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Annie Hayes

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Thinking ‘green’

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Petrol pump - Central Audiovisual Library, European Commission

It goes without saying that any discussion on making a company car fleet more environmentally friendly must start by asking whether some or all of the cars in the fleet are necessary at all.

By Nick Bell, GoodCorporation


We have already seen changes in UK tax to make use of private cars for business use more attractive. In this year’s Budget, Chancellor Gordon Brown made no significant changes to the tax rules, instead he confirmed the existing environmental agenda; a minor increase was made in vehicle excise duty for the two most polluting categories, but the base figures on which individuals are taxed for company cars were frozen.

At last year’s Fleet News Industry Conference, Transport Minister David Jamieson cited a study showing that opting out of a company car scheme often led to people driving cars with higher emissions. This reflected their freedom to use their salary alternative to finance any vehicle rather than one selected to meet the objectives of a structured car scheme.

This does not, however, take into account that a company car with no salary alternative may create a two-car household where one would do, in which case the impact of manufacturing an additional car would need considering.

The choice of car, whether in a company scheme or private, dictates the most obvious impacts. Over the same number of business miles, a bigger engine results in more pollution.

But higher specification cars also bear a cost. The weight of the extras adds up which impacts not only fuel consumed to make them go, but brake and tyre wear to make them stop, and of course they require more energy to manufacture. Extra electronic gadgetry usually involves hazardous chemicals both in construction and in disposal at end-of-life.

New fuel alternatives are slowly coming onto the scene, but the main shift over recent years has been toward diesel cars as they shed their clattery, taxi image and enter the economical performance car league.

The best option is rarely clear cut, though, and while diesel cars generally produce lower CO2 emissions they throw out more sooty particulates (albeit very fine ones under EURO IV regulations). Petrol may no longer have lead put in but other chemicals are added. There are public health concerns linked to both fuels so the picture is still unclear as to which is the lesser of two evils.

Other options like LPG or LNG burn more cleanly, but remain a tiny part of the overall fuel supply and in any case are still fossil fuels. Biodiesel has potential but no volume production or distribution.

Even hybrid vehicles that can produce no air pollution while driving do not pass a clean bill of health because their battery technology is not especially green and hydrocarbons are being burned to charge them up.

Fuel cells, the much talked-about solution, are still many years away from the average consumer. However, without early adopters of new technologies there will be no continued investment in them so such leaders remain vital to pushing the agenda.

For the time being, though, we need to focus on using less fuel, whatever type we choose. According to Stewart Whyte, a Director of the Association of Car Fleet Operators, fuel monitoring in the UK is politely put at “low”.

A small percentage of fleet operators, he says, are demonstrating best practice by setting strict criteria for vehicle selection, are monitoring fuel consumption of each vehicle in the fleet (which spots either bad driving style or a maintenance issue), and perhaps most crucially of all are challenging whether each journey is necessary in the first place.

Driving style has a big effect on fuel consumption. Just keeping to speed limits would make a significant difference for most. The US Department of Energy quantifies this by saying that each 5mph driven over 65mph uses 7% more petrol. And of course aggressive driving, commonplace in our congested towns and cities where frustration can get the better of even mild-mannered drivers, is a fairly pointless waste of fuel.

Businesses must also recognise that they can create stressed drivers with unrealistic schedules and unnecessary journeys, adding to consumption/pollution and potentially compromising road safety. Switching on the air conditioning to cool things down a bit will penalise the driver by as much as 2 or 3 miles per gallon.

It is a reality that parts wear out and need to be disposed of and their replacements manufactured. Some drivers have habits that needlessly accelerate this, like holding a car stationary in gear using the clutch instead of the brake. Failing to read the road ahead means drivers often speed up only to brake more sharply when they finally spot a hazard or red light.

Routine maintenance intervals are thankfully getting longer; some cars won’t see an oily rag for as long as two years, though one year is more normal. Drivers should nevertheless be reminded about things that cannot wait that long, such as keeping tyres at the recommended pressure, which aids fuel economy not to mention safety.

So is the employer’s role also to be some sort of driving coach? The temptation is to say “no.” But the oft-quoted reason for poor environmental performance is that we need more information and education. Surely getting employees to think about their driving behaviour and the effects of driving style on the environment provides exactly that?

There is no shortage of advice from organisations like the RAC, but it requires somebody to bring this in-house to drivers, and to monitor on-going performance so further improvements can be identified.

Incorporating green principles into the company car scheme can be achieved doing quite straightforward, though not necessarily easy, things.

The benefits are real and measurable in terms of lower fleet operating costs and insurance premiums, so it should not be seen as some philanthropic exercise. The greenest choice of all, though, is to leave the car behind where walking, cycling or another mode of transport is available, or car sharing for commuting or business trips.

Companies should not be shy to promote these options. The long-term gains lie in protecting as best we can the environment that allows us the lifestyle that we have come to enjoy. You know, the one in the car advertisements!

The GoodCorporation Standard covers environmental management along with responsible employee, customer, supplier and shareholder practices.

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Annie Hayes

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