Government encouragement to get greener transport on the road is lacking, says one industry boss. Anna Blackaby reports

A Coventry electric van supplier singled out by President Obama for funding has lamented the UK government’s “lack of urgency” in tackling the hurdles its technology faces at home.

As the electric car industry in the region welcomed plans announced by Lord Mandelson to designate the West Midlands a low carbon economic area for greener automotive technologies, Modec chief executive Bill Gillespie has accused the Government of stalling on relatively small-scale measures which other European governments have taken to support their electric van sector.

Modec produces zero-emission vehicles from its plant in Coventry and was last year given a huge boost when President Obama announced a £23 million funding package to assist its joint venture with truck giant Navistar, part of a push to develop electric vehicles and batteries in the US.

But, back in the UK, Modec admitted prospects in its home market were a little less exciting.

As an example, Mr Gillespie pointed to the £20 million Low Carbon Vehicle Procurement Programme, announced in 2007, which has resulted in just one sale of an electric van for Modec so far.

“A sense of urgency is lacking,” said Mr Gillespie, who highlighted driving licence regulations as one stumbling block. Electric vans demand a special driving test because of their heavier components, but this means UK drivers are penalised for using them whereas other European governments have acted to remove the stumbling block.

“Electric vans are heavier than normal vans because of things like batteries, so we end up being in a slightly different weight class from normal vans,” said Mr Gillespie.

“That means people aged 25 and below can’t drive our vehicles unless they take a different test.

“So we asked our government whether we could get the regulations changed, but they said it was a matter for Brussels.

“But in the Netherlands, they asked the same question to the Dutch government and the Dutch government went to Brussels and got the law changed.”

Mr Gillespie said obstacles meant Modec exports the overwhelming majority of its production to countries where the electric van sector receives more support.

“Whether the driving licence issue is an absolute barrier or a good opportunity to hang an excuse on, I don’t know, but we certainly do hear claims from potential clients that because some of their drivers may need to have a different licence, that poses difficulties.”

Mr Gillespie’s comments came after Lord Mandelson last week visited the region to announce the creation of a low carbon economic area for advanced automotive engineering across the East and West Midlands.

Advantage West Midlands is investing £19.5 million in a Low Carbon Vehicles Technology programme which aims to speed up the development of low carbon cars through research in areas such as batteries, motors and aerodynamics.

Zytek, a Lichfield firm with world-leading expertise in drivetrains, is one of the automotive companies involved in developing the Mercedes “eVito” electric taxi which is set to take on the London cab market, traditionally dominated by fellow West Midland firm Manganese Bronze.

Zytek managing director Neil Heslington said the low-carbon initiative would allow better co-operation between the region’s diverse skills base in the various technologies associated with low carbon cars, located in firms like Jaguar Land Rover as well as at the region’s universities.

“Obviously we lost a lot of our existing technology as we have lost major manufacturers in this area, so it’s good that the Government is prepared to support initiatives where companies working on different aspects of technology on low carbon vehicles can work together,” he said.

“That way we’ve got more chance of ending up with projects which can be realised, so we can get vehicles at the end of it and a supply chain in place, albeit it at a small volume.

“We’re hoping that we can see a vehicle that would have West Midland solutions for the battery, motors, power electronics and control systems associated with it.”