Looking in from the Outside

Remain Vigilant

It’s not until you start looking in from the outside that you can see the full picture and get some perspective. I have just returned from a holiday in Europe and became a casual observer of the way road transport is handled in Spain, France and the UK.


Apart from the obvious differences, like driving on the wrong side of the road and pulling semi-trailers with a single drive prime mover, there is a lot more to think about. The European economy seems to be picking up and, as a result, the trucking industry is hauling more freight.


Watching how much of the freight makes it from A to B shows us just how inefficient their transport system is in comparison to our own. First, the biggest truck on the road is semi and often limited to just 40 tonnes gross combination mass (GCM). Second, a lot of the final-mile delivery work is handled by small vans, and I mean small vans, not at a five or six tonne GCM but closer to two.


The sheer geography of a lot of the urban environment means it is easier to get around the city in something not much bigger than a car, but even on the outer edges of the cities, vans predominate. Smaller vans means more trips, more vans and more man hours. This equates to lower efficiency.


Out on the main freight routes, the roads are a constant stream of semis travelling on the limiter at 90km/h and driving tail to tail for long periods. The combination of the 16.5-metre length limit and a maximum trailer height of four metres means these trailers are cubed out in most cases and running well below maximum gross weights.


Rational solutions to the crowded city delivery issues are being tried in the more rational Scandinavian countries, with Stockholm running a consolidation distribution system for deliveries into the city. However, these kinds of ideas are unlikely to get started in the less rational Mediterranean cities. The inefficient and chaotic delivery infrastructure is going to remain the norm.


The argument for longer heavier trucks and platooning of line haul trucking in Europe is obvious to the casual Australian observer. A lot of trucks are engaged in a form of ‘virtual’ platooning anyway. They are sitting 40 metres off the truck in front and using active cruise control to maintain distance and speed. Fuel efficiency gains are achievable like this, but getting much closer with some form of autonomous control would reap big savings.


A-double combinations would also reap big rewards in these situations. It is not unusual to see several trucks from the same operator, clearly hauling the same goods to the same destination, traveling along together, a strong argument for road trains and a quantum leap in efficiency.


Returning home and heading out on the highway from the airport and seeing the trucks on our roads drives home just how efficient we have become, when compared to the rest of the world. We are doing a lot of things right.


B-doubles are now the default method of hauling freight in Australia. A-double and larger trucks are handling container movements in and out of ports to regional locations. Even road construction sites are more efficient, on the European motorways you can drive past kilometres of parked rigid tippers in queues. The same amount of material is getting shifted here in ever-larger tipper and dog units at a much lower cost.


Next time you think the trucking game is lagging behind in Australia, just have a look at how the job is done elsewhere and things might seem quite so bad.