Engineers receive truck challenge

Liz Wells

Engineers have been challenged to make trucks more environmentally-friendly after a study revealed that delivering packages with drones can reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The call follows a study by University of Washington transportation engineers which found that drones tend to have carbon dioxide emissions advantages over trucks when the drones don't have to fly very far to their destinations or when a delivery route has few recipients.

The study compared carbon dioxide emissions and vehicle miles traveled from drone and truck deliveries in 10 different, real-world scenarios in Los Angeles. The model incorporated 330 different service zones, with the number of recipients varying from 50 to 500 in each zone.

The results found that trucks perform poorly, producing high CO2 when compared to drones because they are heavier, partly due to protection required for the driver and passengers.

Anne Goodchild, associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at University of Washington, told Professional Engineering: “Reducing weight in the drone has been a key engineering challenge that has been overcome to make them possible (in addition to improvements in battery technology).  Nothing like this level of effort has been invested in making over-the-road trucks light and energy efficient.”

She said drones will be difficult to implement in areas of high customer density due to air space management, safety, and quality of life concerns.

“I see the most realistic path forward as taking the approaches that have reduced energy requirements for the drone, and applying these to the ground vehicle. For example, ground-based drones can save weight because they don't need the infrastructure required to protect passengers, and trucks can be engineered to reduce weight and energy consumption, thereby dramatically reducing CO2 production.”

Goodchild said there are significant opportunities in materials and design. “We could design urban delivery specific vehicles, which were smaller and had reduced engineering requirements due to lower speeds and smoother driving surfaces,” she added.

However, some in the distribution sector have taken issue with the challenge. James Firth, head of licensing policy and compliance information at the UK’s Freight Transport Association, told PE: “A road freight operator’s single largest vehicle overhead will be their fuel bill. Truck manufacturers know this, therefore increasing fuel efficiency through whatever method – weight reduction, aerodynamics, mechanical efficiencies – is a key consideration in vehicle procurement.”

However, he said manufacturers face regulatory challenges which act to increase the weight of trucks, such as safety requirements and engine emission standards. It is suggested that when the Euro VI engine emission standards came in the engineering required to meet the standard handed manufacturers a 200kg penalty, he added.

“So we would take issue with the suggestion that there has been no effort in this area.  The on-road fleet may look little different to the casual observer over decades, but underneath vehicles are cleaner and more effective year-on-year. The manufacturers are running as fast as they can to stand still.” 

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