According to a new report published by the International Transport Forum (ITF), the use of “high capacity vehicles”, or HCVs, increases efficiency for road shipping, both in terms of energy efficiency and security. Therefore, the ITF is recommending increased testing of these vehicles, and offers a public policy toolbox to help broaden their use.
Monsters measuring over 25 meters in size, and weighing over 60 tons: for the general public, HCVs seem like a safety nightmare. Public authorities have been reluctant to explore this path towards road transport optimization. Beyond the question of safety, they are worried about the potential impact on existing infrastructure and other means of shipping. Doesn’t this embody a nudge towards a switch from rail to road, when most public policies have been trying, although not very successfully, to encourage the opposite? Isn’t this going to negatively impact smaller players in the trucking industry?
A threefold increase of road traffic by 2050
To answer these questions, the International Transport Forum (ITF), a multilateral organization representing 59 countries, just published a report entitled: “High Capacity Transport: Towards Efficient, Safe and Sustainable Road Freight”. The result is a clear endorsement of HCVs. The study analyses experiments led in several countries, before offering a “toolbox” specifically made for policy makers, to help them develop additional trials.
The initial observation is agreed upon by all: road freight will continue increasing, pushed by economic growth and the rise of international trade. According to the ITF’s report, the traffic should triple by 2050, going from 112,000 billion tons-kilometers in 2015 to 329,000 billion, with an average growth rate of 3.2%/year between 2015 and 2030, and 2.8%/year between 2015 and 2050. In this context, it is crucial that we improve our use of shipping infrastructures. According to the ITF’s report, “the utilisation of infrastructural capacity can be improved in various ways such as shifting freight between modes or rescheduling deliveries to off-peak periods. The level of utilisation can also be raised by increasing of the efficiency of road freight operation itself”.
Using new technology to optimize road shipping
New technologies open up new opportunities. Driverless trucks is one of the most attractive options, with every possibility from platooning all the way to fully autonomous driverless vehicles. However, his trend, outlined in an IRU report from 2017 on the “commercial vehicle of the future”, implies a deep transformation of the rules of use of the road, and especially of the driver’s role.
According to the ITF’s report, another way to optimize road transport is to digitize transport, logistic processes, and the whole multimodal value chain. “The collaborative economy is introducing new ways of sharing resources and cooperating which could contribute to more efficient load factors”. Cooperation among loaders, digital matchmaking platforms, consolidation of urban deliveries : many options are available, and can be used together.
… and contributing to the rise of high capacity vehicles
According to the ITF, technological innovations only give a partial answer to the problem at hand, and in many cases, their implementation takes time, unlike easing weight and size restrictions for trucks, which can be a quick and cheap solution. On the other hand, new technologies can help increase the use of HCVs, by incentivizing the emergence of a data driven transport ecosystem (allowing, for example, a better monitoring of vehicles).
The ITF highlights the financial benefits of consolidating loads, both for the loaders and the carriers, which reduces fuel consumption and the number of drivers per transported unit. The only limit, which the organization warns against, is the ability for the carrier to fully use the additional capacity available, so as to reap all the financial benefits, which implies meticulous weight and volume management.
Are HCVs environmentally friendly?
This may be the ITF’s most surprising argument: the environmental benefits of HCVs. According to the report, high capacity vehicles lower greenhouse gas emissions for the trucking industry by playing on two variables: the loading rate of vehicles, and the amount of fuel used per freight unit transported. The ITF mentions a 15% to 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, depending on the vehicle’s configuration and the way it is operated. However, one should note that testing of these assumptions is still limited, and is often specific to certain activities (like the logging industry in Northern Europe).
Building on these conclusions, the organization clearly recommends more experimentation is done, along with rigorous and independent evaluations, based on reliable data. The ITF points out that “this approach delivers the objective evidence policy makers require for determining whether to deploy HCVs on a continuing basis”. But there are many causes for concern.
Many causes for concern
The first concern is safety. Experiments show the accident rate of HCVs tends to be lower than regular trucks. Several elements can explain this phenomenon:
- On-board technologies: HCVs are often equipped with more security devices than regular trucks, which can reduce the number and/or seriousness of accidents.
- Driver training: according to the ITF, HCVs are more expensive than traditional trucks, so carriers tend to ask their best drivers to drive them. Additionally, driving them often requires having a special license, and the rules of operation are strict (hours, weather, etc.).
- Operation of HCVs limited to specific areas: as of today, HCVs are only aloud on certain sections of the road network, which are the safest ones for this type of vehicle.
- More demanding regulations apply.
Policy makers are asking the legitimate question of these vehicles’ impact on infrastructure and bridges. Concerning roads, the ITF evaluates the impact in terms of ton per kilometer (rather than per vehicle), and deems it to be negligible. But the question of bridges is thornier. And it actually is the reason why Germany, after conducting experiments, has allowed 25.25-meter-long HCVs, but with a maximum weight of 40t or 44t.
Tunnels are also an issue. According to the ITF’s report “suitable traffic management procedures should be considered, such as limitation of the number of trucks/HCVs within the tunnel or increased minimal distance for HCVs”.
The use of these vehicles also poses the question of the last mile. “Logistics hubs or platforms may be needed or regulatory discussions with the road infrastructure owner/manager”.
And the last political and touchy subject: will HCVs increase road traffic and destroy all the attempts to encourage a modal shift, which unfortunately have not been very successful in Europe so far? The ITF acknowledges that such an effect could happen, but deems it marginal, and chooses to highlight the potential cooperation for intermodal freight.
In light of all these elements, the ITF concludes that high capacity vehicles are a relevant tool for transport. The report explains the different experiments in detail. But it also outlines the aspects hindering the development of HCVs, even if mostly to debunk them.
Photo credit: Cover picture from the ITF's report.