f you’ve ever broken down on a motorway or been stuck in a queue of traffic that’s built up because of an accident ahead of you, you may not have thought about who is responsible for clearing up the aftermath. Andy Butterfield is the mild-mannered civil servant whose job as Director of Customer Service means he oversees all vehicle recovery contracts and fleet provision for National Highways in England.
National Highways employs over 6,000 people does all maintenance and construction of new roads. Traffic officers patrol the motorway network, working with the emergency services to clear up after accidents.
At a strategic level, National Highways has done a lot of work to consider the risks that come from increasing numbers of electric vehicles. “We are monitoring it closely,” responds Andy. “We have seen a gradual increase in recovery of both hybrid and electric vehicles. It is still only a few per cent of vehicles we recover off the network.”
In one year, there are around 205,000 breakdowns, some of which will be recovered by National Highways who carry out carriage way clearance and will tow a vehicle to a place of safety to then be recovered by a commercial contractor.
Evolving recovery techniques
The question is then, are EVs any different when they break down or are involved in a collision? Andy explains,
“When EVs break down, they lose electricity, but they can’t just be towed off the network. They require a different approach. We have invested in something called a Slippery Jim. They are a kind of skate that you can hammer in under the wheels and you can tow the vehicle to a place of safety.”
This is part of a £200,000 investment in new equipment and training for all traffic officers to help speed up the time it takes to move ‘non-rolling’ vehicles.
“We are planning for an increase in EV breakdowns,” says Andy, adding that the Department of Transport is setting up a working group that will embrace the emergency services and take a joined-up approach to the changing nature of the risk that comes from EVs. They will also look at storage.
Andy explains that recovered EVs must be stored away from other vehicles because of concern about fire risk – and the potential reignition risk they can present for a long time after an incident. They do this even if the car hasn’t been involved in a fire on the network as the battery may been compromised. I can see that this presents new risks for fire and rescue services who through their own risk management planning will want to monitor volumes of recovered electric vehicles in their own area.
Responding to range anxiety
The subject of range anxiety inevitably comes up in our conversation. “We don’t see huge amounts of cars just running out of power. What we do have are incidents on the network that interfere with travellers’ plans, and result in vehicles stuck in long queues or on a diversion they didn’t expect or plan for.” While the best laid plans can come unstuck, National Highways is putting in place solutions to ease the potential for range anxiety.
This is the reason National Highways is investing in energy storage systems – essentially giant battery packs – located at motorway service stations. Andy explains,
“There are power supplies that can recharge a vehicle in 40 minutes or so. The chargers at service stations draw a lot of electricity, so that’s why we’re putting battery boosters in service areas. They are big batteries that discharge quickly. We anticipate surges in demand where there are incidents.”
Ameresco is the company installing this capability in seven areas in the first tranche as part of a £8m contract from National Highways. These will be installed by the end of September.
Getting the electricity to the service stations in the quantity required is another matter as capability was only scaled for the demand at the time. This sounds expensive and I ask Andy if the National Highways budget has increased to pay for it all. He says that rapid charging rollout received additional funding but the rest of the work comes out of the existing budget.
Like most of my interviews, I like to talk about data and it’s no different here where it seems sensible for data to underpin decisions on where to locate battery boosters based on behaviours and experience on the motorway network. Andy confirms the locations for the initial tranche were chosen because of known demand in these key pinch points on the network.
Investing in an EV fleet
While traffic officers will be dealing with the recovery of EVs, National Highways it itself investing in EVs as it too faces the prospect of no longer being able to buy a petrol or diesel vehicle post 2030. The fleet comprises 335 traffic officer vehicles that patrol the network as well as other support vehicles.
National Highways plans to move all support vehicles to electric by 2027 and the traffic officer vehicles with their towing capability will transition by 2030. There is a limited market for an EV that has meets the performance requirements for the traffic officer who needs to be nimble enough to pull over quickly and tough enough to tow a heavy broken-down vehicle.
As a result, they are trying out five Maxus EVs, that will be converted to traffic officer vehicles as part of a pilot to understand how well they work, what needs to change and inform their longer-term decision for investment.
There is so much to do here, it looks like Andy and his team will be busy on two fronts as they adapt to the changing nature of the vehicles driven on the roads and the need to invest in their own fleet to continue to provide the service we have all come to expect.