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Road Freight 101: The Importance and Future of Road Transport

DHL Road Freight

The global integration of production and consumer markets comes with a continuous growth in international freight volumes – the pandemic has affected this trend only in the short term. Maintaining supply chains requires coordinated interaction between all modes of transport: air, sea, and land freight. What is the role of road freight in this and what advantages and challenges does it bring?

Comparing the Types of Freight Transportation

The individual transport types already bear their basic explanation in their respective names: sea freight is transported by ship over oceans and waterways, air freight by plane, and land freight on solid ground. The latter is further differentiated into rail freight and road freight.

Each of these modes of cargo transportation has its own advantages and disadvantages. Ships can carry the largest volumes of cargo and very bulky or heavy goods, but this freight type is slow. Air freight is the fastest option for long distances, but it is also the most expensive and loading capacities are limited. When it comes to land transport, rail combines a large transport volume with the best environmental performance of all freight types. In contrast, road freight scores with the greatest possible flexibility and with high cost efficiency.

DHL Freight types in comparison: Truck, ship, train and airplane.

Road Freight Definition

Road freight is the transport of goods from one location to another (a place of loading and a place of unloading) by means of motor vehicles via a road network. Commercial road freight transport is the transport of goods on a business basis by logistics companies or forwarders. In-company transports organized by the enterprises themselves, for example between different business locations within the context of internal production processes, are thus not classified as commercial freight transport.

In road freight, different trucks are used depending on the goods being transported. In EU member states, for example, road freight regulations only apply to vehicles with an empty weight of more than 3.5 t – which simply means that national specifications do not cover lighter vehicles. However, there are some special provisions: since February 2022, vehicles over 2.5 t are also subject to road freight transport regulations when crossing EU borders. Now these are legal quibbles, and in principle all conceivable motor vehicles are used in road freight transport, from vans to semitrailers. Whether refrigerated vehicles or hazardous goods transports, container semi-trailers or vacuum trucks for liquids – there is a great variety. In Europe, trucks are restricted to a maximum length of 18.75 m in accordance with the relevant EU directive. In some countries, special permits are granted for so-called Longer Heavier Vehicles (LHVs) with lengths of more than 25 m. Logistics experts and official bodies expect such LHVs to reduce CO2 emissions since they can transport more goods in one trip.

Full Truck Load, Less Than Truckload and Partial Truckload

In road freight, a distinction is made between full and partial truckloads. The established international abbreviations are FTL for Full Truck Load, LTL for Less Than Truckload, and PTL for Partial Truck Load.

LTL and PTL indicate that only a certain truck capacity is booked. The freight costs are thus shared with other companies that operate in the same way. PTL and LTL do not differ significantly. The main distinction is that with PTL, the cargo usually stays on the same truck from departure to the destination point, whereas with LTL, the carrier often heads to several loading and unloading locations. While LTL is the most economical option, it is typically also the slowest.

FTL is when an entire truck is booked. This truck then exclusively delivers the FTL customer’s goods from the starting point to the destination without intermediate loading. FTL is the best choice when either the volume of goods requires the entire cargo space, when you are in a hurry and want to exclude stopovers, or when you are transporting sensitive goods that should not be transported together with other cargo.

DHL Freight Infrastructure

What Are the Advantages of Road Freight?

The main advantages of road freight arise from the fact that no other means of transport has access to a comparable infrastructure as trucks. Talking about inland transport, the road network is by far the largest transport infrastructure. This applies not only to Europe, but here in particular. Moreover, road freight is not dependent on logistical hubs such as ports, airports, or train stations, and there is hardly any destination for goods that is not accessible by road.

This also benefits the other modes of transport, be it water, air, or rail. In the vast majority of cases, they require additional road transport to get the goods from the (air) port or train station to the plant or warehouse or vice versa. The range and flexibility of road freight offers almost unlimited possibilities for getting goods from one place to another.

Cost Efficiency

Due to the use of existing infrastructure and comparatively low-cost transport machinery, road freight is a cost-efficient way of transporting goods. The price advantage is most noticeable for small amounts of freight, so that especially for companies with low transport volumes, road freight is often the best choice – LTL in particular is an attractive option in this respect.


The well-developed road system enables flexible planning of routes or intermediate stops. With road freight, a route can be modified and expanded at short notice. Even spontaneously requested transports can often be carried out because the use of the road infrastructure is possible at any time without prior registration or booking.

Intermodal Transport

Trucks can be used for intermodal transport. Loaded, they can travel on ships and be transported by rail on special wagons. This prevents time-consuming reloading from one mode of transport to the other.

