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Petrol forecourts in parts of Britain are a sorry sight at the moment. Many are closed entirely and, those that aren’t, are operating at severely limited capacities.
Why? There’s a shortage of HGV drivers in the UK, and across Europe. In less than a month, lorry and truck drivers have gone from being rarely considered but essential workers to the centre of a brewing crisis for British businesses.
The army is being drafted in to help man the trucks and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has relaxed immigration rules to allow foreign drivers to come and plug the gap. At the time of writing, however, only 127 drivers have signed up.
According to some media reports, the Deputy Prime Minister has even mulled letting low-level offenders who have been given community service sentences drive lorries – regardless of their competency behind the wheel.
However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. The country’s fuel crisis has prompted a spike in interest in cleaner mobility.
Companies such as Volta Trucks are developing electric-powered trucks that are better for drivers, meaning that more people will want to be truck drivers. Changing consumer behaviour will also mean that there are fewer ICE cars on the road. Could it really be that simple?
The Case for Better Trucks
“There are many different angles to the situation that the country now finds itself in,” says Duncan Forrester, Chief Communications Officer for Volta Trucks. “From our own perspective, when we were designing the vehicle [Volta’s first truck, the Zero], we realised that there was a recruitment and retention problem within the trucking industry.”
“Driving a commercial vehicle wasn’t really an aspirational career and the demographic of drivers were getting older,” he continues. “One of the main reasons for that is the working environments that many drivers have to endure.”
“You’ve got a vehicle where the driver has to climb, often one and a half meters up into a cabin and then down again and they are inherently relatively unsafe to drive because there are so many blind spots around the vehicle.”
“4% of the road miles in London are driven by trucks but 26% of pedestrian fatalities and 78% of cyclist fatalities in London are attributable to large trucks.”
However, with an electric truck, because there’s no need to sit the cabin high up on top of an engine, almost everything can change.
“We realised that if we didn’t have the legacy of the internal combustion engine, which sits at the front of the truck, we could design the vehicle from the ground-up,” says Forrester. We could position the driver at around 1.8 meters of head height so that they have direct visual communication with other road users outside the vehicle.”
“We could also enable them to have a central driving position,” which, aside from eliminating the need to convert cars to left-hand-drive for exporting also brings safety benefits for drivers. “If you think about a right-hand-drive vehicle, if you’re making 50 drops a day, you always get out into the traffic,” says Forrester. “But, if you have a central driving position, you will always get out on the pavement – it’s much, much safer for you as the driver. It’s also safer for cyclists or whoever is overtaking you as you’re opening your door into the traffic.”
Volta Trucks is also taking pride in the materials that go into their cabins.
“We want to offer drivers a light, airy, very premium working environment that is much more of an aspirational place for them to work and spend time in,” Forrester says. “Truck drivers will often spend nine hours a day in a truck, and we need to make sure that space is as premium an environment as it can be. Our customers are telling us that they believe offering a vehicle with that kind of driver environment will make them more appealing as employers and will make drivers want to come to work.”
Of course, there are other issues surrounding the UK’s trucking industry – pay is bad and wages have stagnated. The long hours and long shifts mean time away from friends and families. The working environment itself – long shifts sitting down – isn’t conducive to a healthy lifestyle.
Volta Trucks first vehicle, the Zero, won’t be able to make petrol deliveries itself – it’s currently too small. However, the company is planning larger trucks and lorries in order to compete with other areas of the market. It might sound oxymoronic, but we might see electric lorries delivering petrol to forecourts soon.
EVs Look Increasingly Tempting to Drivers
Of course, with the current petrol and diesel shortage, it seems likely that consumers won’t want to be left high and dry again.
“The indications are that not only have we approached the tipping point for electrification, but we also have well and truly reached it,” says Stephen Lambert, the Head of Electrification at McLaren Applied – the B2B side of the F1 team and supercar manufacturer.
“The supply side is definitely there already, given that almost every OEM has an electric vehicle offering either at market or near to market. Consumer acceptance is quickly following suit.”
The looming 2030 ban on new ICE cars should also push consumers towards electric cars. While range anxiety was often considered to be the biggest stumbling block for drivers, it seems as though that might be changing, as well.
“Range anxiety is no longer the main issue,” says Lambert “[it] has been replaced by charge anxiety – ‘Where can I charge and how long will it take me?’”
Exchanging one anxiety for another might not sound like progress to everyone but being worried about charging might be a thing of the past, as well.
“The National Grid is proposing a solution where 99.6% of drivers in England and Wales will always be within a 50-mile drive of an ultra-rapid charging hub,” explains Lambert.
“To some extent charge capability will follow demand. If more affluent areas of the UK purchase more EVs, then there is a risk that these areas will have more charge points. However, there has been some great work by the UK government and National Grid looking at charge inequality and grid capability.”
However, the idea that electric cars are now in their final form of development, and that we will have to adjust, is just wrong. The growing use of silicon carbide in electric powertrains will have a range of benefits for EVs, as Lambert explains.
“It’s a relatively new technology in power electronics used in the drivetrain of electric vehicles,” he says.
“It allows for more efficient switching (so less wasted energy), but more importantly allows for faster switching, which means that the drivetrain system can be better optimised to allow for a more efficient solution overall. This results in things like faster charging, smaller and lighter motors, inverters, batteries and cooling, which ultimately allows for longer ranges and faster recharge times for electric vehicles.”
The petrol shortage will likely continue in the UK for the meantime but, if Volta Trucks and McLaren Applied are correct in their predictions, fuel and driver shortages might become things of the past.