When to back EV technology on the road to net zero

As news flows from the COP26 climate summit, it’s painfully evident that commitment to reducing emissions is crucial to limiting warming and safeguarding our natural world. Of course, every industry needs to adapt, but in large systemic change, there is always opportunity. For the transport sector; the largest source of emissions in the UK (source: gov.uk) our change lies in electric vehicle (EV) technology. From the cars themselves to the grid that powers them, R&D is revolutionising the sector every week. But is now the right time to drive forward with EV fleets?  

An era of electrification 

As of May 2021, there were over 500,000 EVs registered in the UK (source: gov.uk). That’s 66% more than 2019, but that number needs to climb higher. It’s estimated by 2030, there could be around 16 million EVs on our roads (source: gov.uk) but getting there requires investment at both micro and macro scales. Of course, as with any systemic change, there are roadblocks – range anxiety, battery disposal, charging compatibility and grid capacity, to name a few – but none so insurmountable that we can’t build a greener future for our sector.  

The UK Government is leading by example. Their own fleet is predicted to gain 40,000 new EVs by 2027, which is currently the largest UK commitment by any organisation. For fleet managers, incentives such as the reduction of benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax for EVs will see other organisations able to follow suit. Globally, partnerships between major brands will drive the EV market and with it, exciting new technology. Just look at the recent collaboration between Tesla and Hertz, which outlines an ambitious plan to put 100,000 EVs on the road to electrify its rental-car fleet.   

As someone deeply embedded in transforming transport, it feels like there’s an appetite for innovation. Manufacturers are pushing the boundaries to improve efficiency, cost, and performance, while customers are demanding more sustainable options in the marketplace. Throw in government targets and incentives, and we find ourselves in a fascinating new era of electrification. 

Plugging in 

Charging our decarbonised transport network is a considerable challenge. Currently, there are three types of charging points: the 120-volt, the 240-volt and the DC, or rapid charge as it’s commonly known. With charging times ranging from 40 hours at the 120-volt end to half an hour with a rapid charge, any successful EV future depends on sturdy charging infrastructure. We’re seeing more points installed every day. There are currently around 25,000 public charge points in the UK (source: gov.uk), but that’s only approximately 34 per 100,000 people – not enough to keep the whole country running at net zero  (source: gov.uk). To meet targets, we’ll need around 480,000 charging points by 2030. It’s a big gap, but one I have no doubt we will fill. 

Alongside availability challenges, charger compatibility is a concern. As with mobile phones, each manufacturer uses a different type of charging connector, and with EVs, there are three types for DC alone. If we’re going to get decarbonised fleets on the road quickly, we need to make charging as straightforward as possible and this means universal ports on every vehicle.  

However, charging technology is adapting. Investments in bi-directional charging, where energy flows in two directions – either from vehicle to grid (V2G) or vehicle to home (V2H) – makes better use of dormant energy, ensuring every last watt is utilised. Mega charger technology delivers megawatts of power to heavy-duty vehicles and busses, bringing high-powered charging to heavy workloads. In major cities, smaller vehicles such as vans, cars and e-bikes can plug into lampposts, while in Nottingham, trials have begun to remove the wires altogether. In addition, special EV taxis are topping up their batteries from wireless induction pads built into the road’s surface. Plugging in or topping up will soon be routine for drivers, but how long will we have to wait for a full charge? 


The humble battery. We have one in almost everything nowadays, but powering a car is somewhat different to a TV remote. Often considered the weakest point of any EV, batteries naturally degrade, losing about 2.3% of their starting range each year (source: geotab). At a certain point, they’ll need replacing and with that comes high cost and disposal issues. Modern EVs use lithium-ion batteries, which are very similar to the ones we find in our smartphones and laptops. Capacity varies; the bigger the battery, the longer the vehicle can go on one charge. Bigger batteries, however, take longer to recharge and weigh down the vehicle, which affects both performance and efficiency.  

Despite these drawbacks, batteries provide instant, clean power. Mechanics can wave goodbye to the oil change, and with fewer moving engine parts, maintenance becomes more electrical than mechanical. For fleets, this could be a gamechanger. 

