Meeting the challenges of the modern road transport Industry
By Tim Blakemore, Managing editor at Commercial Vehicle Engineer magazine
One word above all others crops up most often in discussions among European truck
operators and their suppliers about current market conditions. The word is uncertainty.
Businesses of course have always had an inherent aversion to unpredictability, so much so
that the statement has become a cliché. That is simply because it remains as true now as
ever. Just ask any general manager or finance director struggling to put together coherent
budget forecasts. Yet truck fleet managers nevertheless accept that a crucial part of their job
is having to deal with the unexpected from time to time in everyday operations. Even today's
ultra-reliable trucks break down occasionally. Drivers fall ill sometimes. And employing the
most advanced and sophisticated modern telematics and fleet management systems that
money can buy unfortunately is no guarantee that sudden, unplanned and costly delays
caused by traffic jams can always be avoided.
These are not however the kind of uncertainties that are deeply disturbing the European
truck market at present. The ones that are relate to more fundamental, longer-term matters,
such as what drivelines should be specified for new trucks right now when their normal
planned service life is five years, ten years or longer; which vehicles will be denied access to
which towns and cities and their clean air zones (CAZ) in the next few months and years; and
to what extent exactly will international transport and trade more generally between the UK
and continental Europe be disrupted after March 2019 when the UK is due to be exiting the
All these concerns and more can be divided broadly into two categories: technological and
The unprecedented technological challenges facing truck operators and manufacturers were
illustrated graphically at this year's huge IAA (Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung)
commercial vehicles show in Hanover, Germany. This biennial event is the world's biggest
truck show, organised by the German automotive industry association, VDA (Verband der
Automobilindustrie). Speaking just before the show opened, VDA president Bernhard Mattes
neatly summed up the technological challenges as digitisation, connectivity, automated
driving, electric mobility, and other alternative powertrains. "Makers of heavy-duty trucks and
vans, trailers, buses and special vehicles, along with their many suppliers, are preparing
intensively for the transformation that is taking place in powertrains and digitisation," said
Mattes. He's not wrong.
Never before have so many and varied alternatives to tried and tested truck diesel engines
been on display as there were at this year's IAA: from gas to electric motors, to
diesel/electric hybrids and even hydrogen fuel cells. The essence of the challenge for
manufacturers is deciding how limited research and development budgets should be divided
between these technologies. For operators, the decision-making process is probably even
more challenging. Time was, not so long ago, when some of the most difficult decisions
facing a transport manager or fleet engineer preparing to order some new trucks related to
the right diesel engine power rating and the most efficient rear axle ratio to suit a particular
truck duty cycle. Now there are far more wide-ranging nitty-gritty questions to address about
vehicle drivetrains. Everyone agrees that road transport needs to become more sustainable.
But what does this mean in practical terms? Are diesel engines of all types, and indeed all
internal combustion engines, really on their last legs?
One mainstream European truck-maker, Iveco, boasts of having not a single diesel engine in
its IAA display vehicles this year. Instead there were trucks from the company's Natural
Power range, with spark-ignition engines running on liquefied or compressed natural gas
(lng or cng). This range has been expanded recently to include a 460hp three-axle tractor for
operation at up to 44 tonnes gcw. Another leading truck maker, Volvo, also recently
introduced a 460hp lng version of its 12.8-litre D13 diesel engine. Set such developments as
these against the backdrop of a welter of recent launches of pure electric (battery-powered)
trucks from other mainstream manufacturers including DAF Trucks, Daimler, Volvo Group,
Renault Trucks and MAN, and it is easy to understand why some transport managers and
fleet engineers could be led to the conclusion that the obituaries being written already in
some quarters for conventional truck diesel engines are maybe not so premature after all.
Yet the consensus among level-headed engineers at truck manufacturers and elsewhere is
that any headlong rush away from diesel by truck operators, perhaps in response to the
growing number of ultra-low and zero-emission zones being introduced across Europe by
local authorities, would be a mistake. Diesel engines meeting Euro VI emissions limits have
extraordinarily low emissions of oxide of nitrogen (NOx) and particulates, it is pointed out.
They are clean enough to be exempt from most of these local bans.
And some big UK truck fleet operators have first-hand knowledge of how switching too
hastily to alternatives to diesel can prove a costly error. Several began to adopt dual-fuel
(diesel and gas) systems a couple of years ago only to abandon them quickly when it
emerged that a phenomenon called methane slip was making their tailpipe emissions far
more harmful to the environment than those of a conventional Euro VI diesel.
