How low can you go? 05 January 2017

Low ground clearance poses problems for vehicle recovery operators, particularly those serving the automotive sector. But a new design could provide the answer, says John Kendall

While the techniques and equipment used to recover vehicles remain largely unchanged, the industry knows it has to respond to trends in vehicle design. One of those is the focus on aerodynamics that has led to bodywork having minimal ground clearance, notably on expensive high performance cars, but also increasingly in the mass market.

Low ground clearance makes recovering vehicles difficult because the ramp angle on trucks fitted with tilting and sliding beds is too great. Now, however, new company AIS Innovations, working with Powertec, has developed a system, named So-Low, aimed at reducing the ramp angle.

“We’ve identified this as quite a serious problem for a lot of the companies operating recovery equipment, whether they are delivering cars or responding to breakdowns,” states AIS director Andy Spencer. He describes the patented So-Low bodywork as a “sliding pivotal alignment” arrangement. Others designs are available for recovering vehicles with low ground clearance but these are mostly more complex and heavy, he says.

So-Low uses a novel hydraulic cylinder arrangement. Spencer states that the design incorporates “additional geometry” to deliver an approach angle of a little under four degrees. It also eliminates the need for cables, chains, a heavy rack and pinion, or hydraulic drive motors, he says.

In some respects, it operates much like a tilt and slide body, but articulating the frame provides additional flexibility to reduce the ramp angle. “It consists of a base frame that bolts to the chassis,” he explains. “You’ve then got a sliding frame [attached to a pivot point on the load bed], which sits on that, with hydraulic equipment to push off the slide bed and allow it to tilt.”

The body – which will be available with four load capacities (4,000kg, 6,000kg, 8,000kg and 10,000kg) – can be fitted to a range of vehicles. AIS says it will eliminate damage to recovered vehicles, as well as minimising time on site. Around six So-Low equipped vehicles have been sold to date, and AIS is expecting customers to come from Europe and North America, not just the domestic market.

Moving on to the heavier end of recovery, several issues are giving manufacturers and operators cause for concern. Among the most recent are proposals from TfL (Transport for London) regarding the ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ). As we go to press three options are open to consultation. These are:

To bring forward the London ULEZ introduction from 2020 to 2019.

To extend the ULEZ from central London across Greater London for heavy vehicles, also by 2019.

To expand the ULEZ to the North and South Circular roads for all vehicles, again by 2019.

Heavy recovery vehicles are inevitably specialist assets that come at a high price. Since they don’t cover many thousands of miles per year, costs are amortised over a much longer working life than is the case with, for example, haulage vehicles.

So mandating early replacements in the London area would prove very costly. It would also need careful planning by OEMs and converters in the first half of 2018 to ensure delivery in time. AVRO (the Association of Recovery Vehicle Operators) hopes that an exemption might be granted from the proposed Euro 6 emissions legislation requirements planned for vehicles entering the ULEZ.

“The utilisation of a normal commercial vehicle is around 80—85%. It’s less than half that for a recovery vehicle. We want the Mayor of London to take that into account,” insists AVRO president Steve Shinnick.

“The vehicle recovery industry keeps the roads clear of broken down vehicles and works alongside the emergency services, clearing away road traffic accidents. Both are major causes of congestion,” he continues. And, as he points out, even Euro 6 emissions control equipment cannot function efficiently when vehicles stuck in traffic are idling. Quite simply, the operating temperature falls below the optimum – certainly for SCR (selective catalytic reduction) after-treatment equipment.

AVRO is also campaigning for recovery operators to be permitted use of bus lanes in London, in order to speed up operations – and hence to reduce congestion and, again, emissions. Shinnick says the organisation is not seeking a licence for recovery operators to use bus lanes at will, but to help them to clear roads as quickly as possible. He also calls for overhead signs – similar to those on smart motorways – to warn road users of congestion caused by breakdowns or accidents.

Talking of which, recovery operators are concerned about the spread of smart motorways that periodically invalidate the hard shoulder. Back in June last year, the Transport Select Committee warned the government not to press ahead with ‘all lane running’ schemes while safety concerns remain.

Either way, Shinnick worries about the vulnerability of recovery operators at the roadside. He wants to see more ‘crash cushion’ vehicles – particularly for smart motorways.

Crash cushions or impact protection vehicles (IPVs) are usually based on 18- or 26-tonne gvw, two- or three-axle rigids, with bodywork designed to absorb rear impact energy and protect those working in the road. They are also equipped with warning systems to alert the workforce to vehicles detected in the approach zone that might not stop, enabling them to take evasive action.

John Kendall

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