Reducing battery weight and cost without compromising range will help grow confidence in the EV network. While it may seem like a tall order, the technology is advancing. This time partnering with Panasonic, Tesla has announced a prototype battery that has five times more capacity than anything else on the market. It’s also 50% less expensive to manufacture. And, they’re not alone. Other manufacturers are investing research into the mass production of solid-state batteries, which are both smaller and quicker to charge. The pace of innovation in this area is incredible but this is necessary if EVs are to become mass market.   

Driven by data 

With electrification comes sensors, and with sensors comes an opportunity to understand fleets at a micro-level. EVs have built-in systems that monitor every aspect of the vehicle. From battery condition and range to tire pressure, driver behaviour and safety, EVs have the capability to send and receive data in real-time. Consider performance issues managed by data. Engineers could diagnose vehicle faults on the move to determine the severity, adjust settings then and there, or reroute to the nearest appropriate garage. In today’s world, data is intelligence, and with it, we can intimately understand vehicle conditions and maintenance.  

Building on this, engineers could combine individual vehicle information with energy prices, weather, traffic, GPS and charging locations. Using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning models (ML), mapping where fleets are, what capacity they have and what condition they’re in becomes clearer. External data can optimise schedules, factoring in fluctuating electricity prices or when to avoid wait times at busy charge locations. Error logs, real-time data streams, and cloud connectivity provide an instant snapshot of an entire fleet – even, an entire nation of drivers. For fleet managers, the sensor covered EV is a business intelligence goldmine.  

Electric versus hydrogen 

So, what about hydrogen? Hydrogen fuel has been in R&D for years and offers an alternative to electrification; some say an even cleaner one. It’s also the most abundant element on the planet, yet few vehicle manufacturers have committed to using it.  

First, there needs to be an infrastructure, but one doesn’t exist. While EVs continue to fly off production lines, infrastructure investment funnels into electric charging points over hydrogen fuel stations. There’s also an issue with power conversion; the current fuel cell technology isn’t as efficient at converting hydrogen to power in the same way as batteries. 

Volkswagen, BMW, and Telsa have all publicly stated that hydrogen fuel cells are not a viable alternative to EV at the moment. But that does not mean the technology won’t play a part in getting to net zero. It’s anticipated that hydrogen will become increasingly important for decarbonising HGVs, where heavy, large batteries hamper space and charging times. It’s one to watch, but don’t expect it to come into play anytime soon. There are fewer than 20 operational hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK (source: Auto Express), so mass production of hydrogen-fuelled vehicles is a long way off.  

Is it time to invest in EV? 

To fully appreciate the scale of EV technology, we need to mention the innovation happening with the wider grid. The growing number of EVs and their charging points is increasing dependence on the whole system, which begs the question: Can the grid cope and is it green at source? The answer, thankfully is, yes. Allowing for EV growth, the National Grid is investing in offshore wind farms that should adequately meet the demand for electrifying transport – an extra 100 terawatt-hours from our current 300 terawatt-hours consumed (source: National Grid). 

With all this in mind, is there sufficient momentum to push forward with EV fleets? Is the technology ready to support customers in their own net zero ambitions? I believe so – if not now, then when? When you consider the technology available, the innovation pipeline and the global pressure mounting on government shoulders, the junction to EV will come up quick. One way or another we’re going to have to pick a direction.  

Economic and individual appetite for carbon-neutral solutions has never been higher and the pace of innovation is increasing. Fleet managers need to develop an ‘adopt and adapt’ strategy which allows flexibility over the coming years. Data will be central to these decisions, helping us understand when the net zero economics stack up and when to hold back.  

Building an EV ecosystem requires an end-to-end decarbonisation plan, from the green power we put in, all the way to end-of-life battery recycling. Collaboration is vital; but governments, grids, manufacturers, organisations and individuals are already coming together to face the challenge head-on. Getting to net zero in the transport sector isn’t an overnight project. It will take years. But the wheels are in motion and speeding up. It’s time we take the steering wheel and make it work for us. 

Whether it’s vans, cars, busses, or HGVs, innovation is driving the electrification of fleets. Want some advice on your EV fleet options? Get in touch.  

Mike Nugent
Head of Intelligent Fleet Decarbonisation Business, Hitachi Europe

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