Ahead by a nose 06 January 2015

Brussels is keen to see a new generation of long-nose trucks on Europe's roads – not only to improve aerodynamics but also to reduce collisions between HGVs and vulnerable road users. Brian Weatherley investigates

It's not every day that Brussels talks about changing heavy truck dimensions. When the EC (European Commission) sets maximum vehicle lengths they tend to stay set in stone for decades. True, there's the occasional fine tuning, as in 1988 when the width of refrigerated vehicles was allowed to increase to 2.6m. But the last major revision to UK artic and drawbar lengths – to 16.5m and 18.75m respectively, as per the 96/53/EC directive – happened back in 1990 and 1998.

So last April's overwhelming vote by the European Parliament in support of the EC's proposal to amend 96/53/EC, thereby allowing longer truck cabs should be more than just of passing interest. A new generation of long-nose cabs might provide several benefits, not least that truck makers could build extended aerodynamic profiles that allows trucks to slice through the air more cleanly, so reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.

However, by allowing longer cabs, the EC also wants to improve driver vision, in particular by reducing blind spots under the front windscreen and all around the cab, to help cut the number of collisions between HGVs and vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists. A longer nose could also incorporate a more 'impact friendly', energy-absorbing structure. The European Parliament specifically wants pedestrian protection to be improved "by adjusting the frontal design to minimise the risk of overruns in case of collisions with vulnerable road users by encouraging the sideways diversion of vulnerable users."

Speculation as to when such long-nose lorries might appear on Europe's roads is probably premature. There's still a long way to go before a definitive EU directive, amending Directive 96/53/EC, is issued with a clear date for adoption. For now, the EC says it wants to "grant derogations from the maximum dimensions ... for the addition of aerodynamic devices to the rear of vehicles or to redefine the geometry of cabs for tractors, improving drivers' field of vision, and improving safety and comfort".

The Commission says it will specify requirements at a later stage. As for when, the official view is that "within seven years of the entry into force of the directive, new N2 and N3 vehicles and combinations of vehicles shall use cabs that comply with the safety requirements referred to in the directive". In other words, long-nose lorries could start appearing on our streets from 2022.

How much longer is a longer nose? According to the EC, "if all conditions are met, cabs could be extended to up to 80cm". That's quite a lot to play with. One condition would be the ability for a longer-truck to still meet existing turning circle requirements. This, it says, is mandatory for all vehicles and hence the calculation of an 80cm limit, with the turning circle criterion ensuring that vehicles comply with existing infrastructure constraints.

That said, while cabs may become longer, current load lengths will remain the same. However, significantly, the EC states that cab extensions are optional. "It is entirely up to manufacturers to decide whether and how to take advantage of such longer cabs," declares the EC. And it adds: "Negotiations are ongoing in view of reaching a final agreement."

Improving driver vision from a longer-nose truck might, on the face of it, seem somewhat contradictory. However, the Design Ergonomic Group (DEG) at Loughborough Design School (part of Loughborough University) has already created concept designs that go a long way to meeting the Commission's goal – extending earlier project work.

"We have used digital human modelling in the assessment and design of vehicles in many projects, and have software that allows the analysis of direct and indirect vision [for HGVs]," explains Dr Steve Summerskill, senior lecturer in product and industrial design in the DEG. Indeed, he and his colleagues have been involved in several HGV driver vision projects – for example with DfT (Department for Transport and TfL (Transport for London) on the latter's CLOCS (Construction Logistics and Cycle Safety) initiative.

"We performed research with the DfT on the identification of blind spots, which led to the revision of EU standards," states Summerskill. "The techniques we use [including the projection of visible space via windows and mirrors] were seen as useful by the commissioners of the Direct Vision concept." And he means TfL and Transport and Environment – the influential Brussels-based sustainable transport think tank.

This latter organisation initially commissioned German automotive consultancy FKA to create a concept cab that could take advantage of a longer nose for aerodynamics. However, it didn't stop there. "They then asked us to assess this concept for direct vision, and to modify the concept to improve it further," says Summerskill. So working with FKA's computer-generated long-nose design, Summerskill's team have since created three separate design iterations, comparing improvements in direct driver vision to those on a baseline cab over engine – in this case, a DAF XF105, seen as representative of current high-roof, high-datum, top-weight sleeper cabs.

Into FKA's prototype concept, the Loughborough team first placed the driver and conventional XF dashboard to replicate current sightline issues. They then developed and enhanced the FKA design, creating a revised dash layout to overcome issues around dashboard obscuration. The second step was to examine the potential for improving the FKA concept cab's sightlines – initially by lowering the driver's seat position but retaining the conventional location, but then by placing the driver in a central driving position, with the addition of extra glazing for the latter two concepts.

Which of the three versions offers the best solution, or the best compromise, in Summerskill's opinion? "Concept iteration 2 showed the best results in our [vision] analysis – the lowered position with the extra glazed areas," he replies. According to his data, the baseline DAF truck cab has just 67% of the driver direct vision provided by this enhanced FKA long-nose design. However, he also reports: "There is potential for the central driving position, too, but this needs further work to stop the dash from obscuring too much of the vision in front of the driver."

Anyone looking at the futuristic designs might be forgive for wondering whether the deep dashboards (which house a variety of equipment, including heating and ventilation systems) of today's heavy trucks could be repackaged to fit in a cab like the FKA long-nose concept. However, Summerskill is unequivocal. "The section of the dash in front of the driver that goes into the extended nose still provides opportunities for the location of electrical and other services," he insists.

Okay, but while it's not hard to imagine an FKA cab on future long-haul tractors spending much of their time on motorways, just how transferrable would it be to urban delivery trucks? And what about construction vehicles, currently at the heart of TfL's debate on HGV safety around cyclists – and in terms of approach-angles and manoeuvrability?

"The design has potential issues in terms of turning cycles in urban environments," concedes Summerskill, pointing to the fact that the steer axle is moved rearwards. "But I would expect vehicles that go into cities that are involved in distribution and construction to be developed along the lines of low-entry cabs." And he rightly observes that artics are also found in city centres.

The report from the DEG team 'The design of category N3 vehicles for improved driver direct vision' has already created considerable interest and Summerskill confirms that he has been in discussion with un-named truck makers. As yet, there are no plans to create a scale model or working prototype, he says. However, there's no doubting the Commission's desire to see long-nose trucks on our streets, and the Loughborough study provides a valuable insight into the way forward.

Brian Weatherley

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