An increasing fact of life over the coming years will be the decarbonisation of our transport networks, for which a variety of competing solutions are being touted. Railways, trucks, cars, and planes will all be affected by this move away from fossil fuels, and while sectors such as passenger cars are making great strides towards electric drive, there remain some technical hurdles elsewhere such as with heavy road freight. To help inform the future of road transport policy in the UK then, the British government are financing a series of trials for transportation modes that don’t use internal combustion. These will include a battery-electric fleet for the National Health Service and a hydrogen-powered fleet in Scotland, as well as a trial of the same overhead-wire system previously given an outing in Germany, that will result in the electrification of a 12.4 mile section of the M180 motorway in Lincolnshire.
We’ve written about the overhead electrification project in Germany in the past and subjected it to a back-of-envelope calculation that suggested the total costs for a country such as the UK might be surprisingly affordable. The M180 is something of a backwater in the UK motorway network though, so it will be interesting to see how they approach the problem of finding real-world loads for their tests that ply such a short and isolated route. We’d expect the final picture to include all three technologies in some form, which can only be a good thing if it increases the available electric and hydrogen infrastructure. We’ll follow this story, though sadly we may not be able to blag a cab ride on the M180 in one of the trucks.
As the world grapples with the spectre of the so-called “hockey stick” graph of climate change, there have been a variety of solutions proposed to the problem of carbon emissions from sectors such as transport which have become inseparable from the maintenance of 21st century life. Sometimes these are blue-sky ideas that may just be a little bit barmy, while other times they make you stop and think: “That could just work!”.
One thing that should be obvious to all is that moving our long-distance freight around by means of an individual fossil-fuel-powered diesel engine for every 38 tonne or so freight container may be convenient, but it is hardly either fuel-efficient or environmentally friendly The most efficient diesel engines on the road are said to have a 43% efficiency, and when hauling an single load they take none of the economies of scale afforded to the diesel engines that haul for example a freight train. Similarly they spread any pollution they emit across the entirety of their route, and yet again fail to benefit from the economies of scale present in for example a power station exhaust scrubber. However much I have a weakness for the sight of a big rig at full stretch, even I have to admit that its day has passed.
The battery technology being pursued for passenger cars is a tempting alternative, as we’ve seen with Tesla Semi. But for all its technology that vehicle still walks the knife-edge between the gain in cost-effectiveness versus the cost of hauling around enough batteries to transport that quantity of freight. Against that the overhead wire truck seems to offer the best of both worlds, the lightness and easy refueling of a diesel versus the lack of emissions from an electric. In the idealised world of a brochure it runs on renewable wind, sun, and water power, so all our problems are solved, right? But does it really stack up?
Towering behemoths are prowling the docks of Auckland, New Zealand, in a neverending shuffle of shipping containers, stacking and unstacking them like so many out-sized LEGO bricks. And they’re doing it all without human guidance.
It’s hard to overstate the impact containerized cargo has had on the modern world. The ability to load and unload ships laden with containers of standardized sizes rapidly with cranes, and then being able to plunk those boxes down onto a truck chassis or railcar carrier for land transportation has been a boon to the world’s economy, and it’s one of the main reasons we can order electronic doo-dads from China and have them show up at our doors essentially for free. At least eventually.
As with anything, solving one problem often creates other problems, and containerization is no different. The advantages of being able to load and unload one container rather than separately handling the dozen or more pallets that can fit inside it are obvious. But what then does one do with a dozen enormous containers? Or hundreds of them?
That’s where these giant self-driving cranes come in, and as we’ll see in this installment of “Automate the Freight”, these autonomous stevedores are helping ports milk as much value as possible out of containerization.