Trucks: demons or darlings?

The World Health Organisation has damned trucks and diesel engines, saying they cause cancer. At the same time, truck and bus manufacturers are polishing their halos, saying they have spent billions developing cleaner, greener and thus safer powertrains. So who is telling the truth?


The World Health Organisation (WHO) dealt the industry a punishing blow with last month’s announcement that diesel engine exhausts have been officially classified as carcinogenic to humans. After a week-long meeting of international experts, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said there was “sufficient evidence” that exposure to diesel engine exhausts was associated with an increased risk of lung cancer.

“The scientific evidence is compelling and the working group’s conclusion was unanimous: diesel engine exhaust causes lung cancer in humans,” said an obviously outraged Dr Christopher Portier, chairman of the IARC working group. “Given the additional health impacts from diesel particulates, exposure to this mixture of chemicals should be reduced worldwide.”

The findings were yet another death knell for the transport industry’s public image, which isn’t exactly the darling of environmental or safety experts around the world.

However, these announcements came at precisely the right time for me. I was heading to Germany for the IAA International Press Workshop on commercial vehicles in Frankfurt, traditionally organised by the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) in advance of the IAA Commercial Vehicles trade show. High-ranking representatives of the global commercial vehicle industry would be speaking about innovations and developments – and I was the only South African attending.

The who’s who of the international transport industry was going to be there, and I was interested to hear their views. Our industry has long painted a picture of being progressive, caring and kind. But the WHO was accusing it of selling cancer-causing engines. I expected the workshop to be fascinating – and it was.

Naturally, the speakers didn’t damn their own trade; their chests were puffed out with pride as they spoke of its merits. VDA managing director Dr Kay Lindemann, for instance was quick to paint the transport industry in a good light. “Politicians normally put pressure on industry to create more efficient products, but this industry is the opposite,” he said. “We put pressure on the politicians because we want greener products on our roads.”

Heinz-Jürgen Löw, president of Renault Trucks, was equally exuberant. “In the last few years, vehicle makers have invested billions into the development of modern drivetrains,” he said. “I daresay that no other industry sector is subject to so much regulatory pressure while setting a comparable pace in R&D!”

No life without lorries
VDA president Matthias Wissmann noted that, irrespective of whether they are demons or darlings, the European continent would grind to a halt sans trucks. “Commercial vehicles are the backbone of modern industrialised societies,” he said. “In Europe, commercial vehicles carry around three quarters of all freight traffic. All the other modes of transport – inland shipping, aircraft and the railways – are dependent on trucks. Modern commercial vehicles ensure that supermarket shelves are full, and deliver goods ordered on the Internet directly to the consumer. Commercial vehicles remain indispensable.”

So life cannot continue without trucks – but will trucks cause the end of lives? Not if Wissmann is to be believed. “Modern trucks have an exemplary ecological footprint, and this also applies to emissions of classical air pollutants,” he said.

As Dr Georg Pachta-Reyhofen, CEO of MAN SE and MAN Truck & Bus AG, noted, this trend is nothing new. “Since the early 1990s, the step-by-step introduction of stricter limits for exhaust-gas emissions has been influencing the development of heavy commercial vehicles – since then the pollutant emissions per vehicle have been cut by on average 85 percent,” he commented.

Today, according to Wissmann, under the new Euro-6 standard, commercial vehicles operate virtually pollution-free.

Despite commercial vehicles’ impressive eco-footprint, Wissmann revealed that the European Commission has once again taken up “the long obsolete approach of shifting transport from one mode to another” with its White Paper on transport. Brussels’ idea is that by 2030, 30 percent of all truck cargo moved over 300 km should be moved to rail and waterborne transport.

“As all experts know, in the case of long distance transport, the railways have potential that should be exploited even better. But a total shift is the wrong approach. Anyone who believes that the railways and waterways can be fostered by putting unilateral burdens on road freight traffic is barking up the wrong tree. The efficiency of the transport system as a whole will suffer, and with it Europe as a business location. We therefore hope for a pragmatic, unbiased transport policy from Brussels. The age of ideological trench warfare is over,” he declared.

Andreas Renschler, member of the Daimler AG board of management responsible for Daimler trucks and buses, said trucks were anything but demons. “Our sector has come a long way over the last few decades in terms of cost efficiency and new technologies,” he said. “Of course, we can no longer keep doing things the same way if we want to be able to meet the challenges of the coming decades. Trucks must be made safer and more efficient if an increasing number of them are going to be on the road. And there will be more trucks on the road in the future; that much is certain. Experts predict that global market volume for trucks over six tonnes gross vehicle weight will increase by more than two-thirds between 2011 and 2025. And road freight transport will more than triple worldwide by 2050.”

Does this mean the industry needs to wake up and smell the roses? Not according to Renschler. “There’s no reason to panic; we’re already well on our way to where we need to be in terms of both safe and clean technologies,” he said.

Significantly, a modern heavy-duty truck consumes around 30 percent less fuel on average than one from the 1970s. “If we take transportation efficiency or tonne-kilometres as our measure – and that is the relevant measure for trucks – the improvement in fuel efficiency rises to more than 50 percent, thanks to higher maximum payloads as well. Compared to their counterparts from the 1990s, today’s trucks also emit over 87 percent less nitrogen oxide and 95 percent fewer particulates. The new Euro-6 standard will reduce NOx emissions by a further 80 percent compared to Euro-5. Indeed, we’re now dealing with maximum levels that are barely measurable.”

