Trailers and bodies – meeting the low carbon reefer challenge

With environmental targets looming large for the cold chain, Dean Stiles find out how operators and suppliers are adapting their fleets

The demands of low carbon and now zero carbon refrigerated transport have triggered a revolution in trailer and body design. The market is increasingly demanding “sustainable, emission-free and environmentally conscious e-mobility concepts,” according to Europe’s largest reefer maker, Schmitz Cargobull.

Meanwhile changing consumer food shopping patterns means that the need to service smaller stores has led to an increase in urban semi-trailers which have a greater capacity and accessibility than a typical 18 tonne rigid, says Andrew Brown, sales director at Gray & Adams.

“This race for volume is similarly mirrored at the opposite end of the spectrum,” Brown says. “The use of the double-deck trailer has become widespread in UK trunking and store delivery.” These semi-trailers can deliver 44 GKM pallets as opposed to 26 on a standard 1.6m and are available in single and multi-temp options. The safe use of large vehicles on the high street and their interaction with the public has led to a sharp rise in 360-degree cameras, cycle sensors and low-height cabs, all to improve driver and pedestrian safety, Brown says.

Invest for the long term

The drive to net zero is one of the biggest challenges the industry faces. Brown says: “On rigid vehicles for instance, the drive for electric refrigeration has increased from 5% to 50% in the last four years.

“The truck driven units are quieter, cleaner and as or more powerful than their diesel equivalents. This new technology can also be utilised with the latest fully electric chassis cabs, giving zero emissions at the tailpipe.”

He says, however, that infrastructure, particularly substations, remains a considerable problem when adopting an all-electric fleet. “Aerodynamics and more efficient trailers that have a greater capacity also contribute to a fall in an operator’s overall carbon footprint. Many foodservice companies are also utilising the underside of the vehicle to carry waste food products, cooking oil and other recyclable materials.”

Refrigerated fleets are expensive and a long-term investment, Brown says. “Many of the trucks built today could well be operating in ten to 15 years’ time in a post-diesel environment. Therefore, it is important to ensure that your fleet incorporates the very latest environmental technology,” he says.

Make sure your supplier is financially sound

His advice to operators is to invest in high quality and longevity and cost for a midlife refurbishment programme. This will extend the life of the fleet and, equally importantly, the asset, which is good for the environment as it will need changing less regularly.

“Make sure your supplier is financially sound, ensuring they can offer support for the lifetime of your asset. Above all, ensure your supplier works collaboratively with you, to make sure your asset meets your operational, environmental and safety needs,” Brown says.

Schmitz Cargobull cites digitalisation of production and products as well as end-to-end system integration in the vehicles, as driving innovation, pointing to its S.KOe Cool Smart trailer as an example. Spokeswoman Anna Stuhlmeier says: “It is a completely self-developed package, consisting of semitrailer box, refrigeration unit, e-axle, battery system, power electronics, TrailerConnect telematics, and digital services.” 

French reefer builder Chereau says that current trends focus on the quality of insulation and the switch from diesel to electric, whether with batteries or with hydrogen. Communication officer Aurore Leroyer points to Chereau’s vacuum insulated panels that can slash the energy consumption for long-haul applications by over 20%.

Using solar electric e-axles and hydrogen power on trailers will boost this figure even further, as will aerodynamic kits that can reduce tractor fuel consumption by up to 2l/100km for diesel, she says. Aerodynamics used with electric tractors will extend vehicle range by about 5%.

Consider the whole lifetime of your fleet

Lionel Curtis, head of new products at Marshall Fleet Solutions, says operator investment decisions will need to take account of corporate ESG [environmental, social and governance] targets as well as legislative requirements in terms of being able to satisfy emissions requirements throughout the life of the equipment. He says: “If an operator has a target (or obligation) to be zero emissions in 2035 and they operate trailers for 10 years, then they need all-electric trailers from 2025 – that’s not far away.

“Innovation in trailers and bodies is changing the industry as we push for higher capacity within the masses and dimensions limits of legislation.” Thinner panels, better insulation, stronger steels all help to get that extra package on the pallet, he says.

“The inexorable pursuit of Net Zero is also helped by these changes, as the CO2 per pallet, or cubic metre or tonne, of product moved is reduced. European trailer builders are beginning to come to terms with the upcoming Vecto [CO2 emissions regulations] for trailers [due in January 2024] and some of those changes are likely to come our way too, with or without the legislation. Priority has to be given to cost- and carbon-efficient solutions. Total cost of ownership has always been important and never more so than in our times,” Curtis says.