Truck fleet operators across Europe are increasingly receptive to well-informed guidance
from dealers, truck manufacturers and other suppliers, including fuel and lubricant
companies, on which driveline would be most efficient in their particular operations. They are
especially keen to know whether the carefully chosen low-friction oils now being specified for
Euro VI diesel engines can be used too in engines running on natural gas, HVO (hydrotreated
vegetable oil), and other bio-fuels. The last thing they want is yet more uncertainty.
One development that seems certain to influence the entire European truck market one way
or another is the first EU regulation on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from heavy
commercial vehicles. This regulation for two- and three-axle trucks above 16 tonnes gvw
came into force from 1 January 2019. Other truck configurations will follow over the next few
The regulation is based on a computer program called VECTO (Vehicle Energy
Consumption Calculation Tool) which is being used by truck-makers to calculate and certify
CO2 emission figures (and thus, in effect, fuel consumption values) for individual truck
models. The central aim of the regulation is to encourage truck buyers to specify vehicles
with the lowest possible CO2 emissions.
DAF Trucks, long one of the keenest advocates of this regulation, plans to start publishing
certified CO2 figures for its 4x2 and 6x2 tractors before the regulation comes into force, in
the last quarter of this year.
One effect of the introduction of the VECTO-based regulation seems likely to be further
growth in the number of truck buyers taking advantage of configuration tools like DAF's
Topec computer software, before settling on the specifications that best suit their particular
Proliferation of telematics systems and "digitisation" in its many forms is also much in
evidence among European trailer and truck body manufacturers. Bernard Krone, Germany's
(and probably Europe's) second biggest trailer-maker, scooped top prize this year in the
safety category of the biennial pan-European Trailer Innovation awards scheme with its
Smart Trailer Check system. This employs "augmented reality" technology for tablet
computers and smartphones to make the mundane but crucial task of walk-around trailer
safety checks, quicker, easier and more reliable.
Schmitz Cargobull is Europe's biggest trailer-maker. It proved unbeatable in the "smart
trailer" category of the 2019 Trailer Innovation awards with a system claimed to set a new
standard in trailer telematics.
Telematics systems clearly have the potential to deliver leaps forward in European road
transport efficiency. But choosing exactly which system to employ is one of the many
technological challenges facing fleet managers.
Yet none of this technological uncertainty is anything like as infuriating to operators and their
suppliers as the apparent inability of politicians at just about every level to understand even
the basics of this business.
Europe’s big truck-makers face ongoing discussions with both the European Union and the
UK government over the latest EU regulations on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and
continuing Brexit-related uncertainty in this and many other areas.
These regulations, a draft of which was published by the European Commission in May,
require a 15 per cent cut, on average, of CO2 emissions from trucks between 2019 and
2025, and a further cut between 2025 and 2030 so that truck CO2 emissions by then are cut
by 30 per cent compared with 2019.
“These targets are roughly double those considered by the industry to be very ambitious, but
still feasible,” says VDA boss Bernhard Mattes. “On the other hand, the options for ‘supercredits’
on extremely-low-emission and zero-emission vehicles when it comes to determining
a manufacturer’s average emissions are defined too narrowly and the thresholds are too
ambitious. An opportunity is thus being lost to create powerful incentives for pushing up the
market of these environmentally friendly vehicles as quickly as possible.”
Mattes is at pains to emphasise that truck manufacturers strongly support the commission’s
central aim of cutting CO2 emissions from road transport, not least because this means the
better fuel economy that truck operators increasingly demand. Like ACEA (Association des
Constructeurs Européens d’Automobiles), a big Brussels-based European association of
vehicle manufacturers, VDA is firmly behind the VECTO regulation. “It is right that the
European Commission is endeavouring, in close co-operation with the commercial vehicle
industry, to further improve market transparency,” says Mattes. “The VECTO simulation tool,
which delivers ‘official’ comparable values for fuel consumption and CO2 output, is an
appropriate instrument for this.” The VDA also welcomes suggestions from the commission
that truck tolls could be varied according to a truck’s CO2 rating. But Mattes describes this as
“the only positive aspect” of the commission’s draft regulation from May. This regulation has
yet to be finalised by the European Parliament and Council of Ministers and the VDA is
calling on these bodies to “find an approach that will still be ambitious but which above all
must also be realistic and appropriate in practice.”
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