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Safer, More Efficient Trucks

Not many people would claim that trucks are their favourite vehicles. That might not change, but even so the familiar brick shaped truck is going to become a thing of the past before long.

The overall length of an articulated truck has been limited to 16.5m in the European Union for over 20 years, giving rise to the flat fronted cab to maximise the available load carrying length in the trailer. There are justifiable concerns about visibility around the front of the truck – the flat front creates a very large blind spot immediately in front of the cab. Then while toxic exhaust emissions for new trucks have been massively reduced since 1992, there is still a need to reduce fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions further.

The European parliament has just allowed the overall vehicle length to be relaxed. This will permit longer cabs that could provide a more tapered front, improving both visibility and aerodynamics. It could also help to reduce injury for other road users by providing the space for an impact absorbing structure. The truck manufacturers are not opposed. We may even see some of the concept truck designs displayed at truck shows in the 1990s actually reach production.

So it’s a good thing, but now comes the argument about when it should be introduced. 2022 is the date set for mandatory introduction of the new designs. “Not good enough!” say some; the EU is once again caving into lobbyists from vehicle manufacturers.

Building a cab is the most expensive part of a truck and given that a fraction of the number of new trucks are sold compared with cars, they stay in production for around 20 years to make a return on the investment. Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Renault have all launched new cabs in the past two years or so. MAN, Scania, Iveco and DAF are all using older cabs. Some, in DAF’s case, dating back to 1987. The costs involved will be easier for these companies to factor in but it’s a tough call for the three that have just launched new cabs. All manufacturers have also had to accommodate Euro-VI emissions regulations recently, itself another costly exercise.

In an ideal world, new cabs would be introduced in a shorter time, but the high costs involved don’t make that easy. “Lorry efficiency has remained stagnant for 20 years”, William Todts, senior policy officer at sustainable transport group Transport & Environment claims.

Not if you analyse what has happened in that time. Truck gross weights have risen, so trucks are carrying more. Engines have been downsized and even with the heavier weights, fuel consumption has generally reduced. Fewer trucks are running around empty too. Efficiency has improved in several ways.

Trucks use more fuel and so cause more pollution than other road vehicles because they are the largest and heaviest. But carrying freight in one large vehicle is far more efficient in environmental terms than carrying it in several smaller vehicles. Making a straight fuel consumption comparison between trucks and cars can be misleading without factoring in the weight being carried.

The changes will remove a few obstacles to improving trucks further, but things can’t be changed as quickly as we might like.

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