On 15th February 2013, nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah died in hospital after suffering an asthma-induced seizure. She lived just off the South Circular in Lewisham, a notoriously polluted stretch of road.
Five years after her death, a report from Professor Stephen Holgate, an expert on air quality, highlighted a “striking association” between Ella’s many hospitalisations and recorded instances of illegally high levels of air pollution. Professor Holgate’s report concluded with a chilling prediction: there was a “real prospect that without unlawful levels of air pollution, Ella would not have died.”
While Ella’s death is tragic, it is sadly not unique. Earlier this year, a new study from German researchers suggested 64,000 people a year die prematurely as a result of air pollution in the UK.
Despite strict regulations and testing, internal combustion engines (ICE) are still the main cause of air pollution. Even the newest ICE vehicles emit huge amounts of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter into the air.
Battery-powered electric vehicles, which produce no tailpipe emissions at all, are often hailed as the solution to our air pollution crisis. However, electric vehicle uptake is slow. Last year, just 2.53 percent of the cars on our roads were electric.
As hotbeds of innovation and invention, many people expect universities to be early adopters of electric vehicle technology and drive progress from the front. And around the world, universities are taking great strides to clean up their fleets.
In April, the University of Georgia invested in 20 electric buses, eliminating 4.5 million pounds of carbon emissions annually. Florida State University is following suit, transitioning to a purely electric bus fleet. And late last year, Duke University announced its updated Climate Action Plan, which includes electrifying its buses and vehicles.
But how are UK institutions performing? Are our universities driving an all-electric revolution or persisting with ICE vehicles?
Over the past six months, we have compiled data on the fuel composition of the fleets at 110 universities in the UK. In this report, we have highlighted five interesting findings from our research.
Diesel still reigns supreme.
The UK government has banned the sale of petrol and diesel cars after 2040 and there is substantial pressure to pull the date forward to 2035 or even 2030. Time is ticking to make the switch to an alternative fuel vehicle.
Most industry experts agree that electricity is the fuel of the future. Consequently, car manufacturers are investing heavily in electric and hybrid technology. Volkswagen is determined to have 30 new EVs by 2025. Volvo announced it won’t sell pure-ICE cars after 2019. Ford recently invested $500M in Rivian, an electric truck-maker. And by 2020, all new smart cars in Europe will be fully electric.
While EV adoption in the UK is increasing, diesel remains the dominant fuel type in most fleets. Across the universities we investigated, diesel cars made up 69.9 percent of the fleets in 2018/19. (There was admittedly a 1.6 percent fall from 2017/18.)
For both 2017/18 and 2018/19, we discovered that nine percent of universities had exclusively diesel vehicles in their fleets.
- Diesel powers 69.9% of UK university fleet vehicles
- 9% of the universities have an entirely diesel fleet
- The number of universities with no diesel cars increased by 1% since 2017
Confidence in diesel is falling.
Between March 2017 and March 2018, sales of diesel cars to the general public plummeted by 37 percent, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). Our data shows that diesel is slowly falling out of favour with UK universities, mirroring trends in society more generally.
Our data shows a clear fall in the number of new diesel cars entering university fleets. Between 2017/18 and 2018/19, the number of diesel cars as a percentage of all fleet cars decreased by 1.4 percent.
We carried out a supplementary survey on UK motorists to investigate public opinion on diesel cars. Over 60 percent agreed that diesel cars are harmful to the environment and 60 percent feel that diesel cars also have a negative impact to the public’s health in terms of air pollution. This change in perception is one of the key drivers behind diesel's rapid fall from favour. Additionally, over half of our respondents said they are now less likely to purchase a diesel car than they were five years ago.
- Since 2017, the number of diesel cars in university fleets decreased by 1.4%
- 63% of people believe diesel cars are harming the environment
- 56% of people said they’re less likely to buy a diesel car now than they were five years ago
Electric car uptake is growing — and fast!
While electric vehicles still make up a very small part of the UK market, uptake is accelerating.
Of our surveyed motorists, 60 percent said they were either likely or highly likely to purchase an electric vehicle as their next car. Over 60 said they believe electric vehicles are necessary to combat air pollution and 78 percent said that electric vehicles are better for our health.
Since 2017, there was a 6.5 percent increase in the number of electric cars in university fleets. Moreover, the number of electric cars as a percentage of the whole fleet increased from 14 percent to 14.9 percent.
While electric vehicle adoption is rising, some universities are dragging their heels. Since 2017, more than one-quarter of universities still possessed no electric cars in their fleets.