Buses are greener than ever too. Rudolf Kuchta, senior vice president sales management bus at MAN Truck & Bus AG, pointed out that the bus is already the number one mode of transport today with regards to climate protection: “In a comparison of CO2 emissions, touring coaches and regular-service buses are the clear winners, according to figures issued by the German Federal Environment Agency.”

He explained that when an average of 60 percent of its capacity is used, the touring coach emits a mere 30 grams of CO2 per person-kilometre and is thus significantly more efficient than the  passenger car (142 g/p-km) and well ahead of rail (45 g/p-km). At 21 percent average utilisation, the 75 grams of CO2 per person kilometre emitted by regular-service buses just beats rail-bound local public transport (78 g/p-km). “In the past decade alone,” added Kuchta, “OEMs have been able to reduce the fuel consumption of buses by around 15 percent – despite increasingly stringent requirements in terms of emission quality.”

Challenges abound
So does this mean everything is just dandy and our industry can merrily go about its business? Not according to the global transport captains. Challenges, such as getting buy-in and cooperation from politicians, abound.

Wissmann, for instance, called for an intelligent European transport policy to encourage smart innovations in all modes of transport, and drew attention to the concept of the long truck: two longer trucks that transport the same volume as three conventional trucks. “This offers potential savings in fuel and CO2 of up to 30 percent,” he said. “The long truck is therefore a true eco-truck.”

Renschler said high-quality, sulphur-free fuel needs to be available everywhere. “Take China – the biggest truck market in the world. This is where the greatest potential exists for making global road freight traffic cleaner, but we can barely exploit it yet. The reason is that the Chinese government has already postponed the nationwide introduction of Euro-5 three times because suitable fuels are unavailable. The lack of such fuels in Brazil is also hampering the launch of Euro-5 in that country.”

Crystal ball gazing
Turning to the future, Renschler said a team effort would be required. And, incredible as it may seem, he believes even greater fuel savings can be achieved. “Although I haven’t made any agreements with my colleagues, I would nevertheless say that it’s a realistic target to try to reduce fuel consumption in Europe by a further 10 percent by 2030,” he revealed. “In other words, down to around 23 l/100 km.”

This would obviously be welcomed by operators. As Pachta-Reyhofen pointed out, diesel currently represents 29 percent of operating costs in Germany. “A further reduction in the fuel consumption of trucks is therefore not only decisively important for the climate balance but also in the interests of truck operators, our customers,” he commented.

But how on earth will this be achieved? After all, the industry has already come so far? Renschler concedes that it won’t be easy. “It will require a tremendous effort by all of us. What’s more, we can’t do it on our own. Decisive for success, for example, are tyres. Additional fuel savings of around two percent could be achieved for trucks just by reducing rolling resistance. I’m convinced that if we work together as a sector, we can ensure that these measures pay off as a whole,” he proclaimed.

Löw concurred, saying the reduction of fuel consumption will be the key challenge for future transport more than ever – a challenge no longer affecting just vehicle and engine manufacturers, but urban and traffic planners, IT developers, system operators, the transport industry, car park operators and politicians who need to establish the relevant framework conditions.

Another pivotal role player is the driver. “Man, or rather the well-trained and eco-friendly driver, plays a key role in the reduction of fuel consumption,” said Löw, adding that drivers trained in economic efficiency, driving optimised vehicles can achieve promising synergy when it comes to reducing fuel consumption.

Back to the big C
As the workshop drew to a conclusion, the WHO’s cancer indictment was raised, leading to clarification from the VDA on an important point: the studies were conducted using very old trucks from the 1970s and 1980s. Its finding did not take into account the fact that trucks have evolved dramatically over the decades.

It reminded me of a comment made by Renschler during his speech. The Euro 2012 soccer championship was taking place during the workshop, with Germany playing that night, and Renschler said the first UEFA European Championship he could really remember was in 1972, when Germany won the title and outperformed its opponents in nearly every respect. “But the championship team from 1972 probably wouldn’t have a chance against today’s national team … because the nature of the game has fundamentally changed. Soccer has become a faster, more athletic and variable sport,” he said.

Renschler believes the same can be said of our industry. “Our ‘game’ too is faster, more complex and, above all, more global than before,” he said. “Technological progress continues at breathtaking speed, but the growth of truck fleets in the emerging markets is even faster. The truck of the future will have to be safer, cleaner, and more efficient, as well as more networked and more flexible than trucks are today. Ultimately, what really counts is the same thing that leads to victory in soccer – everyone has to aim for the same goal.”

Let’s hope we can achieve this as an industry. I believe truck and bus manufacturers are aiming at the same goal. The challenge is to ensure that all other role players – not least of all governments across the globe – do the same. And some of them aren’t even on the field yet.

On with the show!
The 64th IAA Commercial Vehicles will take place in Hanover from September 20 to 27 with the slogan “Commercial vehicles: driving the future”.

VDA president Matthias Wissmann says the slogan represents the enormous drive for innovation in the industry and the efficiency of commercial vehicles. “The drivers of the future, such as the new and clean Euro-6 engines, will be on display,” he told FOCUS, adding that the show will feature a number of exciting world premieres – from new ideas for optimising aerodynamics and progress in alternative commercial vehicle drivetrains (ranging from natural gas and hybrids to hydrogen and electric mobility) to innovations that promise even greater safety.

As has been the case for decades, FOCUS will cover this important event, reporting on it in our November issue.

Published by

Prev What happens when you kill a road?
Next Long-distance gas-fuelled trucking
Long-distance gas-fuelled trucking

Leave a comment