Sustainable transport: putting theory into practice

Sustainable road freight is one of those topics often found languishing under the same abstract category heading as motherhood and apple pie.

This is a source of immense frustration for any busy truck fleet manager or engineer under intense pressure to do far more than just agree on the general all-round goodness of sustainability.

Practical action to help achieve the goal, without bankrupting the business in the process, is being demanded now more than ever before. Cue the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight (CSRF) and its latest workshop for just such engineers and fleet managers, being held this month (28 March) at the University of Cambridge’s engineering department.

CSRF was established six years ago as a result of collaboration between two universities (Cambridge and Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt) together with support from organisations on both the operational and manufacturing sides of road transport.

Most of the body’s funding to date has come from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a Swindon-based organisation controlling UK government grants in the engineering and physical sciences sectors.

But the initial £4.4 million EPSRC grant runs only until the end of May this year. Many high-profile fleet engineers will be among those who would be surprised and disappointed if an application for a fresh grant is unsuccessful. News on the progress of this latest grant application is expected at this month’s Cambridge workshop.

Finance directors at CSRF member companies doubtless also want to know exactly what they get in return for an annual membership fee of around £16,000. Compelling answers to this question are easy to find.

Former DAF Trucks marketing director Tony Pain has been working enthusiastically with CSRF since his retirement about four years ago, following 40 years in truck engineering and marketing. “The only way to achieve deep reductions in CO2 emissions from the road-freight sector is to combine highly-focused vehicle engineering with systematic improvements in freight distribution systems,” he says. “This is the mission in life of the CSRF.”

Pain emphasises that there is much more to the centre than any single research project. “It’s a living, breathing programme embracing more than 20 individual projects,” he says.

Strong industry support and partnership

Sustainable road freight venn diagram

There are around 22 CSRF “commercial partners” at present, including some of the UK’s biggest transport and logistic contractors as well as own-account fleets such as Wincanton, DHL, Denby Transport, John Lewis Partnership and Tesco. Vehicle, trailer and component-manufacturing members include Volvo Trucks, tyre maker Goodyear, trailer manufacturer SDC, braking system supplier Haldex and energy company Chevron.

“There are three distinct but overlapping areas that need to be connected if we are to develop an integrated environmental roadmap for the future – technology, operators and policy,” says Pain. “At the heart of it all is CSRF.”

But how effective has the body been to date? Few people are better placed to answer that question than Dave Rowlands, technical services director at Wincanton, the UK’s biggest 3PL (third-party logistics) company with 18,000 employees, a fleet of around 3,400 commercial vehicles at 200 sites, and an annual turnover in excess of £1 billion.

Rowlands recalls how he was persuaded by David Cebon and Andrew Palmer (the professors from Cambridge and Heriot-Watt universities respectively who first saw the need for a collaboration of this kind and then put that idea into practice) not only to sign up to CSRF membership but also to become the centre’s first industrial committee chairman. Cebon is now CSRF director.

“When the objectives were spelled out, I could see that this was something that Wincanton could hang its hat on,” he says. “I particularly like that the research is industry-steered. It isn’t research for the sake of research.

“We saw great benefits in the two universities coming together: the traffic and logistics expertise of Heriot-Watt melding with the engineering expertise of Cambridge. The multi-disciplined approach is a great thing for us as vehicle operators. We don’t run trucks for the sake of it. It’s the whole goods movement that is important, not just how the vehicle performs. Sustainability is important to us and to our customers.”

Industry engaging with academia to produce better results

Sceptics may argue that an organisation of Wincanton’s size should be able to afford its own research and development, and thus perhaps gain an edge over rivals by keeping the garnered information to itself. This line of reasoning is rejected by Rowlands.

“Trucking and warehousing is not a big-profit-margin business,” he says. “And we recognise that we aren’t full of all the good ideas. Carbon emissions is a big-ticket item for us. Our customers are concerned. They want fuel use minimised (to keep costs down) and they want emissions minimised.

“Some customers are more concerned about the environmental agenda than the cost. We have to balance the two. We like to be a thought leader. The only way of becoming one is to engage with academia to understand what is here today, what is coming tomorrow and what is much farther away over the horizon.”

Rowlands describes the CSRF annual membership fee paid by Wincanton as “very good value”. He points in particular to the organisation’s work on dual-fuel trucks (running on a mixture of diesel and natural gas).

The dual-fuel engine study is one of seven CSRF research projects summarised by Cebon in a useful, quick-reference table ranking percentage fuel saving against implementation cost and timing. It is the only project in this list to get a “do not implement” warning symbol in two columns. “Trailer aerodynamics”, by contrast, gets 1.5 stars for percentage fuel saving (each star represents 5%); a single £ sign in the cost column (each £ represents around £5,000 per vehicle implementation cost); and three ticks to show it is ready for implementation now.

Waitrose low-drag trailers reducing CO2 emissions

Waitrose boat-tail trailer

Justin Laney is better placed than most to vouch for the accuracy and usefulness of this CSRF ranking system. As general manager of central transport at John Lewis Partnership he has begun to implement the recommendations on trailer aerodynamic efficiency in the trunking fleet of four-axle articulated trucks serving John Lewis’s Waitrose supermarket division.

Two years ago, following a CSRF project involving Cambridge University wind-tunnel tests of Waitrose box-van semi-trailers, verified by on-road trials, Laney revised the standard specification of these trailers to include what he describes as a “boat-tailed rear end”, with a short section of the roof sloping down by nine degrees towards the rear aperture and a slight tapering in of the sides.

The first trailers built to this specification, all manufactured by Gray & Adams of Fraserburgh, are now in service with Waitrose. The scale of the savings promised on fuel economy and CO2 emissions is striking. “In the Waitrose business we use about 90 million litres of diesel a year on the trunking operation,” says Laney. “When this new trailer specification is applied across the board we’ll be saving about 1,600 tonnes of CO2 annually.”

Laney has now succeeded David Rowlands as CSRF chairman and is among the speakers at this month’s Cambridge workshop. Also on the speaker list is Andy Eastlake, managing director of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (Low CVP), expected to outline how he sees the link between research carried out already by CSRF and low-carbon freight transport of the future.

More fleet operators wanted

Picking up on this theme, David Cebon is hoping to attract more fleet operators into CSRF membership with what he calls a “15 by 25” scheme.

“In addition to the existing benefits of membership, every fleet operator that supports the centre will be allocated an expert researcher, tasked with helping them reduce fleet fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 15% in absolute terms, on 2015 levels, by 2025,” he explains.

“The researchers will be armed with the centre’s latest software and our state-of-the-art decarbonisation toolkit. They will measure current fleet operations, analyse anticipated growth, help devise a decarbonisation plan, monitor ongoing performance and report on progress.

“The anticipated fuel savings are predicted to pay for the cost of membership many times over.”

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Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore is an award-winning automotive journalist and the former editor of our sister title, Commercial Vehicle Engineer magazine. He is also the UK representative on the panel of judges for the biennial, pan-European Trailer Innovation Award scheme.

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