"The future needs to be sustainable, or we won't have one!"
In the interview below, which was given to Transport & Logistiek Vlaanderen, our CEO Steven De Bruyn tells us more about where sustainability is headed for VPD.
This is excellent advice for all transporters, as Steven will give you many tips on how to improve your sustainability.
Copywrights @Transport & Logistiek Vlaanderen
Interview: Jan Soenen and Celine Heirwegh
In April of this year, VPD Transport & Logistics won the Transporter of the Year award during the Transport & Logistics Awards ceremony. So we decided to visit the town of Asse with our microphone and camera, and a lot of questions up our sleeve. The result was a fascinating and insightful conversation with CEO Steven De Bruyn.
TLV magazine: Steven, congratulations on your Transporter of the Year award. Did you expect to win?
Steven DeBruyn: “Thank you! We were very satisfied with the application we put together. Participating and drafting the application was an insightful exercise for us. It is important to take a step back and reflect on your past, present and future activities. The process in itself was already a very interesting experience for us.
We realised we were facing strong competition when we saw the names of the other candidates. We were definitely not sure we were going to win. But we knew we had a good chance. It makes it all very special, the fact that we won against such big names.
We had already taken part in the Truck Safety Award in 2018, and we emerged victorious. From that point on, we had the ambition and the project to participate in the Transporter of the Year award. ”
An ambition with a cost
TLV: The jury was impressed by your ambitions regarding zero-emission transport. Why did you choose to integrate sustainability into VPD's DNA?
SDB: "There are several reasons. First of all, we all know that logistics have an impact on CO2 and particle emissions in cities. It made sense for us to analyse, in terms of corporate social responsibility, what we could achieve and under what time frame. The trajectory we defined is both beautiful and difficult.
On a personal level, I attach a lot of importance to the environment, and this is also the case for many of our employees. We must not ignore environmental issues, and we must take our responsibilities.
TLV: Is this only your decision, or is it also at the request of your customers?
SDB: “Some of our clients also value sustainability, so we can move forward hand in hand. We can then trace and develop trajectories together, which is very pleasant.
TLV: With clients opting for sustainable development, does this mean the additional costs linked to sustainable transport are more easily accepted?
SDB: "That is correct! With some other clients it can sometimes be a little more difficult, but it is only a matter of time. We're going ahead with our plans, and everyone will have to make that move eventually. We do not see any alternative. This is the way we have to act, because there is only one planet.
It is important to fully understand the concept of this additional charge linked to sustainability. We ran tests using The New Drive, which uses a TCO calculation model that, over the total life of a vehicle, compares the cost of conventional thermal models with that of electric vehicles.
We know for a fact that an electric vehicle costs a lot more to buy initially (two or three times), but other elements also come into play, which means that electric vehicles really offer an advantage over combustion engine vehicles. Electric vehicles require much less maintenance. They have a longer lifespan, and their resale value is also very interesting.
It is certainly not our intention to end our collaboration with our more reluctant customers, because we also notice that they are getting more and more involved. If we can demonstrate the positive impact of electric driving, I'm sure they'll join us. In all cases, we do not intend to deviate from our trajectory. The future needs to be sustainable, or we won't have one!
TLV: Is the automotive industry ready to make VPD's ambition come true?
SDB: “The offer in terms of vehicles is still relatively limited at the moment, but things are evolving fast. We are currently in a period of transition. All of this will be done much more efficiently later, but we have chosen to act now, in order to build the necessary expertise. We want to avoid getting to the point where we are forced to make that transition, only to find that we're not ready for it.
So we want to prepare in advance, in order to be fully ready when the time comes. In Asse, we are going cover our roof with solar panels used in combination with a battery bank. This means we will be able to charge our vehicles at night using the energy that we produce during the day. Asse will serve as a pilot project, so we can learn how to deploy the process in other hubs. We have the intention to install solar panels in Asse before the end of the year.
TLV: VPD's goal is to achieve 80% emissions-free deliveries by 2025. How far are you now?
