Could the UK learn anything from New Zealand’s HPMVs? After driving one for a day, Will Shiers thinks it could.
In my humble opinion, the UK is about to piss £8.1m ($15.5m) into the wind, by embarking on a truck platooning trial. In an attempt to prove that the technology can save fuel and increase productivity, a trio of DAFs will travel 50,000km on UK motorways, linked in a wirelessly connected convoy. They will be piloted by specially trained DHL drivers, as part of the parcels firm’s day-to-day delivery operations. When safe to do so, the lead driver will take control of all three vehicles, while the other two drivers will remain on standby in case they need to regain control at short notice. Richard Cuerden, head of Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) Academy, who is overseeing the trial, believes platoons could become a commercial reality on UK roads within the next five years, and is advising British hauliers to embrace the concept. That’s all well and good, but we seem to be ignoring the elephant in the room – namely that the benefits of platooning have already been disproved.
Earlier this year Daimler pulled the plug on its €50m ($82.5m) platooning project, announcing that the figures just didn’t stack up. “Platoons do improve aerodynamics and fuel efficiency considerably in an ideal world, but not in real-world traffic,” said Martin Daum, CEO of Daimler Truck & Bus. He explained that under perfect conditions, coupling two or more trucks electronically at a distance of 15m apart has the ability to boost fuel economy by 4%. However, thanks to a number of external factors, including terrain and traffic conditions, perfect platooning only occurs 20% of the time. As a result, in real-world conditions, the savings are closer to 1%, which he says does not make platooning a viable business proposition. “Platooning is a lot of hassle, but we would go through that hassle if it meant a 4% fuel saving for our customers. However, it’s not worth it for just 1%,” he said.
So, if Daimler can’t get platooning to work on North America’s big open roads, with its high speed limits, why do we think it stands a cat in hell’s chance of working on our congested little island? In my humble opinion, the best way to improve productivity, and slash CO2 in the process, is to link trucks mechanically. And, having recently spent a day driving one of New Zealand’s HPMVs, I’m even more convinced that this is the route the UK should be taking.
Day trip to New Zealand
My first (but definitely not last) trip to New Zealand saw me driving one of Temuka Transport’s truck and trailers from Queenstown to Christchurch. In the passenger seat was regular driver and all-round good bloke Damien Hall. The truck was a 50th anniversary Volvo FH16 750 8x4, coupled to a 5-axle dog trailer. I was interested to discover that the prime mover wasn’t too dissimilar to a tipper-spec 8x4 in the UK, only running on air and low profile tyres.
Damien talked me through the truck, explaining that we were 23 metres long, and had a GCM of 57 tonnes. To put these figures into perspective (and to explain why I was so excited at this point), the maximum weight and length of an articulated tractor and semi-trailer permitted on a standard licence in the UK is just 44 tonnes and 16.5 metres, while drawbars can go up to 18.75 metres. In Europe, we tend to tunnel under mountains, whereas here it seems you build roads over them! And I’m glad you do too, as the scenery in this part of the world is stunning. I was especially bowled over when State Highway 8 took us over the Lindis Pass. It reminded me of the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales, only with better weather and less traffic.
It was interesting to see that like the UK, New Zealand has a plague of cyclists, some of who had made it up the pass. And like in the UK, a small minority have bugger-all consideration for fellow road users, and travel three abreast. We sat behind one group for five minutes, unable to find a safe place to pass. Climbing the hills allowed me to put those 750 horses to work, which was a real novelty for me. I’ve driven numerous FH16s in the UK, but only ever at 40 or 44 tonnes, and it was a pleasure to experience what the truck was actually designed for. At home, it’s rare for one of these to downshift on a hill, but here the I-Shift transmission was dropping several gears on the steepest inclines.
Photo: Will Shiers and Damien Hall discuss the day’s work and the pros of ‘big is good!’
The truck wasn’t overly responsive though, with more turbo lag than I had expected. Then it occurred to me why. The Euro 5 model had a single turbo, and these days I’m used to driving the Euro 6 version with its twin turbos. Considering your high weights and steep hills, I was surprised to discover just how few FH16s there are in New Zealand. In contrast, Volvo sell about 100 per annum in the UK, the bulk of which are rated at 750hp. I was overwhelmed by the HPMV combination’s road manners; the trailer tracking far better than I had expected it to. Yes, of course there was some cut-in on tight bends, but it didn’t take long to get used to. The truck felt incredibly surefooted and stable, and 13hp per tonne proved to be more than enough power. Damien assured me that his previous truck, a Volvo FM 540, was also perfectly adequate for these hills. So, that’s me, a fully fledged convert to HPMVs, but do I think the UK government will agree? Not if past experience is anything to go by.
For decades Sweden and Finland have allowed larger combinations on their roads, and as other European countries also started trialling 60-tonne 25.25 metre outfits, the UK briefly sat up and took an interest. In 2006 the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) launched a study into the feasibility of what it called Longer Heavier Vehicles (LHVs). If you ask me, referring to them as that was ridiculous, and meant that the industry was fighting a losing battle from the start. Why not go with ‘High Productivity’, like New Zealand has, or maybe ‘Environmentally Friendly’, as both of these names would have sent the right message to the truck-hating public.
Photo: Dick Denby has been a passionate advocate of bigger units in the UK, citing productivity and environmental benefits.
Anyway, blaming the need for infrastructure changes, and not wanting to piss off the rail lobby, in 2008 the plug was permanently pulled on LHVs. But one man who won’t give up on the dream is Dick Denby, chairman of Denby Transport, located in Lincoln in the east of England. Back in 2002 he built a 25.25-metre B-double, which he christened Eco-Link. In 2009 he famously attempted to drive it on public roads, having discovered a loophole in the law, but was turned around by the police as he exited his yard. Ten years on and Denby is still championing the cause, shouting about the environmental and productivity benefits of his truck, and actively pushing for a trial to allow 2000 Eco- Links to operate on UK roads.
Having ruled against LHVs in 2008, the DfT announced details of a longer semi-trailer (LST) trial. It issued 1800 licences for an equal mix of 14.6-metre and 15.65-metre trailers, as opposed to the 13.6-metre industry standard. Initially the take-up was low, especially with the shorter 14.6- metre trailers. You see GVWs remained at 44 tonnes, which meant that LSTs certainly didn’t suit all applications. In 2017, in order to make the final results of the study “more robust”, the trial was extended for a further five years, and another 1000 licences were added to the mix. At this point the DfT published its interim findings (see panel). Following my New Zealand trip, in Commercial Motor magazine I ran an editorial asking whether HPMVs could work in Blighty, coming to the conclusion that yes, they probably could. Of course, we would need to make some infrastructure changes to accommodate their additional length, and some extra driver training would be required. But if you ask me, a good place to start would be using that £8.1m put aside for the platooning trials.