European Modular Systems: The new wave


Commercial road transport is a serious business, with developments going on right now that could change the industry for good.

Mega trends like climate change and the growing scarcity of resources will change our approach to on-road transportation and force us to search for new ways to make freight movement more efficient. What’s more, cities will grow and urbanisation will increase, which will add to the pressure we already face.

The answer could be found in intermodal transportation and what we call European Modular Systems (EMS). While intermodal transport means that at least two modes of transport (road, rail, water etc.) are combined to transport the same loading unit, EMS refers to the combination of existing loading units (20, 40 and 45’’ containers, semi-trailers, swap bodies) – resulting in longer, and sometimes heavier, vehicle combinations we refer to as ‘multiples’ and have focused our research on. But, is Europe ready for them?

To answer the question, let’s have a look at the framework that is currently in place. In the European Union, Council Directive 96/53/EC is used to define the permissible dimensions and weights for road vehicles in international traffic, for instance to ensure they are able to manoeuvre a roundabout without trouble. In some European countries, trials are now underway to see whether over-length vehicles are able to operate within that framework, which is widely seen as a first step towards the use of multiples in the EU.

Secondly, let’s look at how we could organise road transport in the future. If you take into account the different levels of transport that will have to be handled (city, distribution, long haul and international long haul) as well as said urbanisation trend, a ‘hub and spoke’ approach will come to mind. Such an approach would see the development of a multi-level, star-like transfer network where the cargo is collected at a central hub away from busy built-up areas before the final mile transport is carried out along a set of  ‘supply spokes’ leading into the city. That way, most of the truck traffic would stay away from built-up areas – another potential plus for multiples use.

So where do we go from here? To evaluate what can and cannot be achieved within the existing legislative framwork, a Dutch-German Consortium consisting of automotive industry partners and universities has investigated the potential of new vehicle concepts for European road transport – supported by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs through the HTAS (High Tech Automotive Systems) program. The Consortium developed a ‘Book of Requirements’ that was recently presented at the HVTT (Heavy Vehicle Transport Technology) conference in San Luis, Argentina.

According to the Book, there is a lot of heterogeneity across the European Union at the moment, which will make it hard to find one universal response to the current transport challenge. While 25.25m vehicle combinations with a maximum weight of 60 tonnes are already allowed in Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands; Denmark, Germany and Belgium are still preparing for or discussing a trial of Longer and Heavier Vehicles (LHVs). As a result, there is no common understanding as to which direction future vehicle development should take. So, do we need to change the legislative framework? Potentially, yes. Behind the scenes, EU politicians have already been thinking about centralising the process, which is a good sign there is a need for change. On 15 April 2013, a modification of the present EU-regulation restricting the maximum length of commercial vehicles was proposed by the European Commission. It was suggested that the length, and possibly even the weight, of a truck and trailer combination could be increased if there was a positive effect on energy efficiency and no negative impact on road safety or interference with existing road infrastructure.

It’s a promising start, especially since our research has shown that a length of 33m is the maximum length where one can expect the vehicle to satisfy the European swept path conditions (360° turn). But, trying to bring the EU inititative in line with the mega trends outlined above, you will soon realise that both current and (suggested) future legal framework won’t be sufficient to bring high performance vehicles to Europe. 

That’s why the Dutch-German Consortium also tried to evaluate what a new European legal framework could look like. To do so, it analysed the Performance Based Standards (PBS) schemes that are currently in place in Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Naturally, the European take on PBS would have to include different standards to regulate safety (stability, dynamic performance, powertrain and manoeuvrability) and take into account current infrastructure loading limits in the EU.

This would include issues such as manoeuvrability (swept path and said 360° turn); high-speed off-tracking and tracking on a straight path in relationship to road dimensions; and pavement vertical loading in relationship to axle load restrictions. On top of that, additional research would be needed to classify the European road network, for example – an issue the Consortium didn’t address in depth.

Instead, it considered a representative selection of vehicle combinations (see Table 2 on page 72) and analysed their performance with respect to safety, manoeuvrability, infrastructure impact, fuel consumption (CO2-impact) and Total Cost of Ownership. Combinations 8C, 10A and 12A exceed 25.25m and represent the LHV segment.

To see just how well PBS equipment would do in Europe, Eindhoven University of Technology and HAN University of Applied Sciences teamed up to develop a special simulation tool. The software allowed the Consortium to choose both tractive and towed units and virtually create the desired combination using a graphical user interface.

