With Germany's famed autobahns sometimes looking more like vast truck parking lots than motorways, the government is wondering whether fewer, longer trucks could reduce congestion and emissions. Critics doubt it.
Long and even possibly longer: Germany considers long trucks
One of the hot topics at this year's IAA Commercial Vehicles trade show in Hanover is the German governent's nationwide "long truck" field trial planned some time next year. The trails could lead to new regulations on semi-truck lengths, creating new business opportunities for both makers of long-haul transportation vehicles and logistics companies operating them.
Experts say longer trucks could reduce trucking costs by 20 to 25 percent.
"We build long trucks, and the experience of our customers using them in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and other markets has been good," Detlef Hug, a spokesman for German truck maker MAN, told Deutsche Welle. "Of course, Germany has its own challenges like heavy traffic and hilly terrain. So that's why it is a good idea to conduct a nationwide field trial so that we can test fuel and CO2 emission reduction, safety, the impact on car drivers and more."
Truck traffic to increase 70 percent
There is a sense of political urgency in Berlin. The Federal Transportation Ministry estimates that truck traffic - already choking numerous German highways - will increase by 70 percent over the next 15 years. And no one knows where all those vehicles should go.
Germany's autobahns look more like a truck parking lot these days
Three years ago, several German states launched their own field trials – with mixed results. Accompanying studies also painted a blurred picture. One of the studies, by the technical RWTH Aachen University, concluded that long trucks are safe and would reduce emissions. Longer vehicles, it noted, hardly use more fuel than current shorter models; only during acceleration does the additional load make the truck's engine slightly less efficient.
But another study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovative Research claimed that while long trucks could relieve roads and the environment in the short term, they would, in the long term, cause a shift from rail to road that would offset any benefits.
"We're aware of the work the states have done and the results of their tests will flow into a joint working group between the federal and state transportation ministries," a spokesman from the Federal Transportation Ministry told Deutsche Welle. "These tests, however, were on a small scale. What is needed is a much larger field trial across the entire country to determine the impact on logistics."
Plenty of interest
More than 300 companies, including MAN, have already registered to participate in the federal government's planned nationwide test, though a final number of participants has yet to be set.
The goal is to test tractor-trailer combinations with a length of 25.25 meters (83 feet), or 6.5 meters (21 feet) longer than currently allowed. The gross weight of the vehicles will remain at the current 44 tons for semi-trucks or 44 for "intermodal" container trucks.
MAN has a booth at the IAA Commercial Vehicles trade show in Hanover
"We have heard some talk about the planned nationwide field trial testing 60-ton vehicles," the ministry spokesman said. "We have no intention to change the weight. This is all about increasing volume."
Long trucks, the spokesman said, would allow voluminous goods to be transported with one vehicle, for instance, instead of breaking down the item to transport it with three trucks.
Critics of heavy and long 60-ton trucks point to a number of problems, such as the damage they could do to roads and bridges because of their added weight and the lack of sufficiently secure guard rails.
Yet long trucks also have their critics, too. "There are a number of issues to be concerned about," said Martin Roggermann from the German Pro-Rail Alliance. "Long trucks are more difficult to pass, they need more space for turning at intersections and don't fit into the current autobahn parking facilities, not too mention safety issues."
Shift from road to rail
But Roggermann's biggest bone of contention is that the expected lower operating costs of long trucks could undermine efforts by his organization and others to shift freight off the road and onto rail. "We are really concerned about the shift from rail to the road," he said. "We don't believe long trucks will result in fewer trucks but in more trucks and in more problems on German roads."
Moreover, Roggermann and others worry that if 40-ton long trucks are allowed, it will only be a matter of time before 60-ton "gigaliners" roar down German roads. Scandinavia began with 40-ton vehicles and later allowed the heavier vehicles, he noted.
Few experts will disagree that competition for road freight business has become cutthroat in Europe, especially since recent eastward European Union expansion. And plenty of them admit that the prospect of allowing larger vehicles to carry more for less will only fuel that competition.
Author: John Blau
Editor: Chuck Penfold