Robin Dickeson fills us in on what to expect from the European Parliament’s recent decision to vote for changes in truck dimensions.

Introduction

The European Parliament’s decision (early in April 2014) to vote for changes in truck dimensions gave truck makers more room for making improvements to safety, aerodynamic and other efficiency measures. It also left some truck operators worrying about the consequences of another round of changes to truck specifications. Those changes are due to affect all new trucks registered after 2022.

The announcement also left truck makers worried about the commercial effect on newly launched vehicle ranges.

Separately, the final piece of whole vehicle approval law takes effect this autumn; it may add unexpected impetus to the pressure for wide-ranging changes to truck design, manufacture and even procurement.

Far-reaching aims

In the UK, most of the London-based media reports about the European Parliament’s decision centred on giving trucks rounded, more streamlined noses, better protection for pedestrians, and giving drivers bigger and better windows to help them see and avoid cyclists in particular. There is of course, more to the MEPs’ decision than that — while safety is a clear priority, other aims are to help cut fuel use and CO2 emissions.

By giving more length for aerodynamic aids, including rounded noses on truck cabs, MEPs also aim to offer space to improve streamlining and crash protection. Those aerodynamic improvements are tough to measure, tougher to deliver and demand a more integrated approach to truck design and manufacture. That may mean far-reaching changes all round.

Truck makers to slow the pace of change?

The European Parliament wants all new trucks registered from 2022 to meet its new standards, but talks between truck makers, new MEPs and governments across Europe may change both that date and the final shape of the regulations and the trucks they govern. Already there are suggestions that some manufacturers, particularly those that have just introduced new models, want to see implementation dates delayed so that they can avoid expensive modifications early in the 15-year life of their latest truck ranges.

If the 2022 start date does survive, it may still be many more years before the new MEP-designed trucks appear in significant numbers, as the European truck fleet replaces at a little less than 10% a year.

Between now and then, truck operators have to keep goods moving and plan their fleet replacement programmes. They need to know that the type of trucks on which their businesses depend will still be available, or that truck makers will produce others that will do the same job more efficiently.

Truck makers face tough problems. They already have to design and make vehicles that will cope more efficiently than their competitors. Those trucks must carry an enormous range of loads in widely differing operating conditions. Truck manufacturers do not get to design the loads, the roads on which their vehicles run or the rafts of rules that govern road transport: too many variables are outside their control.

Given a free hand to design new-shape trucks, they can and do come up with a huge range of very different looking solutions. An internet search for “concept trucks” brings up hundreds of images of ideas for vehicles that vary from the weird and wacky through to things that look as though they have been designed for the sets of science-fiction films or the shelves of a local toyshop.

Every serious truck maker publishes design studies for revolutionary concept trucks and many firms make full-scale “technology demonstrators” for exhibition stands. A barely perceptible number of these colourful drawings, or even the prototypes, do anything other than vanish; very few get anywhere near series production. The gains for truck makers are in publicity and in exploring the potential for new materials and production methods.

Revolution under the skin

A cursory look at pictures of everyday trucks over the last 30 years shows that they have changed little — they are still pretty much the same shape and size. This is unsurprising, as the loads they carry have also changed relatively little. Mostly, trucks carry or tow a box on wheels, as this is the most convenient and efficient way of moving cargo.

However, look underneath the skin and you will see that there has been a revolution, mainly in the use of new materials and electronics. These have affected every part of the truck’s operation and dramatically increased efficiency over the years.

For instance, in the UK, data from the Office of National Statistics show that the nation’s heavy truck fleet has remained at about half a million vehicles for the last 60 years. That fleet uses the same amount of fuel to deliver at least twice the amount of cargo, more quickly and more reliably than it did in the 1950s. Much of the increase in efficiency has come from changes to the engine, driveline and braking systems. Aerodynamics have also had an increasingly important role to play.

Pictures of trucks from the 1950s show that significant change has occurred, mostly in streamlining. Aerodynamics have the greatest visual effect and those images of concept trucks show that the preoccupation with aerodynamics is alive and well — in fact, it is clearly growing.

Most, but not all, of those pictures show concept trucks designed to handle “standard” freight, carrying either a box body or a boxy trailer. Their frequently bulbous noses may even have inspired some of the MEPs on the European Parliament’s Transport Committee.

Integration to help change the world?

Trucks and trailers

One of the practical difficulties unseen behind those concept drawings, and perhaps unanticipated by the MEPs, is that no European truck maker also produces trailers in serious numbers, although some have made a good start on very simple bodywork for their trucks.

When a truck maker produces an aerodynamically efficient cab, it needs to work with a suitably streamlined and matched body to realise its full potential.

A simple look at motorway truck traffic shows that we are a long way from effective integration between truck and trailer makers and bodybuilders. That may change, as more and more truck makers and their customers appreciate and take advantage of the benefits of building and fitting standard bodywork, designed specifically to fit the trucks they make, but that process will be slow. It will entail big changes in the way that operators specify bodywork and the way in which manufacturers and dealers work with the often very small firms in the bodybuilding business.

Whole vehicle type approval

With effect from 29 October 2014, whole vehicle type approval (WVTA) will be compulsory across all commercial vehicles. It too demands much closer co-operation between truck and trailer makers, bodybuilders, dealers and customers. It is a catalyst for big changes, but that is a slow and difficult process; those changes will cut the almost limitless choice of bodywork style for operators or hike the prices of low-volume and non-standard kit.

WVTA will also cut the huge number of cottage industry-style bodybuilders and trailer makers, particularly in the UK. However, it will not cut the number of truck bodies and trailers that are bought, which should be good news for the bodybuilders big enough to stay ahead of the game. Those bigger firms should also be able to use economies of scale to deliver better products at better prices.

Conclusion

The MEP-inspired design changes, particularly the demands for aerodynamic efficiency, may encourage the same integrated approach. The changes that flow from all this may revolutionise the way we design, build and buy trucks across Europe. The implications for operators may be greater than the shape of a truck’s nose or the size of its windows.

Last reviewed 12 June 2014