Smarter trucks: better, not bigger

The European Commission is considering a change in the interpretation of its legislation on so-called megatrucks.  Under the new interpretation, the cross-border circulation of megatrucks, which is currently prohibited, would be allowed. This decision would have a negative impact on road safety and infrastructure and would drastically impact on the competitive position of the rail freight sector, without any benefits for the environment.   

What's happening?

The Commission was set to announce the new legal interpretation on rules for cross-border use of longer and heavier vehicles at a conference organised by the International Road Transport Union on 29 February.  Following interventions by Member States, MEPs and environmental and safety groups, the announcement was called off. However, Commissioner Kallas is now expected to explain the changes to the European Parliament’s Transport Committee on 26 March.

What are megatrucks?

Megatrucks are lorries that measure 25m in length and weigh 60 tonnes instead of the currently allowed 16,5m-18.75m / 40 tonnes.

Is it currently legal for megatrucks to cross EU Member State borders?

Current legislation explicitly prohibits the use of megatrucks across borders.  Legal advice carried out for Transport & Environment and other stakeholders says:

“It is clear from the text of the Directive, and is apparent from the negotiating history and its implementation since adoption, that derogations for vehicles exceeding the stated weights and dimensions maxima are restricted to national territories. There is nothing in the text that suggests otherwise."

“A failure by the Commission to follow the ordinary legislative procedure would breach essential procedural requirements and could be challenged before the European Courts.” 

What changes does the Commission intend to make to the current interpretation of the legislation?

The Commission wants to change the way the current law is interpreted and to allow cross-border traffic between consenting countries. This will almost inevitably lead to the widespread use of megatrucks all over the EU. Germany will do a deal with the Netherlands, which will put Belgium under pressure, and a domino effect will lead to megatrucks being the default option across the continent as freight operators in countries without megatrucks face extreme competitive pressure from their neighbours. 

What consequences will this change have for freight transport in Europe?

If megatrucks are allowed to cross national borders, freight transport by lorry will become 20% cheaper.  The law of supply and demand dictates that as road freight becomes cheaper, demand will increase.  Rail freight would also be severely impacted.  

Is the new interpretation a simple legal clarification or a political decision?

The proposed change by the Commission is by no means a minor one. It carries serious political implications.  In the first place, it is a decision with far-reaching consequences for the freight market. But it also sets a precedent for undermining the democratic process, excluding both the European Parliament and Member States from the discussions. Furthermore, the decision is inconsistent, arbitrary and contradicts the position the Commission has taken on the issue for the past 16 years since the legislation was first adopted.

Why doesn’t the Commission deal with this question when it revises the legislation at the end of 2012?

The Commission has announced that it will review the directive on weights and dimensions of lorries by the end of 2012. That would be the right time to propose changes to the legislation.  T&E calls on the Commission to carry out this review in a transparent and open way, without dubious legal shortcuts, and with full consultation with the Council, Parliament and stakeholders.  

Can the Commission use the review to make lorries better instead of bigger?

A revision of the 1996 directive on lorry weight and dimensions could be done in a way that would improve the environmental and safety performance of lorries.  

What is the problem with how lorries are currently designed?

Today's rules leave just 2.35m for the cab.  This explains why virtually all European lorries have a blunt-shaped, brick-like cabin, to the detriment of aerodynamics, fuel efficiency and safety performance.

The brick shape increases air resistance which causes higher fuel consumption and emissions. But it also makes lorries more dangerous for other road users, limiting the driver’s direct vision and creating blind spots which cause a considerable number of accidents especially among pedestrians and cyclists. In case of an accident the blunt shape of the lorry leads to overruns and heavy crash impacts.

Furthermore, because the engine is directly below the cab there is no room for a crumple zone or crash box. In the case of an accident most of the impact consequently needs to be absorbed by the other road user making even accidents at very slow speeds (20km/h) likely to end fatally.

What is a smart truck?

A study carried out for T&E by the German automotive research institute FKA demonstrates that it is possible, with small regulatory and design changes to produce lorries that are significantly cleaner and safer.  The full report and a summary are available for download here.  

The smart truck concept has a cab a rounded, more aerodynamic nose, and a crumple zone.

What changes to EU legislation are needed for smart trucks?

The Commission should allow for a minimum 80cm extension of the cab while leaving load length unchanged.

To ensure that the increase in lorry length is used to improve their aerodynamic and safety performance, new type-approval standards are needed, mandating crumple zones, setting standards for a smarter cabin shape and providing better direct vision.

What are the main benefits of smart trucks for the environment?

With their improved aerodynamics, smart trucks would reduce air resistance by 12% compared to standard lorries and would consequently be more fuel efficient. For example, a typical 40 tonne long haul lorry with a smart cab would consume up to 5% less fuel.

Similarly a smart lorry would emit up to 5% less CO2; other air pollutant emissions would also be reduced. By 2020 the use of smart trucks could reduce CO2 emissions by 3-5 megatonnes.

What are the main benefits in terms of safety?

There were 7000 fatalities in accidents in Europe involving lorries in 2008; half of these were frontal collisions.  The smarter cab design has a deflecting shape (round nose), a crumple zone and improved direct vision and would therefore reduce the impacts of accidents in which 3500 lives are lost each year.  Many deaths would be avoided.  

In the case of frontal collisions with pedestrians and cyclists, overruns would be avoided. Currently a pedestrian that gets hit by a lorry has a 70% chance of being run over and killed.

The crumple zone / crash box would also mitigate the impact of accidents involving other cars, vans and lorries.  

Would smart trucks be more expensive?

No, any additional costs would pay for themselves.  The additional material cost would be around €400, which would be offset by fuel savings.

There would be additional research and development costs to redesign the cab. However, this is an obligatory exercise in any case since manufacturers regularly update their designs. Rather than a cost or a burden, smart trucks are an opportunity to make a much improved product. Smart trucks have better fuel economy, they are safer but also more comfortable since the extra space will be beneficial to the interior of the cabin and thus to driver comfort. Moreover, they make it easier for the lorry industry to comply with air pollution regulation because the engine space would be increased.