Change catalyst

According to José Viegas, former Secretary-General of the International Transport Forum (ITF), a Paris-based intergovernmental organisation linked to the OECD, driverless trucks could be a common sight on many roads within the next decade.

Even though more work has to be done before the right standards, legislation and processes are in place, he says “manufacturers are investing heavily into automation, and many a government is actively reviewing its regulations [around the topic].”

With that in mind, the next evolutionary leap of commercial road transport is seemingly within reach – and with it the age of remotely monitored trucks that carry more payload and operate 24-7. For the pulled unit, the change will be equally dramatic, especially with regard to overall length.

Discussions around the topic are currently emerging around the globe, with both incumbent businesses and start-ups hoping for new business opportunities to materialise on the back of them. Should the autonomous vehicles of the future ultimately relinquish the driver’s cab, they argue, the loading length of a European semi-trailer could theoretically be increased to the maximum allowed length for an articulated vehicle – 16.5m, according to EU Directive 96/53/EC.

To achieve maximum fuel efficiency, the addition of a nose cone would likely reduce the available loading length somewhat, but that doesn’t hold back speculations on what the trailer of the future will look like.

15.65m (51’) of loading length currently seems to be the most agreeable figure with view to classic semi-trailer design. It is the combined length of two C782 swap bodies, plus a 10mm tolerance. It also includes some 85cm to accommodate a nose cone, which should make for a sufficiently aerodynamic profile within the 16.5m envelope. Brexit notwithstanding, the UK started limited trials of 15.65m semi-trailers in 2012, which further underscores the suitability of the length – especially since it’s only 50cm (20”) short of the 16.15m (53’) US equivalent.

It is hard to predict whether or not such a length increase would interfere with international container standards, but history has shown that semi-trailer loading length increases do tend to inspire changes to intermodal loading units if uptake is sufficient. For instance, both the EU 45’ and US 53’ domestic containers were introduced to supersede ISO 40’ maritime containers after regulations allowed semi-trailers longer than 40’. A more recent example can be found in the UK, where 15.65m domestic containers were introduced in 2014.

As such, the proliferation of autonomous trucks may well introduce 7.82m/15.65m containers in Europe. Would this mean the end of traditional ISO 20’/40’/45’ maritime containers, though?

To find an answer, it’s worthwhile considering what would happen if the US 16.15m loading length somehow came out on top. Although the North American option would offer more potential for seamless transatlantic trade, it would force transport businesses back in Europe to invest a new type of swap body that is 25cm longer than the existing C782 standard. The ensuing cost would arguably discourage mass adoption.

On the other hand, a 15.65m loading length would experience no legal or technical issues in the US. In addition, being just 50cm shorter than a 16.15m US domestic container, as well as 50mm (2”) narrower (2.55m overall width versus 2.60m), a 15.65m unit could load the same number of GMA pallets (30, albeit more tightly). Therefore, the European alternative would likely be more appropriate, as it combines higher payloads with improved flexibility.
The common assumption is that once new generation containers begin to circulate within the US – read: collecting return loads destined for European or domestic markets – they would inevitably start competing with domestic containers – and ultimately replace them due to their inherent modularity and maritime capability.

Here’s the catch, though: Although these new generation containers would be compatible with both US railroad cars (53’ double-stack well car) and EU railroad cars (Sggmrss 104’), they would be incompatible with all short and deep-sea container ships currently in existence. While some argue that was also the case in European short-sea shipping after the introduction of 45’ domestic containers, introducing a new generation of container ships will likely become a key obstacle on the way to 15.65m containers.

European short-sea operators might be compelled to introduce new ships built around new generation containers, as they did when 45’ domestic containers were introduced. However, this is only viable once new-generation containers begin to proliferate and supplant 45’ domestic containers.

For deep-sea operators, the situation is not quite as simple. Due to the standardisation of ISO maritime containers in modern ship design, experts don’t expect deep-sea operators to jeopardise their often-substantial investments by hastily adopting new standards. As such, the role would fall to an entirely new generation of players willing to take the necessary risks in developing new generation ships.

Should these players end up taking the risk, new generation ships would likely be smaller, faster and more focused on point-to-point operation. In line with current developments on the truck market, they, too, could be autonomous, electric and shared. Through the support of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), both new generation ships and containers might proliferate across the globe, eventually enabling a new global standard.

Establishing such a standard is not a new idea: Soon after the standardisation of ISO containers, the dimensions of both US and EU semi-trailers began to increase, driven by the need to load palletised goods more efficiently. In response, the ISO tabled the introduction of so-called Series 2 containers (7.43m/14.9m), but was knocked back in 1991 due to the industry’s substantial investment in Series 1 containers.

According to Sol Katz of Strick Trailers, an intermodal shipping pioneer, “True intermodal containerisation does not exist anywhere because of the dysfunctional variety of sizes, even though the savings from true intermodal are monstrous.” True intermodal containerisation was short-lived, he says, and little progress has been made to revive it in the 51 years after it was first introduced.

But according to container shipping specialist, David Cheslin, the problem, which is “partly a matter of inertia, or resistance to change, and partly one of ship design”, is “not insurmountable”. Under the right circumstances, he adds, a change catalyst might be able initiate a series of events that can revive “true intermodal containerisation”. Autonomous trucks, it seems, may just be the kind change agent needed.

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