I see no juggernauts

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There is one beneficial effect of a high oil price – and probably only one. In combination with recent EU safety and environmental standards, it is helping to drive rapid improvements in the efficiency of road transport operations. Today’s European commercial vehicles are streets ahead in terms of safety, reliability and efficiency of their forebears of just a couple of decades ago.

Exel’s annual diesel fuel bill in the UK alone is over e150 million, and the wide range of solutions we provide for customers means that we specify anything from an ambulance to a gas truck. We have a vested interest therefore in ensuring we have the right vehicles for the job, that they are maintained to high standards, that drivers are trained and performance-monitored for fuel-efficient and defensive driving, and that we exploit the most appropriate route planning, scheduling and management information technologies – not just for us, but also for the benefit of customers and society at large.

With fuel costs at historical highs, even a tiny increase in the efficiency of each truck can make a major impact on the bottom line.

Twenty-five years ago the stereotype of the ‘juggernaut’ (dictionary definition: ‘an irresistible destructive force’) was probably reasonably accurate. Trucks were dirty, noisy, inefficient and polluting. The recent transformation of the commercial vehicle has been extraordinary – but the old image is hard to prise from the public consciousness.

Trucks are important; they are the red corpuscles of our economy. The commercial vehicle remains the most efficient, fastest and most economical method of transporting goods from door to door. Of the 1,933 million tonnes of goods moved around the UK in 2004, some 1,831 million tonnes travelled by road. And the fuel of choice for trucks over the next 20 years, regardless of what you might hear about fuel cells, hybrid vehicles and the like, is diesel… with after-treatment. In fact, you could call it the fuel of no choice.

A modern truck consumes 30 per cent less fuel and releases 80 per cent fewer harmful exhaust emissions than a truck doing the same job two decades ago. Taking their comparative weights – laden or unladen – into consideration, a new truck now well outperforms the family car in terms of fuel efficiency.

The introduction of the ‘Euro’ standards for commercial vehicle engines in Europe from 1993 has brought emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), hydrocarbons (VOC), carbon monoxide (CO) and soot (ie particulate matter or PM) right down. By 2009, NOx emissions from new commercial vehicles will have been cut by 86 per cent, hydrocarbons by 81 per cent, carbon monoxide by 87 per cent and PM by over 94 per cent.

Modern electronics have transformed the humble 100-year-old diesel engine into a very sophisticated device. Electronic systems now promote highly efficient combustion, and monitor and control many of the functions that affect the truck’s performance, fuel consumption and emissions.

Swedish-based manufacturer, Volvo, for example, has developed an automated gear change system that communicates with the engine’s control unit and can automatically boost top-gear torque when needed. This means that the driver is able to go further without changing gear – to avoid frequent down-shifting when travelling uphill, for example – thus saving fuel.

To meet upcoming even tougher EU demands on nitrogen oxides emissions in particular, many European truck manufacturers are adopting the SCR (selective catalytic reduction) approach. This involves injecting a mixture of water and urea, known as AdBlue, into the hot exhaust gases, which then pass through a catalytic converter where the oxides of nitrogen (NO, NO2) are transformed into harmless nitrogen gas (N2) and water.

The more difficult challenge for the truck makers is to limit the release of socalled greenhouse gases – in particular carbon dioxide. But CO2 emissions are directly related to fuel consumption – not just by trucks but all vehicles. Although the adoption of increasingly fuel-efficient trucks and engines is certainly having an impact on cutting emissions of CO2 per tonne-km, this is being accompanied by increased demand by society for all types of transport – leaving the expected CO2 emissions curve relatively flat for the next decade or so.

Some say we should operate smaller vehicles. But tonne for tonne smaller trucks take up more road space (increasing congestion) and are more polluting. An articulated truck carrying a 30 tonne load to the supermarket has a 16.5m footprint on the road. Carrying the same amount of goods using 7.5 tonne vehicles would create a footprint of 70m. Bigger trucks are certainly more cost-effective than smaller ones – but clearly the size of the truck must be appropriate for the type of road used.

