Greening the NHS fleet

While it was assumed that public sector fleets would be at the forefront of the uptake of green vehicle procurement, meeting reduced emission targets, it is now clear that prudence with public sector fleet expenditure will be the main priority. This means professional fleet management is definitely the order of the day.  

This article will be of interest to all stakeholders involved in vehicle operations within the NHS and should also to those who formulate policy on the environment and health and safety.

Return on investment
The importance of stakeholder buy-in to the business case for a greener fleet cannot be under-estimated. This is the reference point against which all fleet investment decisions must be made. Fleet is usually one of the highest costs for an organisation alongside salaries, estates and IT. Vehicles are costly assets that must support core complex NHS activities and objectives.

Consideration needs to be given to if the vehicle fleet supports operational targets and if company cars are perceived as a valued recruitment and retention tool. An overly restrictive car policy that reduces choice can also push company car drivers into a cash option which can prove to be more expensive, less safe and less environmentally friendly, as older, higher emitting cars are often chosen by employees.

In the public sector, the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) estimates that nearly 57 per cent of at work mileage is covered by employees in privately-owned vehicles. That equates to around 1.4 billion miles a year covered by vehicles that do not necessarily comply with current law or are fit for the purpose. And, in the public sector, the average age of a privately-owned vehicle used on public sector business is 6.7 years old, compared to the average age of a company car of around two years.

Considerable savings can therefore be achieved through reduction of grey fleet numbers and usage alone. Since 2007/08, organisations engaged with OGC have reduced their grey fleet mileage by 22m miles generating over £8m of savings as well as lowered carbon emissions by over 5,300 tonnes. In the 2009/10 financial year, the OGC forecast is for grey fleet mileage to be reduced by over 40m miles, generating over £15m of savings.

There is no one size fits all green solution for fleet operators within the NHS. Starting the process with a fixed view of the technology to be chosen is often the source of problems further down the line. While a bold step change to introduce the latest low emission vehicles can offer the potential for a significant drop in emissions, this may be at the cost of driver dissatisfaction, reduced operational performance and increased costs. Therefore, the needs of the complex range of business stakeholders must to be taken onboard if the end users are to buy in to the change.

The key to successful green fleet management within the NHS is to identify the needs of the organisation and ensure the fleet matches those needs efficiently and effectively. The best approach is therefore to adopt a technologically neutral approach that aims to provide the lowest CO2 emitting vehicle which is right for the job – fit for purpose. This means that a mix of petrol, diesel, dual-fuel, hybrid and electric may exist successfully within the same fleet.

Selecting the right low CO2 emitting vehicles in this way will result in significant cost savings and will not require policy to be revisited every time new vehicle technologies arrive on the market.
Effective green fleet management should focus on the careful management of all the key elements of business travel and optimising these to minimise non-productive mileage, inefficient vehicles and inefficient driving practices.

Vehicle evaluation

In the NHS, the role of the fleet manager or fleet director is a well established function. The NHS operates a huge and complex range of vehicles that present considerable challenges to those responsible for managing them. Frontline activities depend on the availability, reliability and safety of a wide range of specialist vehicles including A&E ambulances, doctors’ cars and other complex fast response vehicles (FRV), together with converted vans and patient minibuses. The larger fleets also may have the added complexity of managing HGV vehicles with all of the additional regulation that that entails.   

Before purchase, it is good practice to set clear technical and qualitative evaluation criteria including cost and performance at the outset. Give the manufacturers and the vehicle conversion specialists’ feedback. They need this to develop the product – and hopefully enable them to make a sale next time round. One area where innovative vehicle technology can provide challenges is the service, maintenance and repair infrastructure to support the new vehicles. So any decisions about new vehicle models must include adequate provision for keeping them on the road and reducing downtime.

Enlisting the support of drivers is also a critical element of selection and evaluation, particularly for job need vehicles. NHS vehicles often operate on a shift basis and multiple driver operating styles bring further management challenges including ensuring every driver is familiar with the correct procedure for adjusting the vehicle for their use. While on the road trials are an invaluable opportunity to put vehicles to the test they must be done by employees who understand the evaluation criteria and can make an objective assessment. It should also be remembered that badly driven green vehicles can be more polluting than well driven conventional ones.

A critical factor in successful green fleet management is securing drivers’ buy-in to the new vehicles. Even when given the most efficient and clean vehicle available in the market today, an employee who resents having the vehicle will manage to make it perform inefficiently.
Therefore, get the drivers’ early buy-in to environmental policy and the objectives will be much more achievable. Ensure that employees are made aware of any financial savings available to them – low CO2 emitting cars will reduce company car tax and private fuel costs. Employees need to be shown the key features of vehicles to understand any special driving characteristics. For example, hybrids require a different driving style to optimise their dual-power systems.

Safety first

Any successful vehicle selection policies must have safety at the core. Therefore any vehicle evaluation must include factors such as Euro NCAP (European New Car Assessment Programme) rating.

In terms of choosing safety, start by deciding on the size and kind of vehicle needed, then look for the best performers in that group. Some buyers may be interested in a particular aspect of a car’s performance and, under the rating scheme, a car’s score is given for each part of the assessment, as well as the overall star rating.
Most fleet selection policies will include front and side airbags and, of course, seatbelts which are a legal requirement. However, most manufacturers are developing innovative safety features which also need to be considered if available.  

Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) helps maintain steering control under emergency braking. Electronic Brake Assist senses how firmly the brake pedal is depressed and keeps applying the brake to help the ABS work. Electronic Stability Control (ESC) detects when a driver is about to lose control and automatically and selectively applies the brakes to individual wheels. ESC has been shown to reduce fatalities by 25 per cent.

Within the NHS fleet, special consideration has to be given to the impact of the fitment of specialist equipment on vehicle handling and the safe distribution of loads. The over-riding message is that safety must not be compromised for CO2 reduction.  

Cost comparisons
At a recent Institute of Car Fleet Management Conference workshop, the majority of members advised they managed fleet on the basis of Whole Life Costs (WLC). The total cost of ownership over the life of a vehicle is a proven, robust method of cost comparison that works on many levels as WLC modelling involves calculations on lease rate, blocked VAT, National Insurance Class 1, fuel and taxation based on a vehicle’s CO2 emissions. This will future proof policies and ensure that the effects of the tax changes are reflected in the formation of policy and therefore the choices which drivers make. WLC is also a proven method of influencing the vehicle choice of ‘perk’ company car drivers where the imposition of a CO2 cap restricting choice below say 160g/km may go against rewards and benefits objectives.

The final element of the process is monitoring costs throughout the life of the vehicle and ensuring that the objectives of the original business case have been met.
In conclusion, following a structured planned approach to green fleet acquisition within the complex NHS fleet may require additional effort but the benefits will be enjoyed for many years to come.

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