How Europe’s far north drives change

In the trucking world, Sweden and Finland have long been renowned as a testing ground for oversized transport equipment that can safely carry more freight per run. Some say it’s because the region is generally more open to innovation, while some attribute it to common sense; but what most agree on is that Sweden and Finland currently lead the way in the design of so-called High Capacity Vehicles (HCVs) to handle the region’s growing freight task.

In Sweden alone, the domestic freight volume accumulates to some 405 million tonnes annually, 325 million tonnes of which are transported on the road, covering a total distance of 2.1 billion kilometers per annum. More than 90 per cent of the road freight is transported over distances less than 300 km. Thus, railway and sea are not really an alternative for most businesses due to the time and cost involved, and even the remaining 10 per cent often end up on the back of a truck, as most routes do not allow efficient access to a port or railway station.

As a result, Sweden has become the driving force behind HCV design in Europe.

As early as 1993, it allowed for combinations with a gross vehicle weight (GVW) of 60 tonnes, in conjunction with an 18-tonne bogie/ 24-tonnes tri-axle weight and a drive axle weight of 11.5 tonnes.

Building on that legacy, the EU’s European Modular System (EMS) also originated in Sweden, where most of the 60-tonne/ 25.25 m traffic is currently occurring. Put simply, the EMS’ goal is to reduce energy consumption and emissions output, as well as improve road safety, by replacing three standard vehicles by two HCVs. As proven in Sweden, HCVs reduce energy and emissions as counted per tonne of payload, but also from a tonne-kilometre perspective.

As for safety, Swedish statistics say that one in two fatal crashes involving heavy vehicles occurred after an on-coming vehicle mistakenly entered the truck’s lane. With two HCVs replacing three standard vehicles, the crash risk would therefore be heavily reduced too. And there’s an extra benefit to it: The more axles, the lower the ground pressure. Together with less deadweight per tonne of payload, this can result in less road wear.

But how does it work? Under the EMS, different modules measuring either 7.82m or 13.6m can be combined to form a HCV. The short module is a CEN standard for swap bodies, yet other standardised load units also fit within the framework. The long module, at 13.6 m, is based on the standard length for a European semi-trailer and can accommodate a 40-foot ISO container. In most EU countries, the maximum length used to be 16.5 m for articulated trucks and 18.75 m for trucks with drawbar trailers, both with a GVW of 40 tonnes, so the upgrade could cause a significant change to European heavy vehicle traffic.

To address the issues of efficient transport and greenhouse gas emissions more efficiently, though, critics say more public road agencies in Europe should allow using HCVs on appointed road networks – on the condition to use EMS modules like already permitted in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Back in Sweden, numerous demonstration projects have been realised since 2009 to prove just how much value HCVs can add to the community at large – using vehicles that measure up to 34 metres in length and have a GVW of up to 90 tonnes, depending on the individual task. Now, Sweden and Finland are raising the bar again. Finland has already increased the GVW limit from 60 to 76 tonnes; and Sweden has just announced a first increase to 64 tonnes and a second raise on a more limited road network to 74 tonnes is planned, accompanied by an increase in length to (preliminary) 34 m.

What’s more, the Swedish Transport Agency (STA) has proposed to use a PBS scheme for approval of innovative vehicles. The proposal is inspired by, and thus very similar to, the Australian Performance Based Standards (PBS) scheme, which has rapidly gained ground since introduced in 2007.

However, there is a catch. The proposal is to use PBS for one-off projects only. Development, manufacture and registration of a PBS-approved vehicle can be costly. The costs will likely delay environmental benefits and reductions in congestion until Sweden’s latest HCV experiment is gaining traction in mainstream manufacturing. Hence, both the trucking industry and OEMs have proposed to use the PBS scheme for R&D only, while mainstream HCVs designed as per pre-approved blueprints are allowed.

Now it is merely a question of time until standards for longer and heavier vehicles are established. With the upcoming standards comes a new generation of even more efficient HCVs. Statistically, 76 per cent of all road freight in Sweden is already being carried by vehicle combinations with seven or more axles – indicating the market’s general openness to the concept. Add to that the fact that road traffic is responsible for 31 per cent of Sweden’s total carbon footprint, and the HCV business case is taking shape. HCVs are acknowledged as one of the reasons why road freight is responsible for no more than seven per cent of Sweden’s total greenhouse gas emission, so having more of them on the road – with or without a PBS stamp – could help reduce the nation’s carbon output.

Naturally, optimising the freight volume and dimensions of commercial vehicles, especially trailing equipment, is only one way to make transport more efficient and sustainable, but as Sweden and Finland are proving, it makes a notable difference.

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