So who is causing congestion? Well, I’ll leave you with this final thought on the subject: it takes one truck to carry that 30 tonne load to the supermarket, but at least 750 cars to take it home!

Another legacy issue is truck noise, and here the picture is much the same as with pollution – with various EU standards cutting the levels allowable for commercial vehicles steadily since 1975. Thirty years ago a typical 12 tonne 150kW truck could legally emit 91 dB(A) of noise when accelerating at full power. By 1996 that had reduced to 80 dB(A).

That might not look much, but the decibel scale is logarithmic – meaning that a commercial vehicle in 1975 generated the noise power equivalent of more than 12 of today’s trucks – making it twice as noisy subjectively as a modern vehicle of the same size. There was a time that you couldn’t hold a conversation in a truck cab or standing nearby.

Today’s engines and transmissions – especially those with automatic gearboxes – are better balanced than they were, reducing vibration, noise, wear and tear, as well as helping to prevent driver fatigue. Modern tyres have low rolling resistance and create less noise. We now have air suspension not just on the trailer but increasingly on the tractor, which gives improved ride quality, reduces vibration and makes vehicles more responsive to changes in road conditions.

But efficient transportation – which means transportation with a lower environmental burden – is not just about building better trucks and engines. It is also about using transport resources more intensively – carrying more cargo with fewer assets.

A costly piece of kit
Today’s commercial vehicle is a very costly piece of kit – and getting more expensive in terms of procurement, operation and compliance costs all the time. Just as other logistics processes have become more streamlined and efficient over recent years, so too has road transport.

This is illustrated by the fact that, although the quantity of goods moved by road has substantially increased, the number of trucks over 3.5 tonnes in the UK has actually reduced slightly – from 435,000 in 1980 to 434,000 in 2004. Over the same period, the number of cars in the UK rose by 42 per cent from 19 million to 27 million.

On-board telemetry, known as telematics, is an area of increasing importance for vehicle operators, and here the UK is leading the way in Europe. The term refers to technologies that monitor, report and communicate data from the truck – for remote download at the depot. Telematics can, for example, measure precisely how much fuel goes through the engine, giving a very accurate account of fuel consumption. Systems can monitor driving styles, maximum speeds and vehicle performance. Similar GPS-based systems can pinpoint a truck’s location, and can quickly advise a driver on alternative routes in the event of traffic congestion or accident.

Although road transport activities in the EU have more than doubled over the past 30 years, the number of fatalities in road accidents has been halved – thanks largely to safer roads and safer vehicles.

Truck safety has been improved through the introduction of powerful air-disc brakes and the routine fitting of electronic (EBS) and anti-lock braking systems (ABS). EBS ensures that the braking power is distributed efficiently between all the wheels at all times, and has helped reduce braking distances by some 16 metres – from 56 to 40 metres – for a mid-size unladen truck travelling at 85 km/h.

There are now EU standards covering the construction and use of commercial vehicle fuel tanks, seat strength, seat belt anchorages, safety belts, head restraints, safety glazing and external cab projections, along with front, side and rear under-run protection systems. Fitting airflow panels – including spoiler, roof panels and side air deflectors – reduces air resistance and helps further to cut fuel consumption and emissions.

This article has only scratched the surface of this subject, and given space there is much more that could be said about driver training, telematics, inspection and maintenance, the use of sophisticated routing and scheduling technologies, and state-of-the-art fuel management systems. We and our peers are always on the look-out for the next technological innovation.

John Parry is Director of Engineering at Exel: john.parry@exel.com

Key points

  • By 2009, NOx emissions from new commercial vehicles will have been cut by 86 per cent, hydrocarbons by 81 per cent, carbon monoxide by 87 per cent and PM by over 94 per cent
  • Tonne for tonne smaller trucks take up more road space (increasing congestion) and are more polluting
  • Truck and engine design today bears no resemblance to what it was even ten years ago. Trucks are now far safer, cleaner, quieter, more efficient and less polluting
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