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  • The inconvenient truth about truckers

    In his latest blog post, T&E policy officer for lorries William Todts disputes the industry's claims of 'spectacular' fuel-efficiency progress and discusses the need for truck manufacturers to focus on making trucks themselves more fuel efficient, smarter and safer.

    One of the things that come with the job of being a campaigner is to attend conferences and so-called ‘stakeholder consultation’ meetings. Usually, these are very dull occasions where everyone sticks to their pre-prepared messages, but sometimes you just get lucky.

    This fortunate occasion was the annual gathering of Europe’s truck manufacturers. The first couple of hours followed the usual pattern, which I could wearily paraphrase as: Truck manufacturers have already made huge efforts and of course we’ll make transport sustainable and no, there is absolutely no need for legislation because that would kill the industry and destroy all the jobs we create.

    As this sounded a bit familiar, I asked why it was then that progress has been so slow up to now, and why truck builders always seem to propose ‘sustainable’ solutions which involve not doing very much to the trucks themselves (the solutions focus rather on megatrucks, biofuels, aerodynamic trailers, etc).

    This provoked a rather unusual and impassioned outburst. Some of the language didn’t get past this blog’s editor, but the censored version reads something like this: “We have made trucks spectacularly more fuel-efficient over the past 40 years, you don’t have a clue what you are talking about.”

    Don’t we?

    Let’s first look at the claim that trucks have become a lot more fuel efficient over the past 40 years (The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, ACEA, claims 30% over 40 years). The 1970s are a while ago so it seems obvious that there have been some technical improvements since then (better engines, spoilers). Moreover, the fact that truck manufacturers insist on talking about fuel consumption per tonne of goods transported per kilometre makes matters worse. As trucks have become both longer and heavier, part of the improved efficiency is also due to the higher load capacity. For example, in 1970, trucks in the UK and Italy were only allowed to weigh 32 tonnes, instead of 44 now, increasing payload by some 40%. All of this makes a reduction of fuel use per tonne of 30% in 40 years – less than 1% per year – look quite a bit less impressive.

    What if we concentrate on progress made more recently? A straightforward way to do this is by focusing on fuel efficiency per truck (vehicle-km). A 2009 study by CE Delft concludes that the fuel efficiency of the average truck has barely improved over the last 15 years. The historical data (1993-2010) compiled by the UK department for transport point to exactly the same trend: stagnation.

    But let’s not dwell on the past too much; the future is what matters and truck emissions certainly matter too. Road freight emissions (6% of the EU’s total CO2 emissions) are on the rise and will probably continue to increase[i]. It is estimated[ii] that for road freight emissions to slightly fall by 2030, cuts in per-kilometre emissions of at least 20% are needed.

    Truck manufacturers announced that they would reduce emissions by 20% by the year 2020, as compared to 2005 levels. If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. The 20% reduction is again a reduction per tonne-km, which can be achieved, among other ways, by the use of megatrucks. These larger and heavier vehicles, according to ACEA, would save 17% emissions (why this is incorrect is explained here).

    But what can truckmakers do themselves to save fuel and emissions? A lot, various reports show[iii]. They could build on the lessons learned by their car and van manufacturing colleagues and develop more efficient, ‘rightsized’ engines, trim weight, lower top speeds and invest in hybridisation. A lot of these measures pay for themselves. So why aren’t we seeing these improvements?

    Something truck manufacturers should certainly support is extra space for smarter design of truck cabins. More space to make cabins rounder and more aerodynamic would improve fuel economy by 3-5% and make trucks a lot safer. The EU has announced that it will change the relevant legislation, but the biggest truck makers are focusing their lobbying efforts on stopping their competitors from benefiting from this opportunity, rather than making the most of it themselves.

    That, to me, is the perfect illustration of why smart regulatory initiatives remain absolutely key to getting the truck industry moving in a sustainable direction. Despite claims to the contrary, truck manufacturers do indeed have different objectives. Which is why myself, and many other campaigners, must continue to sit through the hours of platitudes and ready-made environmental statements in order to make the case for real sustainable transport heard.

    [i] Page IX.

    [ii] Page 211.

    [iii] See for example Ricardo (2011), LOT 1 (2011), CE Delft (2012)