emergency vehicle

In our home town of Coventry, the UK’s first all-electric ambulance has been launched by the West Midlands Ambulance Service. Here, Roger Brereton, head of sales at steering components manufacturer Pailton Engineering, highlights some of the recent progress toward low carbon emergency services vehicles and the engineering challenges that remain.

The first all-electric ambulance launched in the UK benefits from a light-weight design, powered by a 96kW battery pack. The ambulance can achieve a range of 105-110 miles and can be fully recharged within four hours. The vehicle’s launch is part of a trial project with the ultimate aim of working toward net zero emissions.

Ambulances are not the only vehicle on the road to net zero. Manufacturers of fire engines are also exploring the possibilities. In Scotland, the world’s first electric fire engine was launched in October 2020 by emergency and rescue services vehicle specialist Emergency One. Elsewhere, Rosenbauer’s hybrid fire engine design is being tested on the streets of Amsterdam, Berlin and Dubai.

The UK’s Road to Zero strategy has set 2040 as the date by which all new cars and vans will be zero-emission. Although emergency services vehicles are not specifically included in this strategy, those bodies responsible for managing vehicle fleets are keen to play their part in reducing emissions. For the West Midlands Ambulance Service, the trial in Coventry is seen as contributing to this agenda.

Governmental focus on this issue creates opportunities for vehicle manufacturers. For example, the Department of Transport’s Innovation Fund is supporting a hydrogen-powered specialist health vehicle project, which is hoping to enable a new zero emissions ambulance.                                                                

With moral, regulatory and commercial incentives encouraging vehicle original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to join the road to net zero, what engineering challenges need to be overcome?

Engineering challenges

Electrifying specialist vehicles presents a different set of challenges when compared to passenger vehicles. One major challenge is the weight of the vehicle. Heavy vehicles require larger batteries to power them which, in turn, further increases the weight of the vehicle. It is for this reason that some consider hydrogen fuel cells to be a more viable alternative for heavy vehicles.

For fire engines though, this issue might be less of an obstacle than it is for other heavy vehicles. Heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) are expected to travel long distances, compounding the issue of range anxiety. As fire engines travel shorter distances and have more opportunities for recharging, it might be possible to use smaller battery packs. The Rosenbauer truck referred to above, for example, operates with just a 50kWh battery pack.

All the options offered at the moment are provisional solutions, with different manufacturers hedging their bets on different technological possibilities. While many projects are still at the stage of piloting and testing, design flexibility will be key. It’s also important that OEMs have the option to pair with parts suppliers that can provide this design flexibility and the bespoke solutions they require in taking on these challenges.

Equally importantly, vehicle OEMs cannot afford to neglect more longstanding engineering challenges facing the sector. Although producing greener fleets is a noble goal, these vehicles are relied upon to save lives and must be capable of performing in all conditions, often at high speeds.

The vehicles and their steering components must therefore be designed and manufactured to ensure the highest levels of safety and reliability. While this is the overriding goal, it is also worth pointing out that high quality vehicle components will help fleet operators maintain lower whole-life costs by reducing the maintenance needs of the vehicle.

The road to net zero may involve different routes for different vehicle sectors. OEMs are currently exploring different options and the prospect of an exciting trial project on the streets of Coventry is a good sign that the sector is getting closer to tackling the challenges that lie ahead.

To find out more about our steering parts for emergency services vehicles, visit the sectors section of our website. 

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