The simulations have been carried out without taking into account any support technology and revealed that not all LHVs are able to achieve the same performance as standard vehicles. But, current-day technology such as air suspension, brake force distribution and steerable axles could well bring the performance to an acceptable level. In fact, the Book of Requirements lists 18 different strategies in that respect. 

For the assessment of fuel consumption, a real life test was developed that would account for the longitudinal dynamics of each vehicle combination and take into account variables like engine, gearbox ratio, axle configuration, axle loads, wheel resistance, aerodynamic drag etc. 

Two test routes have been selected, one from Munich to Leipheim in Germany (102km), and the official ACEA test route for long-haul transport (108km). Both weight-focused and volume-focused transport have been considered. For weight-focused transport, the payload used in the simulation has been based on realistic weight utilisation in current transport (57 per cent of the maximum payload). The same approach has been followed for volume transport, however with a higher utilisation (average 82 per cent of the maximum volume).

In order to determine how the use of multiples would impact fuel consumption per kilometre per unit load (measured in tonnes or m3), the Consortium compared combinations with a comparable payload. For example, two 1B and one 3A combinations (see Table 2) can be compared to two 4A combinations in terms of payload. That is typically a case where two types of loading units (swap bodies and semi-trailers) are combined in one batch. In a different scenario, they replaced two 45-foot truck and semi-trailer combinations (type 14) with one 8C vehicle, with both options achieving the same payload.

In both weight and volume-related transport, the Consortium was able to see a fuel saving potential between 24 and 38 per cent where the same loading units were transferred to a LHV. In situations where different loading units were transferred to LHVs, the potential lay between four and 10 per cent for weight-transport and between six and 16 per cent for volume transport.
From a business perspective, one should also consider the lifetime of the vehicle, vehicle utilisation and mileage, as well as the number of loads per day, operating days, and country-specific issues before drawing a conclusion on whether or not multiples make sense for Europe.

The Consortium tried to do so by developing a special ‘TCO calculator’. The calculator is able to take into account a range of assumptions regarding technical vehicle specifications, vehicle datasheets and typical market prices. To complete the picture, the calculator would assume every vehicle is traveling on the same route from the port of Rotterdam to the German city of Wolfsburg. The route includes 96 per cent of motorway and corresponds to a yearly mileage of 135,000km, with a useful life of 48 months for the first owner of the respective vehicle.

The Consortium found that if we calculate costs independently of utilisation, high productivity vehicle combinations are just as profitable as standard combinations – or even more profitable. If we consider the same scenario as for the CO2 analysis, a TCO improvement between 17 and 30 per cent for both weight-related and volume-related transport is realistic when using different loading units. For the same loading unit, this TCO improvement is in the range of 35 to 40 per cent.

So, what’s next? The Consortium’s findings show that the use of multiples can in fact make transport cleaner and more profitable, with no adverse effects on safety or manoeuvrability. In addition, infrastructure stress actually tends to reduce due to lower axle loads. Based on these results, three future concepts have been developed that could have a positive effect on fuel consumption and emissions per unit of weight and volume, and which result in significantly lower costs (see Table 1).

In line with the suggested modifications of the present EU-regulation regarding aerodynamic improvement, the Consortium assumed a scenario where a longer prime mover cabin was allowed to reduce air drag, increase the crash zone, improve driver comfort; and also added a boat tail device to the mix. All three vehicles would satisfy the 7.2 m swept path width or be very close to that, and would also be able to negotiate an entire circle of 12.5 m. The static roll-over limits for all three was found to be similar to those for standard vehicles. Lateral dynamic stability appears to be similar too, or even better, and all three future set-ups would also satisfy the EU limits on startability of 12 per cent.

Replacing some of the combinations seen in Table 2 with our future vehicle combinations would entail a saving potentials between 25 and 35 per cent. Profitability studies show a potential improvement in the order of 35 per cent. Of course these figures can vary, but it’s a very promising start.

Most importantly, the Dutch-German Consortium has shown that  high performance vehicles can be just the right tools to tackle today’s mega trends. However, existing EU legislation may not be compatible with these concepts. To solve the conflict, it is suggested to modify current EU regulations to take on a performance based approach similar to those already in use in countries such as Australia and Canada.

Naturally, there is no ‘right’ vehicle combination for all transport tasks, but to achieve the substantial savings mentioned in this article, LHVs can be part of the solution.

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