Technology has helped reduce vehicle emissions over the past decade, but the real progress is yet to come

This year, a study from the Tyndall Centre found that 18 countries across Europe have seen their carbon emissions fall by an average 2.2% from 2005-2015. The centre pointed to the adoption of green policies in those countries as being behind the decline. It this readiness to adopt clean technologies that has and will prove vital to reducing pollution from vehicles.

The importance of reducing emissions to slow climate change has become progressively more important over the last few decades. Vehicle technology has reflected this as new innovations help keep emissions down.

Technology and legislation often go hand in hand to effect change. Look at how California made catalytic converters mandatory in the mid-1970s to combat smog. Smog levels have shown a steady, if uneven, decline since then and catalytic converters have become standard around the world.

However, the need to bring down emissions even lower needs even more advanced technology and even more stringent legislation.

A decade of progress

Advancements have been made in the chemicals used in vehicles. This decade, the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SAE) introduced new grades of engine oil. These allow an operator to tailor the lubricant used in their vehicles to their specific use and environment. Advancements have been made to bring down the viscosity of oil, which means less energy is needed to push it through the engine, creating better fuel economy.

New high temperature high shear (HTHS) oils even become thinner when forced through a bearing, reducing resistance and bringing down fuel use further.

Clean diesel technologies have also become more prevalent over the last decade. While diesel is more energy efficient than petrol or gas, it is made up of long chain hydrocarbons, making it comparatively dirty, producing more soot and carbon dioxide and monoxide. Ultra-low sulphur diesel is now standard, and this in turn enabled the development of more efficient engines. Now, sulphur, soot and NOx emissions from diesel engines have been dramatically cut, providing the best of energy efficiency and cleanliness.

Chemistry has also helped unlock new kinds of fuels for vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cells, hybrid and compressed natural gas are all in the spotlight as ways to use less polluting fuels. CNG Fuels has recently announced plans to offer CNG from methane. This will keep the fuel carbon neutral without raising prices. Companies such as John Lewis and Hermes have vowed to replace their diesel fleets over the next decade, creating opportunities for new fuels to take a share of the market.

You cannot discuss alternative fuel vehicles without talking about electric vehicles. It was around a decade that two of the most important recent EVs hit the market – the Tesla Roadster and the Nissan Leaf. The Roadster was the first production all-electric car to travel more than 320 km per charge, a significant milestone for EVs, which have always been held back by range concerns.

The Nissan Leaf is the best-selling EV of all time, with global sales topping 400,000 units. EV sales reached 1 million units in 2017 and have shown consistent growth since then.

However, electric vehicles are still mostly private cars. The vast majority of LGVs and HGVs are diesel powered to provide reliable coverage for the long distances they have to cover. However, there have been spearheads recently to change this. For example, Tevva recently launched its ELECTRIFY programme, which will see the company deploy 50 of its 12-tonne electric trucks around Europe in the next two years.

The company aims to have the first vehicles available for purchase by the third or fourth quarter of 2020. Seven companies will initially use Tevva’s electric trucks and gather valuable data to help drive the programme forward.


Speaking of data, telematics has become a powerful trend in the haulage industry in the last decade. Digital tachographs became mandatory for all vehicles throughout the EU from 1 May 2006. This has made tachograph data easier to store and more difficult to forge. Most importantly, it has made the information easier to analyse, adding another wave to the rising tide of informatics.

With more information, a company can ensure that their most energy efficient vehicles are being used for the longest journeys. Routes can be optimised to reduce fuel use and driver performance can be improved to minimise harsh braking or accelerating, which can increase brake and tyre dust production.

Data is not only useful for humans – computers are making more use of it than ever. Automatic emergency braking (AEB) systems were introduced to the UK market by Volvo in 2008. These automatically engage a vehicle’s brakes when they detect an object, such as a pedestrian. Computers react far faster than a person, buying precious milliseconds of stopping time.

The original AEBs used lasers and were limited to low speeds of around 30kmph. Modern systems used more advanced camera systems to gather data from the further away and can stop at speeds of around 200kmph.

Even if the computer does not directly action the data, it can be used to warn a driver of potential hazards on the road ahead. This way, harsh braking is avoided and damage to the vehicle is reduced, producing less tyre and brake dust.

Past and future

The hole in the ozone layer is powerful example of how a collective will can overcome an environmental problem. Since its discovery in 1982 and the subsequent reduction of CFCs and other chemicals after the Montreal Protocol came into force in 1989, the ozone layer has been regrowing. It shrunk to its smallest size this year since its discovery. However, it is estimated that it will take until 2075 to reach pre-1980s levels.

There are two lessons to be taken from this. The first is the slow pace of recovery. While ozone levels stabilised within a decade, it will be nearly a century before they recover. The second is that with a collective will, we are capable of changing our behaviour.

Technological progress has always been slow. Look at electric vehicles – while it is only in the last decade that they have started being taken seriously as a future rival to fossil fuel vehicles, the lithium-ion batteries that power them have been around since the 1980s. The technology of the future may have already been invented.

While there have been localised reductions in emissions, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that from 2008-2017 emissions grew at an average of 1.6% annually. The report noted that adopting currently proven technologies could be used to cut CO2 equivalent by 33 billion tonnes per year by 2030.

In the end, the only driver of change is humanity. Technology is of no use unless we choose to use it.