The march of the tachograph

Depending on your fleet mix, the tachograph will be either a very familiar or a totally alien concept. The device that logs driver and vehicle activity will be familiar to those that run larger commercial vehicles, as it has been a mandatory feature for vehicles weighing more than 3.5 tonnes for more than a decade.

A tachograph is also required when you are using a lighter vehicle to tow a trailer that is heavy enough to take the combined weight over 3.5 tonnes, but lighter vans on their own have been exempt. Until now.

The European Parliament has recently voted to make the fitment and use of tachographs, or tachos as they are colloquially known, a requirement on vans down to 2.4 tonnes. Considering that more than 220,000 vans weighing between 2.5 and 3.5 tonnes were bought in the past 12 months, this could bring the device into the awareness of thousands more fleet drivers and managers.

A major revision of the tachograph rules was launched in 2017 and when the proposal began it didn’t initially affect van hours. However, Sarah Laouadi, the Freight Transport Association’s European policy manager, told Company Van Today that MEPs then tabled an amendment that sought to bring the smaller vehicles into the picture.

The fear was that this would be ruinous to thousands of van operators. The estimated cost for fitting a van tachograph could run to as much as £1000, and that is not taking into consideration the vehicle downtime, which could be half a day at least – potentially very disruptive, especially for SMEs, explains Laouadi.

However, the latest vote brings a degree of good news for fleets. A series of amendments were tabled that could have seen vans of all sizes require a tachograph for all use. However, MEPs approved only some of the amendments.

The new rules will only apply to vans weighing 2.4 tonnes and over, and only vans used internationally will be affected. Laouadi described this latter point as a ‘big win’ for the FTA, saying that this was a point on which they had campaigned heavily. Finally, vans used for own-account transport will be exempt, too – small companies delivering their own goods will not have to employ the tech.

This reduces the number of operators that will be affected by the requirements, which is being portrayed as a victory by campaigners given the alternative. However, there are real weaknesses that remain.

The big losers are companies that only undertake occasional international delivery jobs – even if you only do one trip abroad in, say, the four-year lifespan of a typical van.

“There is no specific treatment for those vans, so a company that is usually acting domestically would be in a tricky situation for a one-off trip as the van would have to be equipped with a tachograph,” says Laouadi.

“For a company using one van it is a staff investment decision – would you want to equip your vehicle just in case you have to go abroad sometimes or do you assume you won’t have to use your van internationally but you really can’t do the job if you have to go abroad.”

Despite the dialling back of the requirements, the FTA feels that the position is still not ideal and it would rather see attention directed elsewhere.

“Our ideal position would be to have enforcement resources focused on the areas where companies suffer from black sheep – overloaded vans and vans in poor condition with a lack of maintenance,” says Laouadi. “We don’t really need addition layers of obligations on drivers’ hours.”

Steve Bridge, managing director of Mercedes-Benz Vans UK, feels that the addition of tachos isn’t necessary either.

 “The thought process if you ask any manufacturer is that we should raise the standard of this industry so we police ourselves a bit better. We don’t help ourselves,” he says. “I’m sorry to have to say that about an industry I work in, but I am not entirely sure that putting tachos in is going to fix it.”

The technology on modern vans is fast approaching the stage where it can do the same job as a tachograph, he points out, which may render it an unnecessary addition.

“The digital driver record is the equivalent of a tacho,” says Bridge. “Eventually you will be able to log onto a vehicle biometrically and it knows it is you. There can be no ambiguity.”

In the meantime, though, it looks as though the requirement for the use of tachographs is set to spread rather than be eliminated. There are a few hurdles left – it needs to be finally signed off and then EU member states need to accept the legislation into their own markets. Whatever happens, it is set to be agreed and implemented before any Brexit transition period is over, meaning there is set to be another hurdle for international delivery van fleets to consider on top of everything else that emerges as a result of the UK leaving the European Union.