says Stephen Jones, business development integrated transport at Hitachi ABB Power Grids. “How do we charge these vehicles? What type of charging do we need? Is there enough capacity at the grid and how do we optimise the charging infrastructure and energy consumption from the grid while also reducing the demand for valuable space at existing depots?” Jones points to the importance of digitisation – the power of big data and artificial intelligence – not just for managing fleet solutions today, but also preparing for the future. “Digitisation is key,” says Jones. “Not just inside the depot but also outside the depot. And it’s not just a case of that data pouring in – it’s about using that data intelligently, to enable faster outcomes by providing teams with more comprehensive information.”
WIRED in conversation with Mike Nugent and Stephen Jones
Take a fleet of buses, for example. Embracing digitisation would allow a fleet manager to understand the way the busses are being driven, the way they’re being charged, the overall condition of the bus and even an individual driver’s behaviour. “There’s a whole range of functionality that comes in from that,” says Jones. Combining that rich, structured data with artificial intelligence allows fleet managers to predict the future and carry out predictive maintenance.
The successful electrification and digitisation of commercial and public vehicle fleets isn’t just important for the companies that manage and rely on them, it will also have a major impact on how we all live our lives. “This is part of a much greater whole of what we’re trying to achieve,” says Nugent. The social innovation behind such projects, Nugent explains, is just one element of an ongoing discussion.
“It’s really important to bring energy and intelligent infrastructure and vehicle usage and vehicle management all under one roof,” Nugent says. “While we’re focusing on specific objectives around electrification of depots and the conversion of vehicle fleets, it’s actually part of a wider perspective on the evolution of cities and the way we interact in them.” In the midst of a pandemic, we have all been forced to recognise that our relationship with the urban spaces many of us live and work in needs to change.
The connection might not be immediately obvious, but Nugent argues that you can’t think about decarbonising commercial and public vehicle fleets without also looking at the wider picture of the cities in which those fleets operate. Hit first by the rise of online shopping and then by the pandemic, many city centres are now a mix of empty shops and abandoned offices.
“What do we do with those spaces?” Nugent asks. “Our job is to keep thinking about the way that all of those different modes of transport interact and how they’re going to be utilised. Is the way that we run our trains or buses, and the way that we use our private vehicles, going to fundamentally change? We’ve got to keep a really close eye on that. Because, as we’ve learned over the last 12 months, things can change very quickly.”
–Modern life is saturated with data, and technologies are emerging nearly every day – but how can we use these innovations to make a real difference to the world? Hitachi believes that social innovation should underpin everything it does, so it can find ways to tackle the biggest issues we face today. Visit Social-Innovation.Hitachi to learn how Hitachi Social Innovation is Powering Good and helping drive change across the globe.