Department of Engineering / News / The Centre for Sustainable Road Freight Transport

Department of Engineering

The Centre for Sustainable Road Freight Transport

The Centre for Sustainable Road Freight Transport

Cambridge's experimental twin-trailer vehicle, designed to minimize CO2 generation for long-haul freight, while meeting the UK's strict manoeuvrability regulations.

A new Centre for Sustainable Road Freight Transport has been established with a total of £5.8 million funding for the first five years.

The only way to achieve very deep reductions in CO2 emissions from the road freight sector is to combine highly-focussed vehicle engineering with systematic improvements to freight distribution systems: optimizing vehicles in parallel with logistical tasks. This is the focus of the Centre. We are delighted to be collaborating with the UK's foremost freight logistics research centre at Heriot-Watt University and with a set of truly excellent industrial partners.

Professor David Cebon

The new Centre for Sustainable Road Freight Transport is the first major success of the Department's new strategic research theme entitled 'Energy Transport and Urban Infrastructure'. The theme involves some 70 members of staff from Engineering, collaborating with a number of other departments around the University, including The Judge Institute, Architecture, Computer Science and Geography. Professor David Cebon is the theme leader as well as the first director of the new Centre.

There are two sources of funding for the first five years of research in the Centre: £4.4 million from the EPSRC and £1.4 million from a new industrial consortium. The consortium includes key freight operators such as John Lewis, Tesco, DHL and Wincanton, along with vehicle industry partners, including Volvo, Goodyear, Firestone among others, who will help set the research agenda and spearhead the adoption of the results by the road freight industry.

The research team brings together road freight vehicle engineering expertise from the Department of Engineering and logistics expertise from Heriot-Watt University's Logistics Research Centre: to explore ways to make road freight economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.

The lead investigators here at the Department of Engineering are:

  • Professor Holger Babinsky - Vehicle aerodynamics.
  • Dr Adam Boies - Dual fuels, vehicle emissions and logistics modelling.
  • Professor David Cebon - Heavy vehicles dynamics, safety and fuel consumption.
  • Dr David Cole - Driver vehicle interaction and human factors.
  • Professor Nick Collings - Fuel and emissions.
  • Professor Nick Kingsbury - Traffic congestion monitoring and prediction.
  • Dr Michael Sutcliffe - Lightweight composite vehicles.


The Heriot-Watt team are:

  • Professor Tooraj Jamasb - energy economics, regulation, policy & technology, energy networks.
  • Dr Andrew Palmer- logistics modelling & network design, collaboration in supply chain networks.
  • Dr Maja Piecyk - green logistics, carbon footprinting of supply chain networks, transport modelling.
  • Dr Guy Walker- human factors, transport systems & driver behaviour.


Improving the logistical systems that currently govern our road freight transport coupled with improved vehicle designs can ensure comprehensive reductions in CO2 emissions from the road freight industry. Some examples of potential improvements include: sharing of transport tasks between freight operators to reduce empty running; routing of transport operations to minimize the effects of traffic congestion; reorganization of freight distribution facilities to enable use of fewer, larger and more efficient vehicles. For example when a vehicle delivers its freight and returns to base empty, the fuel used on the return trip serves no useful freight transport purpose. If the vehicle could return with a full payload the fuel consumption per freight task would be reduced by 70%. When freight is taken off of a large articulated truck and put onto two smaller trucks, 40% more fuel is used to deliver that freight. The smaller trucks are used because they are easier to manoeuvre in city streets. So improving large vehicles to become more manoeuvrable in city streets, while also being safer for vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists, would substantially reduce fuel consumption with an acceptable social cost.

The overall aims of the Centre are to:

  1. research the sustainability of road freight transport: from tactical to strategic, fundamental to applied, micro and macro-level perspectives;
  2. develop innovative technical and operational solutions to road freight transport challenges;
  3. develop tactics and strategies to meet Government emissions reduction targets for the road freight sector, mapping out ways to provide an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions due to road freight transport by 2050.


The Centre will focus on a critical sector of the UK economy. UK-registered lorries deliver 3.9 million tonnes of freight daily, approximately 65 kgs per person, moving 75% of total freight tonnage in the UK. The speed and flexibility of road transport underpins companies' profitability, with just-in-time delivery being vital to industry. In the absence of road freight transport, the UK economy would be paralysed within 4-5 days. The sector has, in its own right, an annual turnover about £24 billion, 290,000 drivers are employed to operate 400,000 lorries, with tens of thousands of other staff in supporting roles. In addition to these UK-registered operations, foreign carriers have grown to account for 5% of truck-kms on UK roads.

The movement of freight by road consumes about 33% of the diesel fuel used by road transport in the UK. External costs arise from congestion, atmospheric emissions, noise and traffic accidents. In 2006, these externalities were valued at £6.8 billion. As traffic congestion is predicted to worsen over the next decade, companies will need to adapt their road freight operations and wider logistical systems to minimise its adverse effects on business, fuel consumption CO2 emissions and to minimise the environmental impact of their trucking operations.

To address the economic, environmental and social challenges confronting the UK road freight sector, the new Centre will adopt the so-called 'triple bottom line' approach to sustainability (planet, people, profit), examining the trade-offs that will need to be made to reconcile the various public policy objectives.

The new Centre, working in partnership with key industry players, will explore technologies and innovations in areas as diverse as:

  • energy regeneration opportunities for heavy trucks and local delivery vehicles,
  • lightweight structures and improved aerodynamics for trailers,
  • new human-machine interfaces to help drivers to extract better economy from their vehicles,
  • options for alternative fuels to understand where the big opportunities lie,
  • decision-support tools and large databases that help optimise routes, reducing the effects of congestion and minimising energy use through better management of truck fleets and operations.
  • alternative distribution network designs and vehicle routing strategies to minimize fuel consumption.

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