- Since 2017, the number of electric cars in university fleets increased by 6.5%
- 26.3% of universities possessed no electric cars
- 60% of respondents are likely to purchase an electric vehicle as their next car
- 65% of people believe electric cars are needed to combat air pollution
- 78% of respondents feel that electric vehicles are better for our health
Universities are more willing to buy electric than individuals.
Our data shows that universities are far more willing to adopt electric cars than the UK public as a whole.
In 2018, electric cars made up just 2.53 percent of the UK automotive market. For university fleets, however, electric vehicles made up 14.9 percent . Universities are speeding ahead of general UK EV adoption by a staggering 12.37 percent.
But why the divergent figures?
The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee examined the roadblocks in the way of consumers transitioning to electric vehicles. They discovered that vehicle cost is the primary stumbling block. Unlike nations like Norway, where governments have invested in subsidies, the UK’s plug-in car grant was slashed in November 2018. (It formerly covered 35 percent of the cost of the car.)
In our opinion poll, over 70 percent of respondents said electric vehicles were only accessible to wealthy individuals. Nearly 80 percent said they would be more likely to purchase an electric vehicle if subsidies lowered the ownership cost. In comparison, universities have dedicated fleet budgets and can justify higher up-front costs against long-term savings.
The Committee also identified battery capacity and the underdeveloped charging infrastructure as key concerns for individuals. This investigation into charging infrastructure maps out the distance needed to travel to charging points. In rural regions, in particular, consumers are generally not within a comfortable distance from charging points.
Universities, on the other hand, are predominantly based in urban areas, which have access to public charging points. Additionally, most universities also own land or buildings, which allows them to install their own charging stations.
“The campus environment is perfect to operate electric vehicles making short journeys and having ready access to electric charging," said University of Warwick Transport Manager, Graham Hine. "Our decision to switch to electric vehicles not only supports our strategy to significantly reduce carbon emissions and the use of fossil fuels, but also makes an important social contribution to improving air quality for our students, staff and visitors.”
- Electric cars comprised 2.53% of the UK automotive market in 2018.
- 14.9% of university fleet vehicles were electric in 2018.
- University electric vehicle adoption exceeds general UK consumer adoption by 12.37 percent.
- 73% of people believe electric vehicles are only accessible by wealthier individuals.
- 77% of respondents would purchase an electric vehicle if subsidies lowered the costs.
- 73% of respondents believe that electric cars are best suited to urban areas.
The universities leading electrification.
In our survey, 78 percent of respondents said they think that universities should lead the way in the adoption of electric cars. But which institutions are making the greatest progress?
Based on a minimum of a 10-car fleet, we have identified the top five universities for electric vehicle adoption.
- Kingston University: 64.3% of 14 cars.
- Bournemouth University: 53.3% of 15 cars.
- Manchester Metropolitan University: 51.9% of 27 cars.
- University of Sunderland: 47.1% of 17 cars.
- University of Kent: 44.1% of 68 cars.
These leaders demonstrate that with the right approach, UK universities can keep up the pace with their international counterparts when electrifying their fleets.
We also examined EV adoption by country. Based on having a minimum of a 20% electric fleet, we found that:
- 49% of English universities were above the cut off.
- 45% of Scottish universities were above the cut off.
- No Welsh universities were above the cut off.
- No Northern Irish universities were above the cut off.
English and Scottish Universities are clearly leading the way, with English Universities pulling slightly further ahead. These findings make sense when compared with the chargepoint distance data mentioned earlier as it highlights a significant lack of charging points in Wales.
- Kingston University, Bournemouth University, Manchester Metropolitan University, University of Sunderland, and the University of Kent have the top 5 electric vehicle adoption rates out of all 110 Universities examined.
- English Universities have the highest EV adoption rates, with 49% of institutions with rates above 20% cut off.
Whilst the proportion of electric cars in university fleets is growing faster than diesel—and at a faster rate than the UK average—these fleets have a long way before they are fully green.
As other international institutions press forward with electrification, UK universities need to commit more firmly to switching if they are to keep up the pace.
Survey Methods and Data
Results for this poll are based on online survey responses collected on 30th April 2019 with a random sample of 100 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the UK, who drive a vehicle 3 or more times per week. The sample for this study was randomly drawn from Pollfish’s network of 570M consumers.
The data on UK university fleets was gathered by use of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. All data was gathered by our in- house team of marketers and can be obtained upon request.
Access to Data
To request a copy of our full report or a copy of the survey data, please email [email protected]