The International Transport Forum have done some research into the future of road freight and have concluded that as the requirements for road transport increases, the infrastructure need is not keeping pace. As a result, attention is turning to modern High Capacity Vehicles (HCV) as a solution.
A number of countries have introduced HCVs or are testing them. Such vehicles can be designed to operate on existing roadways with limited or no additional infrastructure investment to accommodate them. They can contribute to improving the efficiency and safety of road transport operations and reduce transport costs and energy demand. Advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) ease the introduction of HCVs by allowing better monitoring of vehicles and thus enforcement of conditions of access to the road network.
Despite the benefits, there is often opposition to the introduction of HCVs. In many cases an evidence-based approach to policy making is eclipsed by fears that increasing the weight and dimensions of trucks might increase risks for other road users. It is also argued that larger freight vehicles could take business away from small trucking firms or from railways and waterborne transport. Risk to infrastructure is also discussed.
HCVs contribute to decarbonising transport. They lower fuel consumption and emissions per unit of cargo transported and reduce the number of trips required to move the same amount of freight. They also reduce costs. Other things equal, this will tend to result in additional freight demand, yet the effect is likely to offset only a small part of environmental gains. Where there is head-to-head competition, HCVs will enjoy a greater advantage over competing modes than standard trucks. However, positive impacts on rail freight have also been observed in intermodal markets, as HCVs can extend the reach of rail services. Additional research on intermodal freight, where trucks are an essential component, is needed.
The impacts of HCVs on road transport infrastructure can be efficiently managed using three approaches. First, the vehicles can be designed using performance-based standards (PBS). This ensures their performance meets pre-defined characteristics suited to the existing or planned road infrastructure, most notably to bridges. Second, HCVs have more axles than standard vehicles to ensure that road loading per axle is less than current norms. Third, the use of ICT can ensure high-levels of regulatory compliance in the operation of the vehicles. This applies even in regions where compliance is not the norm in the trucking industry.
The safety performance of HCVs is actually better than that of the conventional freight truck fleet, as review of existing HCV programmes and data from Australia, Canada, South Africa and several European countries reveal. The good performance of HCVs also depends on how they are managed. This includes training to improve driver skills, additional on-board safety systems and limiting the operation of HCVs to certain routes. As HCVs are typically more expensive than standard trucks, operators have strong incentives to use them in an efficient and safe manner.
Several policy options exist for allowing HCVs onto roads. They include PBS and flexible policies on size and weight. Australia and Canada provide examples for very different approaches to PBS, which demonstrate the degree of flexibility that exists for delivering significantly improved road freight transport in terms of efficiency, safety and environmental performance.