'Greener' freight key to more sustainable global trade
- 6 May 2014
- From the section Business
Some drivers eat, others read, one even appears to be asleep.
Stranger still, only the driver of the lorry in front has his hands on his steering wheel. The other drivers appear to be driving "hands free".
This may sound like a scene from a sci-fi film, but is actually "platooning" - a technology being tested to make long-distance lorry driving more fuel-efficient and less polluting.
Using wireless technology, the lead truck, operated by a trained driver, controls the convoy behind it. When he brakes, the other lorries brake automatically; when he steers, they steer, too.
Radar-based "adaptive cruise control" ensures all trucks are travelling at a consistently safe distance from each other.
As the vehicles shelter behind each other in the "road train", aerodynamic drag resistance is reduced leading to 15% fuel savings, advocates of the technology say.
"Platooning is definitely something we will be seeing on our roads in future," says Carl Johan Almqvist, traffic and product safety director for Volvo Trucks, a firm that has successfully tested the technology.
"There may be challenges in terms of public acceptance and legislation, but these will be conquered as the potential in fuel savings is very interesting."
Platooning is just one of many technologies being used to tackle freight transport emissions, which contribute a large and growing proportion of all transport pollution, whether by land, air or sea.
Heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) alone accounted for 19% of UK transport emissions in 1999-2010, and vans a further 12%, according to the Department for Transport.
And transport generally accounts for about 35% to 40% of global total energy end use.
US logistics giant UPS has 3,000 alternative fuel vehicles globally, but is also piloting electrically assisted cycles for package delivery.
It also uses package routing technology to minimise kilometres driven, and telematics - the onboard monitoring of driver behaviour - to tackle fuel inefficient idling and stop-start driving.
Telematics and other technologies helped reduce idling time by 254 million minutes in 2013, UPS claims, equivalent to 17,000 metric tonnes of CO2.
Similarly, British competitor TNT is rolling out in-cab camera systems that film the road ahead, capturing bad driving "events".
"[These are] tracked against GPS data, overlaid on a Google map and reviewed by depot management on a one-to-one basis with the driver," a TNT spokesman told the BBC. "Any improvement actions are then agreed."
Some prefer a more flamboyant approach to lowering emissions.
Robert Sliwa, of Connecticut's AirFlow Truck Company, has created the Bullet Truck, which was inspired by the design of Japanese high-speed bullet trains.
The truck has a highly contoured, cone-shaped cab, and panels that stretch the length of its trailer, all of which reduce drag. Electrically powered air conditioning and power steering take a load off the diesel engine, too.
In 2012, it managed to cross the US with a full load averaging 13.4 miles per gallon (mpg) - more than twice the 6mpg ordinary trucks average.
Mr Sliwa, a former trucker and drag car racer, says he's now designing an even more streamlined "concept vehicle" for 2015, which will shield much of the truck's trailer and its rear wheels from the wind.
"People have been thinking I am crazy for many, many years," he says of the original bullet design. "And yes, everyone figured I would never get it finished and it would not work."
Sailing at a clip
Shipping is another important, yet polluting, component of freight transportation, accounting for 3% of the world's greenhouse gases, according to the European Commission.
That's around a billion tonnes of emissions a year, twice the carbon footprint of aviation.
Maersk Line, the largest container shipping company in the world, has recently launched its Triple E ship as an answer to the sustainability challenge.
It claims the vessel is 50% more energy efficient than the average container ship plying the waters between Asia and Europe.
Ironically, the Triple E carries 16% more cargo than the firm's next most fuel-efficient ship, but its engines are 20% smaller, meaning a slower, but more fuel-efficient journey.
A waste-heat recovery system transforms hot exhaust gas from the engine into extra energy for propulsion, too.
While some firms, like B9 Shipping and Cargill, have been experimenting with sails attached to the decks of cargo ships to make the most of following winds, Jacob Sterling, head of sustainability at Maersk, says these "won't be a solution for container shipping in the foreseeable future - among other things because we need the deck space to stack containers."
However, Norwegian designer Terje Lade reckons he may have found a way around that problem.
His Vindskip vessel, which is being developed by his firm Lade AS, could be 60% more fuel efficient than traditional ships, thanks to a radical design quirk - a hull shaped like a "symmetrical air foil".
The ship would be part-propelled by wind, backed up by liquefied natural gas-powered engines. On-board computers would calculate the ship's optimal route based on weather data, too.
"By developing navigation algorithms which can give you the optimum wind angle for maximum effect of the design, you can find the best route across the ocean, either most economically or by estimated time of arrival," he says.
The firm believes the ship could be ready for launch by 2018.
Cost benefit analysis
While environmentalists may welcome visionary new designs, some are sceptical about the prohibitive cost of such state-of-the-art technologies.
Dr Andrew Traill of Green Freight Europe, a non-governmental organisation, warns that "one or two ships might be built perhaps, but very often these innovative designs seldom get adopted on any large scale".
But he accepts that the biggest incentive for any logistics firm to take up energy-saving technology is commercial - customers want cheaper deliveries.
For Maersk Line, fuel makes up about 20% of the firm's total costs, so the logic behind investment in green technology is compelling.
"Green technologies come with an upfront investment, but very often also with a very strong payback," says Mr Sterling.
"Last year, we saved $764m through energy efficiency improvements, roughly half our 2013 profit of $1.5bn," he said.
That level of saving should persuade any transport business to go green.