Transportation & Logistics Analysis

Road transport needs to engage in a race for quality

December 05 2019

CONFERENCE. The future of road freight transport? This was the subject debated by five industry experts at the Solutrans trade fair in Lyons. They came up with pointers rather than ready-made solutions, indicating that the “dominant” transport mode needs to become cleaner and rely on innovation and quality rather than exponential growth.

Faced with the challenges posed by energy transition, the digital revolution and the need for economic good health, what future can road transport look forward to in France. On November 20, the Solutrans trade fair asked the four authors of “L’Avenir du Transport Routier de Marchandises” (The Future of Road Freight Transport) and the man who wrote the preface to the book to set out their views.


The first thing to say is that the current economic situation is fragile. “World growth, which stands at 3% this year, is showing its worst result since 2008,” said Alexis Giret, director of France’s national road transport committee, the CNR. “We should fall to 2.8% next year, taking account of American restrictions on world trade. In the euro zone, growth is unlikely to exceed 1.2% in 2019 and 1% in 2020. And, although France should stay at 1.3% next year, no one is talking about dynamism.”

These short-term trends are part of a structural reduction in consumption and, as such, of transport flows. We are talking about “deconsumption”, said Yves Crozet, a researcher at the Transport Urban Planning and Economics Laboratory (LAEP) and the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (IEP) in Lyons. “Since the 2008 crisis, gross domestic product (GDP) per inhabitant, which is to say, wealth, has increased by 10%...Despite a marked recovery in 2018, road transport has registered a 7% fall in activity since 2008. For rail freight, the decline is 25% and for inland waterways 11%. We should not expect any major increase in traffic between now and 2050 but should rather engage in a race for quality.”

By road but more cleanly

The economic uncertainty will in no way reduce the domination of road transport. “Despite the disruption it has suffered since 2009, its share (of freight transport overall) has not ceased to increase in France since 1984,” said Maurice Bernadet, honorary professor at Lyons 2 University. “Since 1984, the share of rail has dropped from 30% to 9% and that of inland waterways from 4% to 2%, while road transport’s share has climbed from 66% to 89%.”

“Lorries will be on the roads for a long time,” said Yves Crozet. “They are indispensable. But they are going to have to be cleaner even though the price of oil, at €60 per barrel, is not encouraging them to stop using diesel.” The question can be put in a more meaningful way “in a world which is changing and becoming increasingly urban”, argued Philippe Brossette, chairman of the Berliet Foundation. “The Euro 6s have reduced particle and nitrogen oxide emissions by 90% over the last 15 years. Now, to limit CO² emissions, as the EU is asking, we need to reduce diesel consumption…Electricity (the main theme at the Solutrans trade fair, Ed.) is one solution among others…but which one will be dominant in 20 years?”

For Bernard Favre of Sintras Consulting, a former head of research at Volvo-R, diesel is unlikely to go out of fashion any time soon. “Modern technologies put diesel in a healthy position in terms of energy efficiency and environmental quality,” he said, “…setting aside the greenhouse gases problem. But how will the choice be made between vehicles offering advanced diesel solutions and other alternative solutions? I expect that, on each occasion, we will still measure the advantages and disadvantages of each energy/business choice.”

Wider industry issues and digitalisation

Favre prefers not to focus solely on vehicles but also to take account of wider industry issues and new transport solutions. “To put electric vehicles on the road,” he argued, “it is necessary also to produce, stock and distribute energy in a clean and sustainable way, with efficient interfacing between the vehicle and the infrastructure.”

Another requirement, he said, was to take account of the intelligence of connected vehicles, “cooperative, cooperating between each other, as well as with logistics bases and infrastructures. It is necessary to recover and package data – from vehicles, logistics and infrastructures – so as to build aids for decision-making and action for vehicle operators, infrastructure managers and suppliers, right up to the end client…” We can obtain more pertinent and sustainable solutions, he argued, “for example, by collecting and sharing data regarding the loading and destination of a lorry.”

Bernard Favre emphasized the need for a more circular economy, which, apart from energy, took account of materials and vehicle life cycles. “We must organise ourselves to recover the lithium used in the batteries of electric vehicles, for example…and, during the vehicle’s lifetime, learn how to maintain and recondition all its components…Some, such as fuel cell membranes, use technologies which are evolving very rapidly and about which we have little feedback…We still lack perspective.”

What will we transport?

In the face of what he called “the explosion of fuel types”, Patrice Palette, chairman of Incitis and former product director at Renault Trucks, recommended “recentring” on two questions:

  • What will we transport?
  • From where to where?

In the automobile industry, for example, assembly lines are shrinking and suppliers are being asked to move closer…Or they are reintegrated, as at Tesla, which has reintegrated seat production…These decision have an impact on the nature of transportation. Paletto believes that this could lead to a reduction in the number of loads carried and distances covered and reinforce delivery precision…

“But I invite all professionals to ask themselves the questions in all sectors: what will we be transporting in future? Over what distances and with what level of precision? And with what security?”.

To respond to the challenges facing transport, Philippe Brossette concluded, “We need to get back to fundamentals and basic business questions.”

(*) "L'avenir du transport routier de marchandises", by Maurice Bernadet, Philippe Brossette, Bernard Favre, Patrice Paletto, with a preface by Yves Crozet. Published in April 2018 by Editions Economica.

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