SDB: “Last year, we completed phase 1 of our planning. This phase is not directly related to electric vehicles. We started by mapping all of our deliveries. Until recently, we carried out nationwide deliveries from our hub in Asse. But if we want to switch to electric vehicles, these distances are far too long. It is not feasible due to the current autonomy of electric vehicles. Thanks to our mapping exercise, we were able to determine our high-density regions.
The first step was therefore to get closer to the end customer. In order to achieve this, we deployed a network of eight hubs around cities where we deliver the most. We have already reduced the number of kilometres travelled for last mile deliveries by 35%! This already constitutes a significant reduction in CO2 emissions, without any intensive use of electric vehicles.
We have now reached the second phase of our plan, which concerns the purchase and trial of electric vehicles. We have a dozen light commercial vehicles on the road. By the end of this year, we will put our very first Volta truck into service. The first three weeks will be used for testing, with a view to making a purchase sometime next year. We are now mainly testing electric vans of up to 3.5 tons. It is ideal for our activities.
The problem is that with a 3.5-ton electric van, you lose a lot of cargo space due to the size of the batteries. In the future, these vehicles will also be available in a 4.2 tonne variant, so that the loss of cargo space can be solved. In some countries, these vehicles can be driven by drivers who hold a B driving licence. We hope that this will also be the case here in Belgium, as this is currently the subject of discussions. This could really be a game changer!
TLV: Which technology do you think has the greatest potential?
SDB: “It depends largely on the type of vehicle. Electric motors are preferred for smaller vehicles, while hydrogen is preferred for heavier vehicles. We are committed to converting two of our existing diesel trucks to hydrogen.”
TLV: What is the biggest challenge for VPD, today and tomorrow?
SDB: “In terms of sustainable driving, the challenge remains the availability of suitable vehicles. Smaller and lighter vans are suitable, but their cargo space is insufficient. 4.2 tonne vans would be ideal for our business, but we will have to wait a bit longer for that.
In a broader context, there are labour market issues. This concerns not only the availability of drivers, but also of planners, warehouse and back-office employees. We are currently facing a war for recruiting talents. And we are also facing rampant inflation. The costs associated with this issue constitute a major challenge. It is extremely difficult to keep these costs under control. We obviously have to safeguard our margins because they will allow us to carry out our sustainable development project as quickly as possible. ”
TLV: Do you think your business model will be able to withstand fluctuations in electricity prices?
SDB: “Diesel prices also fluctuate a lot. Of course, there is a reason why we have decided to generate our own electricity. We want to be more independent. This decision will provide us with a safety buffer and protection against fluctuations in the energy market.
TLV: So there will be no electricity clause, by analogy with a diesel clause?
SDB: “It will depend on where we stand at that time. If we can produce enough electricity ourselves, we will approach things in a different way. But we may also have to keep charging in some places, so we will still be relying on the grid. It is difficult to give a precise answer at the moment.
TLV: What advice can you give to other transporters who want to improve their sustainability?
SDB: “It's not just about electric driving. Small transporters and big transporters both have the opportunity to do things with a positive impact for the environment. The initial investment is quite high for electric vehicles, which is not within everyone's reach at the moment. When you analyse your business model, you can identify solutions which are affordable to implement. For example, I’m thinking about the network of hubs that we have set up to reduce the number of kilometres we travel.
We have also set up a green team within VPD, in which each department makes proposals for a more ecological way of driving. I don’t think people should focus only on the high investment required for a fleet of electric or hydrogen vehicles. There are many small things that can have a big impact.
An effective planning system can have a significant impact on the number of kilometres travelled and on CO2 emissions. There are also companies which specialise in helping transporters to improve their sustainability. It is certainly worth listening to them. Also interesting is the fact that you can coach drivers about their driving style. We have found that by doing this, the average consumption has decreased enormously. It doesn't cost very much, but the impact is huge.
We need to stop thinking that we are going to start from nothing and find the one ideal solution. There is an important trajectory that has to be defined between the starting point and the finishing point, and everyone must be able to give their own interpretation.