Trucks: the road to ruin or increased efficiency?

Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry

Ruairi O Brien

How can freight trucks be made heavier and still reduce road damage and cut transport costs? The answer may be divine. 

Road maintenance is a huge public cost in most industrial countries. In fact, it can represent as much as three quarters of the total road infrastructure budget in some of them. One of the challenges for governments is how to improve efficiency in the administration of road expenditures to keep those costs under control, while achieving greater efficiency in road transport.

Freight traffic is the main cause of road damage, which is why most of the debate has focused on heavy trucks. In fact, with engineering advances transport efficiency can be improved. It is even possible to allow an increase in heavy vehicle mass limits for vehicles using advanced suspension technology without causing an increase in road damage costs. Moreover, the increase in efficiency could provide end users with lower transport costs.

Over 70% of freight travels by road transport at some point from production to final consumer. For the period 1975-95, the volume of road freight (tonne-kilometres) increased in OECD countries, see figure for growth rates in the United States, European Union and Japan. Countries with particularly high growth rates between 1980 and mid 90s include Australia (119%), Korea (288%) and Turkey (229%).

Given the importance of transport to the economy – the asset value of a road network averages one and a half to three times annual GNP in OECD countries – it is not surprising that government investment in transport infrastructure is big business. Take for example the 1998 United States Transportation Equity Act: US$198 billion to be invested in rebuilding the US transportation system over six years. That’s more than the GDP of Sweden in the same year. Maintenance and rehabilitation account for the lion’s share of annual road budgets in many OECD countries, since their major transport infrastructure is already in place. New construction can account for as little as 10% of the total infrastructure budget.

Divine Design

Various aspects of vehicle design have been improved to reduce pavement damage during the last 40 years or more, suspension performance being one of them. The extent of the progress has not been lost on the regulators. The European Commission, for instance, has introduced preferential weight limits for certain vehicles with “road-friendly” air or equivalent suspensions. Knowledge of the scientific and economic benefits of these air suspensions was very limited until comprehensive experiments were carried out through the OECD Programme of Research on Road Transport and Intermodal Linkages. The results of this study have been rather appropriately called DIVINE, which stands for Dynamic Interaction between Vehicles and Infrastructure Experiment. They will have important implications for future road construction and maintenance, as well as for suspension standards.

The potential economic benefits are broadly twofold. First, replacing the national fleet with road-friendly vehicles could considerably reduce maintenance and rehabilitation costs. OECD research estimates that road-friendly suspensions could increase pavement life by between 15% and 60%, depending on the pavement. That’s a considerable saving.

Second, by increasing the weight limits for road-friendly vehicles, transport efficiency is improved without increasing road wear. The National Road Transport Commission in Australia estimates that a 15% increase in vehicle mass limits would generate savings of AUS$840 million (or US$535 million) per year in transport costs. As a result, higher mass limits were introduced on the National Highway System in Australia last year for vehicles fitted with road-friendly suspensions. These two options are of course not mutually exclusive and countries will want to set their own mass limits to fit in with their overall transport policies.

One of the problems about the heavier trucks with the new suspension is that many bridges would have to be upgraded. That is a significant and costly task. However, when carried out in conjunction with general maintenance and rehabilitation programmes, the savings in transport costs should outweigh the additional bridge-related expenditure in the longer term.

Transport operators and governments are not the only ones to benefit from the efficiency gains; the wider economy should as well. And improving the productivity of road freight transport through a more strategic and efficient management of the road network could benefit road safety and the environment too, particularly if improved technology leads to a reduction in the number of freight vehicles on the roads.

Policymakers could consider several options. They can make mandatory requirements for heavy vehicle suspension systems to become more road-friendly. They can use price incentives to encourage the uptake of road-friendly suspensions by transport operators. And they could use operational incentives, such as allowing increases in gross vehicle mass limits for vehicles with road-friendly suspensions. The choice of approach is theirs. The benefits would be everybody’s.

©OECD Observer No 220, April 2000




Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q2 2018 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.9% Sept 2018 annual
Trade: +2.7% exp, +3.0% imp, Q4 2017
Unemployment: 5.2% Sept 2018
Last update: 13 Nov 2018

E-Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive paper editions delivered to you directly


Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • Globalisation will continue and get stronger, and how to harness it is the great challenge, says OECD Secretary-General Gurría on Bloomberg TV. Watch the interview here.
  • OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría with UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, in New York City.
  • The new OECD Observer Crossword, with Myles Mellor. Try it online!
  • Watch the webcast of the final press conference of the OECD annual ministerial meeting 2018.
  • Listen to the "Robots are coming for our jobs" episode of The Guardian's "Chips with Everything podcast", in which The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, and Jeremy Wyatt, a professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Birmingham, and Jordan Erica Webber, freelance journalist, discuss the findings of the new OECD report "Automation, skills use and training". Listen here.
  • Do we really know the difference between right and wrong? Alison Taylor of BSR and Susan Hawley of Corruption Watch tell us why it matters to play by the rules. Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview here.
  • Has public decision-making been hijacked by a privileged few? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Stav Shaffir, MK (Zionist Union) Chair of the Knesset Committee on Transparency here.
  • Can a nudge help us make more ethical decisions? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Saugatto Datta, managing director at ideas42 here.
  • The fight against tax evasion is gaining further momentum as Barbados, Côte d’Ivoire, Jamaica, Malaysia, Panama and Tunisia signed the BEPS Multilateral Convention on 24 January, bringing the total number of signatories to 78. The Convention strengthens existing tax treaties and reduces opportunities for tax avoidance by multinational enterprises.
  • Rousseau
  • Do you trust your government? The OECD’s How's life 2017 report finds that only 38% of people in OECD countries trust their government. How can we improve our old "Social contract?" Read more.
  • Globalisation’s many benefits have been unequally shared, and public policy has struggled to keep up with a rapidly-shifting world. The OECD is working alongside governments and international organisations to help improve and harness the gains while tackling the root causes of inequality, and ensuring a level playing field globally. Please watch.
  • Checking out the job situation with the OECD scoreboard of labour market performances: do you want to know how your country compares with neighbours and competitors on income levels or employment?
  • Trade is an important point of focus in today’s international economy. This video presents facts and statistics from OECD’s most recent publications on this topic.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at www.oecd.org/careers .
  • Visit the OECD Gender Data Portal. Selected indicators shedding light on gender inequalities in education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Most Popular Articles

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2018