Trucking Innovation: Challenge and Opportunity

By Jim Ward, General Manager Technical, Unitrans

ROAD transport companies who own and operate large fleets know that transport is among the largest of client’s supply chain costs. Often, these costs are equated with fuel costs, but this is by no means the case. Other, sometimes hidden, costs go into the total transport mix, and road transport operators are also under pressure to reduce carbon emissions and therefore potential harm to the environment wherever possible. Can new trucking technologies and approaches achieve these combined goals of cost reduction and the limiting of environmental damage?

There are three main areas in which transport operators can productively address these urgent goals.


While initiatives such as bio diesel and hybrid electric vehicles have proven viable elsewhere in the world, South Africa has largely followed the European and US leads in focusing on emission reduction. However, this approach has been complicated by our adoption of emission compliance standards common in those areas. Euro VI specification standards, first introduced in 2013, have engines which achieve exceptionally low emission rates, and near zero toxic emissions. In SA, however, we are only legally required to meet Euro II spec, owing partially to our fuel standard. This greatly limits the importation of the latest technology engines and vehicles, but also means that other fuel saving technologies, and carbon emission reduction measures, become harder to implement. Fuel control measures such as ultra-high injection pressures, multi-phase fuel injection, ceramic injector nozzles and ultra-low sulphur fuels, can help to render emissions harmless. But these advances come at a heavy service and purchase price, because the more engines are strangled with emission control, the bigger the engine has to be in order to extract the same power you used to get from a smaller capacity unit. However, fuel consumption savings are available from a variety of other, techniques and processes more aligned to good supply chain management practices rather than fuel technology interventions.

Management Innovation

Good planning and properly implemented management processes and other types of technical interventions not linked to fuel changes can impact very positively on both carbon emission reduction and cost savings from increased efficiencies from the transport fleet. Techniques to achieve these goals include:
• Active route planning, such as avoiding traffic congestion
• Low rolling coefficient tyres
• Design and aerodynamic improvements to truck and trailers
• Low drag gearboxes and smart transmissions
• Active cruise control systems linked to satellite mapping with distance control to limit the use of braking.

The transportation of temperature-controlled goods is a special subset of bulk transportation, and usually has additional fuel and power demands. For more efficient and less costly movement of these goods, alternative refrigerants and freezer units are in use and these are growing in popularity. One area that would repay greater attention is using more three phase electrical standby power to drive fridges on standby. This concept has not been incorporated into enough cold storage distribution centres and warehouses in South Africa, and has not been adequately emphasized, despite offering significant cost savings and a much reduced carbon footprint.

In a search for the best of these innovations, Unitrans, and other transporters and manufacturers, has tested a dual fuel vehicle, amongst a number of ongoing fuel saving concepts, and other transporters and manufacturers have also conducted their own tests. Concepts that have taken off locally are teardrop trailer designs, lightweight trailers and certain vehicle engine and drive train improvements that offer benefits with relatively few drawbacks.

Organisational Behaviour

While many technical and management process interventions help in bringing costs down and efficiencies up, the low-hanging fruit in improving fuel efficiency and the effectiveness of the transportation function of the supply chain lies in changing human behaviour. Some immediate aspects of this that can be addressed include:
• Improved driver training and driving techniques
• Vehicle routing to avoid delays
• Avoiding harsh braking
• Avoiding excessive idling.

These improvement measures, focused on the front line of the fleet, which is the drivers, all lead to fuel and time cost savings, and greater operational efficiencies. The great advantage of these measures is that they require only management intervention rather than capex or other forms of investment.

In the South African supply chain generally there is still much more that can be done to streamline operations and reduce fuel and other costs. As we can see, many of these factors are easily implementable from a planning and supply chain management point of view, and do not need to impact significantly on operations or on customer budgets. They are practical measures to address an urgent business need.