Innovation in Britain’s commercial vehicle sector continues to gather speed, with a broad range of high-tech solutions arriving on the market. This week’s launch of CAV Forth represents the latest step, with the UK’s first automated vehicles – buses – now on the road.
I joined industry stakeholders in south east Scotland to see the trial, with five buses operating in automated mode on a 14-mile set route across the Forth Road Bridge into Edinburgh – a network that could carry up to 10,000 passengers every week. The collaborative project, using pioneering technology from a number of partners, is hoped to prove that this automated technology is ready for use on public roads. All new methods of transport start somewhere and, as this is a novel form, it will be interesting to see how the trial progresses and the public reacts.
The bus and coach sector is also at the forefront of decarbonised road transport, with rising orders for electric single and double deckers in many UK regions, particularly in urban areas. The latest SMMT figures published this week, however, show that the overall bus and coach market slightly declined in the first quarter of 2023, -0.6% below last year and -37.9% on the pre-pandemic five-year average.
The fall was driven by a downturn in deliveries of minibuses, at -39.9% compared with Q1 2022, with ongoing components shortages – which can still rear their ugly head – a key factor in restricting new vehicle availability. Some minibus operators, including in the public sector, are also understood to be holding off new orders until the decision on Category B licence derogations, which have the potential to increase uptake of zero emission vehicles and in turn improve access to green mobility for all.
The extension of the Bus Fare Cap Grant is also welcome, as bus ridership levels remain some way off pre-pandemic levels, presenting a tough environment for operators. The second phase of the ScotZEB fund will widen the pool of applicants that can qualify for its grants, helping to promote further collaboration on zero emission vehicle roll-out across Scottish communities. The sector awaits further news on UK’s ZEBRA funding, however, with a need to make the grant process smoother and timelier, so that all regions can receive the benefits of net zero transport.
SMMT’s new truck market figures published this week show that HGV registrations are at the highest level for Q1 since pre-pandemic 2019, up 17.1% – and just -2.9% below pre-pandemic 2019 levels. There is significant innovation taking place in the truck sector, with at least 20 zero emission models currently available in the UK, but these models represented just 0.3% of registrations in the first quarter of 2023.
It is clear that government action is needed soon to generate the steady uptake of zero emission trucks over the next decade, given the sector’s unique requirements. We need a strategy that centres on the prompt installation of HGV-dedicated public charging and refuelling infrastructure, ahead of need and in the right locations. Meanwhile, UK operators need an incentive framework that competes with those already available in other major decarbonising nations, to facilitate the unavoidably higher cost of operator investment in the greenest trucks and their required depot infrastructure.
The CV sector will continue to innovate and deliver new solutions to the UK market, but impactful collaboration is needed from all stakeholders. With the necessary long-term plans in place, I’m confident that we will begin to see the next generation of commercial vehicles become more prevalent and popular.