Never, in the history of road haulage, has the industry faced such huge problems in what has so far been a sleepwalking attitude in the search for remedies. For Britain, in particular, these revolve around the grave shortage of drivers and the need to meet global decarbonisation targets by 2050, a target already dubbed unacceptably far off to prevent presumed climate catastrophe.
In terms of remedies, one thing is clear: the hard-pressed road haulage industry cannot do it alone, despite its commitments to cutting carbon emissions. Some of the efforts the industry alone can do with relatively little investment include the uptake of newer, greener fuels and investment in ways to make existing fuels more efficient, like improving engine models, waste-heat recovery and improved aerodynamics. Then there are technology-driven operations changes such as load factor optimisation and collaborative transport platforms. These could realize CO2 savings of 10% in the EU alone, argues Umberto de Pretto, Secretary-General of the International Road Transport Union.
Scaling up eco-driver training might add an additional CO2 savings of 8%. The industry is considering alternative fuels such as LNG, hydrogen and liquid and gaseous fuels from synthetic and renewable sources but more research is needed and new thinking on the infrastructure needed for operators to use alternative fuels.
This transition to fully renewable energy sources for all vehicles combined with improved fuel efficiency has the potential to save another 10% of CO2 emissions. Improving the functioning of road transport as a global logistics chain could cut the need for private transport and offset the increasing number of trucks on the road. If every UK bus took just one more car driver, it could mean cutting 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.
To their credit the vehicle manufacturers, combined with their biggest potential customers, are making great strides with zero carbon or hybrid vehicle innovations. Following a year-long trial Ford, for example, plans to release its plug-in hybrid electric vehicles later this year as the way forward to meet clean air targets in cities. Ford has also lined up an all-electric Transit to join the company’s European line-up of electrified commercial vehicles by 2021. More remarkably, Amazon has ordered 100,000 electric delivery vans with a 450-mile range, the first to be delivered in 2021, and all 100,000 by 2030, which they estimate will save four million tonnes of carbon a year by 2030.
All these moves, however, will take a long time and much money, a level of investment currently beyond what most operators can afford. Without the required help, like real business incentives to enable adoption of the latest technologies and practices, meeting those decarbonisation targets may prove untenable.
Government help will also be needed to solve the other key problem of chronic driver shortage, currently put at 60,000 but which could rise to 150,000 by 2020, warns the Road Haulage Association. This parlous outlook is not helped by the shameful state of the poor state of lorry driver facilities, which often sees drivers expected to stop and sleep in places with no toilets, washing facilities and security, a far less problematic issue on the Continent. Government has promised to provide such civilized facilities but have yet to deliver.
In connexion with the logistics contribution towards global warming it could be said that the expected growth in this part of the global economy could make decarbonisation targets harder to achieve. The ITF Transport Outlook report avers that by 2050 demand on freight and passenger transport will more than triple by 2050, ostensibly owing to higher demand for goods in booming economies, especially in Asia. Yet we cannot see clearly what existing and future disruptive technologies will have on global trade and travel, like 4D printing and video conferencing, nor what impact the law of comparative costs will have once labour costs in formerly low-wage economies have caught up with higher wage economies. We live in “interesting times” as the old Chinese curse goes.