The return of the long-nose lorry

This comment by William Todts was first published by GreenFleet Europe.

European lorries, and in particular the cabins, look like oversized bricks with flat noses and blunt shapes. That wasn’t always the case. Not so long ago long-nose lorries thundered over European highways just like they do now in the US. However, it seems Brussels is now plotting the comeback of the more aerodynamic cabin. 

The story starts in Germany in the 1950s. After it lost its quasi-monopoly, the German state railway company was in serious trouble. The rise of cars but especially lorries chipped away at the once healthy profit margins of the Bundesbahn. This was bad news for the German budget and so Konrad Adenauer, the German chancellor, told his transport minister, Hans Seebohm, to solve the problem. In the package that Mr Seebohm proposed, a key element was to reduce the maximum length of lorries from 20 metres to 14, a drastic reduction in loading capacity that was intended to restore the competitiveness of the German railways and improve road safety at the same time.   

When, a few years later, Europe’s transport ministers tried to harmonise lorry sizes they used the German model as a basis; maximum length was increased to 16.5 metres, but it was the length limit for the whole vehicle. It’s this choice that explains why Europe has flat-nosed lorries. To accommodate their customers’ demand for maximum cargo space, lorry makers created the ultra-compressed cab-over‑engine design with its typical brick-shape.

European lorry makers can be credited with making the most of this design. Europe’s lorries are generally safer, cleaner and more efficient than their American counterparts. But it’s also increasingly clear that the brick shape is an obstacle to further progress.

While making up just three per cent of vehicles, trucks are responsible for 25 per cent of EU road transport emissions and every year around 500 million barrels of oil are needed to fuel European lorries, at a cost of around EUR 60 billion. According to the European Environment Agency, the total health cost associated with air pollution from trucks is estimated to be around EUR 45 billion with infrastructure, with congestion and noise costs adding another EUR 130 billion in external costs. At last but not least, 4,200 people (15 per cent of total road deaths) died in lorry crashes in 2011.

Lorry makers must address these issues. It’s not just a matter of responsibility towards the society in which they operate but responsibility towards their customers. Hauliers are today often blamed for road degradation, air pollution and road deaths; unless lorry makers provide their customers with much better products, the pressure on hauliers will continue to build.  

One way to facilitate improvements is to free lorry makers from the straightjacket of the old lorry sizes law. This is what Brussels is now proposing.  

In 2010, FKA Aachen, a well-respected German engineering institute, published a comprehensive study on what would be possible if lorry length limits were to be relaxed. The study, which builds on previous research for the European Commission but also on concept studies by lorry makers, comes to the unequivocal conclusion that around 80cm of extra design space for the cab would enable great improvements in fuel efficiency, safety and comfort. 

Giving a truck a rounded, streamlined nose would make it more aerodynamic and reduce fuel consumption by three to five per cent for a long-haul vehicle. But the extra space would also enable better cooling and create space for new components (for example, waste heat recovery) that would further lower fuel consumption by up to ten per cent. Given the lack of progress in lorry fuel efficiency over the last 20 years, this would be a very significant and welcome improvement.

But the rounded nose also opens the door for much-needed safety improvements. We often hear excuses for the poor safety performance of lorries, but the sad fact is that they remain twice as deadly as cars per kilometre driven. In that respect, redesigning lorry cabs to make them safer is a golden opportunity. The extra cab space could be used to remove blind spots, include a crumple zone and avoid pedestrians and cyclists being knocked underneath the wheels in a collision by giving the front a streamlined, deflective design. Combined, these changes could save the lives of several hundred people every year.

Of course, extra space would also be a real improvement in working conditions for the thousands of drivers that spend half their lives in lorry cabs.

From lorry makers’ point of view, the extra design space will make it easier (and cheaper) to fit technologies needed to reduce fuel consumption, pollutant emissions and noise levels. It allows them to make a much better product at relatively low cost. Indeed, virtually all the improvements would come from redesigning current cabs and using the extra space in an intelligent manner. A 2011 study for the UK government estimates that the total additional cost of a more aerodynamic and safer front would be around €1,000-1,500, an extra cost that would be easily offset by lower fuel  bills.

The European Commission has now made a proposal that would allow extra design space in exchange for meeting a limited number of requirements, such as improved direct vision. Hauliers, trade unions, safety organisations, environmental groups and cities, including London, support the changes and have called on EU decision makers to implement this win-win proposal as soon as possible.

So everyone agrees? Not everyone. Lorry makers are lobbying very hard to postpone and weaken the Commission proposal. They downplay the potential of redesign and have agreed new designs should be prohibited until 2025.

Their main problem with the proposal is that it could upset the market. If one lorry maker launched a much-improved lorry, this would force all the others to follow suit and it would signal the start of increased investment in R&D, product innovation and fierce competition to make the most of the design flexibility. Of course, more competition and innovation would be good news for hauliers but that’s apparently not lorry makers’ first concern. Manufacturers are doing what they can to stop the changes from entering into force any time soon. Other lorry makers are keen on the extra space but fiercely oppose fulfilling any additional requirements to get the design flexibility.

The European Parliament voted the Commission proposal through on 15 April with a huge majority, but EU governments are less enthusiastic. They seem to be taking the line of the lorry makers that the design flexibility should not be granted any time soon and that when it is granted there should not be a link to safety improvements. Negotiations between the Brussels institutions are likely to start after the summer and may drag on until early 2015 depending on how quickly an agreement is reached. 

The lorry dimensions saga holds two important lessons. On the one hand it is an exciting prospect and a great example of the synergies that can exist between the interests of business, the environment and society as a whole. Fixing the dimensions law and redesigning lorry cabs is a step in the right direction and one that will hopefully kick start a virtuous cycle of innovation and progress in the sector.   

But on the other hand it also demonstrates that this kind of progress cannot be taken for granted. Lorry makers have their concerns. Presented with perhaps one of the greatest opportunities in decades, their answer is to ask for it to be forbidden “to maintain competitive neutrality”.     

That bodes ill for Brussels’ strategy to deal with lorry CO2 emissions from lorries. Currently the thinking is that the haulage market is so focused on fuel economy that increased market transparency will automatically lead to better performance. But the lorry makers’ position on design changes makes you wonder whether this can really work. Lorry makers are making the case for regulation and fuel economy standards more powerfully than we ever could.

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William Todts's picture

Executive Director

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