Greater transparency demanded on UK truck market statistics

Pressure is mounting on the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) trade association, and on government bodies such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), to lift an extraordinary veil of secrecy that has been brought down on UK truck and bus registration statistics.

For decades, all new vehicle registrations (from cars to 44-tonnes-GCW tractive units) in the UK have been processed by the DVLA and then analysed by the SMMT, through a system called MVRIS (Motor Vehicle Registration Information System). Summaries of the MVRIS analysis were then published by SMMT month by month, with a more detailed annual report covering separate truck market sectors including 7.5-tonners, multi-axle rigids and two- and three-axle tractive units coming early in the new year.

However, this changed about two years ago. Seemingly as a result of reaction by lawyers to a European Commission fine on truck makers for alleged price-fixing, the SMMT ceased publishing monthly truck and bus registration statistics and now publishes only broad-brush annual figures.

Though monthly and annual MVRIS figures on cars and light commercial vehicle registrations (below 6.0 tonnes GVW) have continued to be published as usual by the SMMT, all that is now available on UK truck, bus and coach registrations are quarterly summaries, published far later than previously. These summaries contain no data on distinctly separate sectors, and the accuracy of bus and coach figures has been questioned by industry figures. In the rest of Europe, there has been no such censorship of registration statistics in the wake of the cartel fine.

Confusion over who wants what

In an interview last September, SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes sought to explain the change by emphasising that MVRIS “belongs to SMMT members” and that “everything is done according to what the members want.”

Pressed on whether SMMT was willing to restore the greater truck market transparency provided by the old system, seemingly regarded almost universally as better than the current one, Hawes said: “If the consensus was to change then we would see what we could do to reflect that. It really depends on the members and what they want.”

Mike Hawes SMMT
Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive

Iveco and Mercedes-Benz lead criticism of current secrecy

Stuart Webster, MD of Iveco UK
Stuart Webster, MD of Iveco UK

Now greater transparency is being demanded both by SMMT members and many others. Stuart Webster, boss of Iveco’s UK and Irish Republic sales and marketing operation, and Mike Belk, managing director of Mercedes-Benz Trucks UK, are among the most forthright critics of the current system.

Speaking this month at the latest in a long-established series of annual UK truck market review press conferences from Iveco, Webster said that his company, a subsidiary of the giant multinational CNH Industrial group, “shared the sentiment” of those who see the current lack of transparency as a hindrance.

“I do believe that many others share our view that we want to see more transparency with registrations data,” he said. “But we don’t make the decision. Our friends at the SMMT got some advice and decided on what they thought was the best route.

“They were supported by some input from some OEMs (original equipment manufacturers). Some now want to share the data again. Maybe one or two still don’t. We want it. It’s really hard to have discussions with journalists or anyone else involved in planning or forecasting when we are working on so little data that is so far behind.”

Mike Belk, MD of Mercedes-Benz Commercial Vehicles
Mike Belk, MD of Mercedes-Benz Trucks UK

Mercedes-Benz Trucks UK boss Mike Belk confirmed in an interview last December that his company had responded to a recent SMMT request for comments from truck and bus manufacturers on the level of registrations data that should be published. “We commented, after taking legal advice, of course,” said Belk. “Nobody wants to run foul of anti-trust rules.”

Belk raises the question of exactly what the role of the DVLA ought to be. “The reality is that the licensing authority should be able to produce the data,” he said. “That is the system that drives market share data in most other jurisdictions. It is when you want to get into the granularity of axle configurations and model types that DVLA-based data can be supplemented by manufacturer inputs.

“It’s that level of granularity that seems to present the anti-trust problem. I’m not a lawyer. The advice I’m given is that it’s the granularity that is the problem, not the overall shape of the market.”

Belk does not dispute that from the point of view of truck operators and buyers, as well as that of many others including dealers and various other aftermarket businesses, the current level of registrations data published by SMMT is inadequate and smacks of greater secrecy, not less.

“It is up to vehicle manufacturers to provide as much transparency as possible, within the limitations of the law,” he concedes. “Our view is yes, we want to contribute information, but not beyond the point where it strays into areas that could cause legal problems.”

“Individual companies have their own approach,” said Hawes. “It’s not for us to say one company is right and another wrong. If the consensus was to change then we would see what we could do to reflect that. It really depends on the members and what they want.

“You know the industry,” he continued. “You can generally get a majority but not always unanimity. The smaller the number of players, the more careful you have to be on information exchanges. If there was unanimity about changing back we could certainly see what we could do. As a trade association, we bring together our members, who are competitors. The number one, most important issue for us is to ensure that we are always compliant with regulations, on competition or otherwise. We are always mindful of that.”

Comment: Now it is well and truly broke, so please fix it

If it ain’t broke…

No need to complete the cliché. Everybody surely is familiar with it. Everybody except the SMMT, it seems. This long-established, London-based trade association exists, according to its website, to “support and promote the interests of the UK automotive industry at home and abroad”.

Heavy commercial vehicles play just as important a role in this industry as cars and light vans. For decades, one of the most significant tangible elements of SMMT industry support has been regular, timely publication of new vehicle registration statistics, based on data provided by the DVLA. Not anymore, at least not for trucks, buses and coaches.

About two years ago, apparently on the basis of advice from excitable, petulant, well-heeled lawyers smarting from a European Commission decision to impose a whopping fine on truck-makers for what was described as a “price-fixing cartel”, the SMMT took the decision to stop collating and publishing truck, bus and coach registration figures in the proven and familiar way. Instead, only the skimpiest of registration information is now published on these vehicles. The information is several months out of date, and often inaccurate.

The upshot is that vehicle buyers, dealers and manufacturers – or indeed anyone seeking, perfectly reasonably, up-to-date, detailed information on the UK’s heavy commercial vehicle market – is being denied access to it. Now several truck manufacturers are becoming more outspoken in their condemnation of what is clearly a backwards step.

Never mind the irony of anti-trust action resulting in the hiding of data that surely stimulates competition rather than hinders it. This sudden lack of transparency is indefensible at every possible level. It applies only in the UK, not in any other EU country in which the price fixing is alleged to have taken place.

Hats off to Scania for sticking to its principled position and filing an appeal in the EU General Court (EGC), a constituent court of the European Court of Justice, against the commission’s decision last September to fine it €880 million. Scania’s top management have always insisted that they never entered any unlawful agreement with other truck makers on price fixing, or on the introduction of exhaust emissions control technology, and therefore the fine is unjustified.

The outcome of this appeal could render obsolete the whole shaky rationale behind the UK’s loss of commercial vehicle market information. But regardless of the eventual EU General Court decision, it is surely high time that the lawyers behind this retrograde step were thanked politely for their advice and then told bluntly that it is now going to be disregarded. It is time for the SMMT to fix what has been broken, or for some other body to step forward to do so.

Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore is an award-winning automotive journalist and the former editor of our sister title, Commercial Vehicle Engineer magazine. He is also the UK representative on the panel of judges for the biennial, pan-European Trailer Innovation Award scheme.

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