At this month’s Forum on Doubling Energy Productivity held at the University of Technology in Sydney, key members of the team that developed the USA’s plan for doubling energy productivity by 2030 inspired the sharing of ideas for Australia establishing a similar goal.

An industry panel considered Freight Transport possibilities, canvassing what’s being done and the barriers faced, particularly for shifting freight from road to rail.

Representing Road Transport, for me High Productivity Vehicles and Fuel Efficiency are the chief levers.

High Productivity Vehicles

Truck-trailer combinations with greater weight or cubic capacity than standard truck types are a constant source of innovation in the industry, where energy productivity is all about moving more freight per litre of fuel. It takes close collaboration from supply chain partners including freight customers who ultimately pay for new specialised equipment, the customer’s customers or vendors often need to be on-board, as well as equipment suppliers who must get a practically engineered concept into production.

Significant barriers can restrict High Productivity Vehicle projects, most critically “last mile access” for getting to where freight starts and finishes beyond the highways connecting our cities and towns. Local councils must approve larger vehicles moving on their streets, and many fear harm to neighbourhood amenity, despite larger trucks meaning fewer truck trips are needed, reducing noise and safety risks. Many councils don’t have the funds to upkeep roads with the resulting wear and tear, let alone upgrade roads to more productive levels.

For the operator, specialised equipment demands a price premium up-front and returns a lower re-sale value, so financial paybacks must be underwritten by longer term contracts with customers. Once in service the extra weight or space capacity must be fully utilised with maximum payloads on every trip, requiring precise load planning every day.

Fuel Efficiency

The three main areas of improvement in fuel efficiency are equipment, driver training and night-time deliveries. Equipment efficiency features include aerodynamic kits, lower tare weight equipment and adjusting engine and drive train settings for the particular task. Low profile tyres, nitrogen inflation and keeping tyres inflated at optimal levels are low cost energy productivity solutions with good paybacks.

Driver training offers the biggest fuel efficiency benefits for most fleets, but it’s not a one-off ‘set and forget’ solution. Rather, the training program must be systematic, with constant measurement and management to achieve the gains every trip, every day.

Night-time deliveries offer untapped potential to improve freight transport efficiency with spin-off benefits. Off-peak traffic times allow higher average speeds with reduced idling, heavy braking and gear changes, substantially improving fuel efficiency. As well as improving asset utilisation, the day-time road network benefits from fewer heavy vehicle movements, reducing congestion.

Access to capital holds back thousands of small operators in the trucking sector where capital and cash-flow restrictions make technology investments with long paybacks unattractive. There’s often a split incentive barrier, where the asset owner is disconnected from the fuel bill, such as tow operators pulling someone else’s trailer, so those with incentive to invest in fuel efficiency don’t have the cash or control, and vice versa. Operators also need accurate information from people they trust, because fuel-saving claims of imported technology can be unproven in Australian conditions, and are difficult to validate in practice.

Modal Shift

With road freight accounting for almost 80% of total energy consumption within freight transport, and rail being far more energy efficient, surely part of the key to doubling energy productivity in freight transport is to shift freight from road to rail. But how to do this in practice?

The two modes play different roles. Road offers a door-to-door service while rail is point-to-point, with trucks often having a role at one or both ends of a rail task. Improvement opportunities for intermodal productivity depend on big new infrastructure investments, such as those slated for Moorebank in Sydney and Melbourne’s western suburbs to get containers off congested roads linking ports to metropolitan and regional freight networks.

Rail will always be cheaper than road, but modal choice depends on the customers’ needs for timeliness and reliability. Some customers send freight from Melbourne to Brisbane using both road and rail. The road freight can arrive next day within a slim timeslot threshold, day in, day out, all year round. Rail handles freight with different perishability, demand or working capital characteristics.

Future Trends

So modal choice from point of production to consumption is about more than the end-to-end energy equation. Australia lacks the advantages Europe and North America have with their inland waterways moving freight to and from inland regions, offering higher energy productivity, reliable schedules and lower costs in those mature inland freight networks. Only coastal shipping offers such energy productivity opportunities for Australia’s populated coastal areas, yet government policy prevents the movement of domestic freight by international ships despite there being few local ships to do the job. You can see why the biggest energy productivity innovations in freight transport over the past 30 years have been the invention of B-Doubles, B-Triples and Road Trains, not found anywhere else in the world.

Furthermore, freight patterns are changing as imports grow while Australian manufacturing declines. Traditionally the manufacturing heart of south east Australia has generated freight moving north from Melbourne to New South Wales and Queensland, and from the east coast to the west. As more imported goods arrive directly into Brisbane, Fremantle and other ports by international sea freight for distribution into the metropolitan and regional hinterlands, perhaps market forces will drive the modal shifts necessary to double energy productivity in freight transport?