Emissions drive tractor development agenda

SPRC and Contecar container terminal are developing a battery system for non-essential power to cut tractor emissions. Credit: Grupo Puerto de Cartagena
SPRC and Contecar container terminal are developing a battery system for non-essential power to cut tractor emissions. Credit: Grupo Puerto de Cartagena
Terberg recently launched its first automated terminal tractor. Credit: Terberg
Terberg recently launched its first automated terminal tractor. Credit: Terberg
Tractors powered entirely by electric are still some way off. Credit: Grupo Puerto de Cartagena
Tractors powered entirely by electric are still some way off. Credit: Grupo Puerto de Cartagena
Industry Database

Terminal tractor development edges ever closer to all-electric operation to improve working conditions and on-dock safety, reports Alex Hughes.

Major innovations are taking place in the terminal tractor market that should revolutionise the working environment for front line employees.

Not only are diesel engines becoming ever cleaner, but electric alternatives are now also entering the market, giving terminal operators the potential to radically reduce emissions both on the quay and in the yard.

The deployment of ever-larger container vessels is driving a noticeable need for more ship-to-shore cranes and terminal tractors to be used in terminals to ensure that peak loading and discharge of boxes can take place in a timely fashion.

“The more critical turnaround time of these vessels requires maximum productivity of port equipment. Customers therefore want custom made products to secure the maximum productivity of the tractor and its driver,” says Rob van Hove, director of specialist manufacturer Terberg Benschop.

There is also a definite trend in government requirements for more and more vehicles (both on and off road) to either generate no emissions at all, or be near-zero emitters.

Mr Van Hove explains that Terberg already offers options to improve productivity, safety, and the long term well-being of the driver, particularly given changes in the retirement age of drivers. These options are being taken up in ever-larger numbers by terminal operators.

“As well as seeing a trend [towards drivers retiring much later] in Europe, larger numbers of drivers in the Americas are also retiring much later than is the case in other regions. The well-being of the driver is therefore becoming more important,” says Mr Van Hove.

Power questions

In terms of drive train, he states that customers are demanding alternatives to diesel to reduce their environmental footprint, bring down emissions and also to decrease the total cost of ownership.

“Terberg has started different projects based on alternatives for diesel engines,” he says. “In fact, we successfully introduced our first full electric tractor a number of years ago, which has resulted in many satisfied and enthusiastic customers, especially in the logistics sector.”

He adds that the company is continuing to develop new drive lines for the future and hopes to present them in the coming years. These will be able to operate around the clock, all year around at ports.

“We have learned that the payback period on investment in tractors with batteries is still an issue. For many customers, this is still too long, so they are postponing further investments to a later date. In the meantime, we are trying to develop products that have a shorter payback period,” says Mr Van Hove.

“However, we do see further opportunities for hydrogen-driven and full electric vehicles in the coming years, since we expect that the investment in combination with the operating costs of alternative drive lines will become more cost-attractive.”

However, some terminal operators have become impatient and introduced their own improvements.

Making moves

Port of Cartagena (SPR Cartagena), which runs the Colombian port of the same name, notes that over the past 20 years the terminal tractor market has been asking for developments in gas, diesel or battery-driven units.

“However, the large manufacturers have concentrated on developing diesel-powered tractor systems, making adjustments to the gear boxes to regulate torque and therefore reduce fuel consumption,” a source within SPR Cartagena told Port Strategy.

The operator acknowledges that there is a wish to see viable 100% electrically-powered tractors, but claims that these are too expensive at the moment.

As a result, Sociedad Portuaria Regional de Cartagena and Contecar container terminal are developing a system based on batteries to provide power for on board equipment that is not vital to the overall operation of the tractor, thereby making fuel savings of around 30% and cutting emissions into the environment by around the same percentage.

By burning less fuel, maintenance costs are also reduced, thereby considerable increasing the working life of the tractors.

Look to the future

Commenting on future hybrid tractors that manufacturers might one day offer, the Colombian port says that any system that favours the environment through reduced emissions and better use of onboard energy “would be welcome”.

While SPR Cartagena acknowledges that automated tractors do already exist in some terminals, the one element that is preventing full-scale adoption across the industry is cost. “In addition, they still don't generate the levels of productivity that we need in a port like ours,” the source says.

Given the demands for zero emissions or near zero emissions equipment in the industry, some in the Port of Cartagena remain sceptical that this can be achieved using current technology. “However, by linking various technologies in the way that we have achieved in our terminals, it is possible to reduce emissions from diesel and petrol engines by around 50%,” the source said. “Indeed, our aim is to operate terminal tractors that are less polluting while being more productive.”

In the port, a typical terminal tractor will remain in front line service for about ten years. Nevertheless, once upgraded with the port's new battery drive for auxiliaries, that life can be extended by up to 40%.

“The average working life of a terminal tractor depends on its application and running hours. Due to our robust and reliable design, we have many tractors in operation that have been running for many years and have retained a high residual value even after all these years,” Mr Van Hove says.

In a container terminal, the average running hours per year of a tractor is higher due to around-the-clock operation, although he stresses that the company's tractors are built to operate even under extreme conditions.

Hourly maintenance costs of terminal tractors also make them more competitive than straddle carriers, shuttle carriers or AGVs, he suggests, since these can be 70% lower.

“Well-maintained tractors have the lowest maintenance cost per hour,” he claims.

In Cartagena, it is acknowledged that, when operators in the port source new fleets of terminal tractor, one of the decisive points in placing an order is that of finding new technologies that can reduce fuel consumption and at the same time cut emissions that are harmful to the environment.

In respect of maintenance, the port concedes that terminal tractors require a lot of looking after, particularly given that Cartagena's container terminal operates 24 hours a day, all year round.

“To ensure high levels of availability, we have to have in place good working teams that are well organised and are driven by high standards. Furthermore, training of the tractor drivers is key, because if you introduce good driving habits, the number of problems in the drive train is reduced, which also impacts positively on fuel consumption and emissions.”


On the question of whether terminal tractors are becoming less polluting overall, Mr Van Hove points out that, over the years, Terberg has implemented the different emission standards for combustion engines, which have resulted in much lower emissions. The development of electric and fuel cell tractors should take this a step further, with few emissions generated in the actual terminal.

In 2017, the company used the Terminal Operators' Conference in Europe to launch its first automated terminal tractor. Mr Van Hove reports that Terberg is close to selling its first tractor of this type, having undertaken proof of concept trials several times since.

“Customers would like to have our products to be either automated or autonomous,” he says. “Compared to other mobile solutions in ports, the autoTUG has many advantages. Among them are better capital and operating costs and also the fact that the solution can be implemented in brownfield terminals.”

Terberg has worked with various partners on the autoTUG project, with the first prototype produced with the help of ZF. In addition, the company has drawn up a clear road map for the introduction of autonomous driving.

The co-engineering project between Terberg Benschop BV and ZF Friedrichshafen AG to develop an autonomous yard tractor started more than a year ago. In the collaboration, Terberg is responsible for the development and supply of a tractor that can be adapted for autonomous driving, with ZF acting as the system integrator for this technology.

The tractor is based on the industry's broadest-based technology and product portfolio for driveline and chassis technology, as well as for active and passive safety technology.

During manoeuvres in defined areas, ZF's expanded sensor kit allows the terminal tractor to keep an eye on its surroundings, while the Terberg tractor and central computer co-ordinates all longitudinal and lateral guiding functions.



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