Door-to-door Delivery

This aspect has already been mentioned, because it is possibly the greatest advantage of road freight: even if a company is located near an (air) port or train station, road transport is almost always required for the first or last leg of the route. Door-to-door delivery is in most cases only possible with road freight. Cargo is picked up directly from the production site or loading point and carried immediately to its destination, without the need for any other mode of transport or reloading.

What are the Drawbacks of Road Freight?

The disadvantages of road freight are rather of general nature and do not directly affect the company that intends to have freight transported. The principal downsides of road freight are linked to environmental impacts and transport policy. The road network cannot be expanded to an unlimited extent, and roads are overburdened in metropolitan areas. The costs of maintaining and expanding the road network are considerable. Although these are borne by the respective state, road freight is charged a share of the operating costs in most countries through toll systems.

In addition, both pollutant and noise emissions from trucks are high. However, it is precisely in this area that alternative drives, e-mobility, and LHVs can provide significant relief.

Finally, the transport capacity of trucks is limited and the efficiency of road freight can be decreased by factors such as accidents or traffic jams. In some countries, there are also legal specifications that largely exclude truck transports on weekends or public holidays, thus affecting time flexibility.

Competition Between Road and Rail

In the case of intercontinental cargo handling, road freight can only play a limited role for understandable reasons. An important exception is trade between Europe and Asia, which is also possible over land and is handled by both, rail and road. In terms of transatlantic and transpacific trade, however, sea and air freight are virtually unrivalled. Therefore, the most important competitor to road freight is the other form of land transport: rail freight.

In direct comparison, the truck is often faster, as trains generally stop more often to redistribute shipments and loading operations take time. But on long distances of 1,000 km or more, trains turn out to be an economical alternative to road freight. For this reason, road freight dominates primarily in the regional sector with distances of up to 150 km – and also assumes the leading role in land transport in general. Sustainability should nevertheless not be forgotten. In this respect, rail freight offers the best opportunity to minimize the environmental footprint.

Current Challenges of Road Freight

In the wake of the corona pandemic, the road freight business, like the other freight sectors, is in a capacity crunch. Fortunately, demand for freight transport has been high since the recovery of the global economy – frankly, so high that it cannot be fully satisfied.

The combination of two factors is causing problems for international road freight logistics:

  • Freight volumes are steadily increasing with the growing market share of e-commerce, especially in Europe – also independent of the pandemic, but additionally boosted by it.
  • At the same time, there is a lack of personnel: not only truck drivers, but also warehouse operators and other personnel who take care of on-site operations are in short supply. In 2020, there was already a shortage of 45,000 qualified drivers, and it is estimated that this situation will worsen considerably in the near future.

What Does the Future Hold for Road Freight?

Road freight needs to address two main challenges to ensure its future viability. The first is the environmental challenge, because trucking must become greener and more sustainable to remain competitive; the second is the human resources issue.

Digitization and Autonomous Driving for Trucks

Digitization is making progress in all areas of business and technology. As far as mobility is concerned, the functionality of vehicles is being enhanced by digital technology. In addition, digitization is opening up promising prospects in terms of autonomous driving. For transport logistics, self-driving trucks are an option to meet the challenges of high freight volumes and staff shortages.

For one thing, autonomous delivery vehicles could relieve logistics companies of staffing problems. In addition, computer-controlled vehicles can optimize driving and, via networking, traffic flow. The resulting energy savings have a positive impact on the environmental balance. Finally, autonomous trucks can improve overall road safety because computers do not make human errors – still the most common cause of accidents.

Despite all the remarkable progress, however, autonomous technology has not yet advanced so far that autonomous driving is an option for the near future. Legal issues also need to be clarified and the infrastructure adapted. To promote development, Deutsche Post DPDHL Group is actively involved in autonomous driving projects. For example, DHL is working with the Californian start-up Ike, which aims to make freight traffic on highways safer and more reliable through automation.

Alternative Drives

To improve the environmental sustainability of road freight, vehicle engines are a promising starting point. In the European political discourse, electric motors currently appear to be the most promising solution for the future, but other forms of propulsion and fuels also offer potential that has not yet been fully exploited: e.g., solutions using hydrogen, synthetic fuels, or liquefied gas. DHL Freight is closely monitoring developments to ensure the highest possible environmental compatibility for its own fleet.

As far as the sustainability of the already widespread e-vehicles is concerned, it depends directly on the source of the electricity used. For this reason, e-mobility is currently still subject to a differentiated evaluation, but with the exclusive use of green electricity targeted for the future, it has genuine added ecological value. In inner cities, e-vehicles offer this added value already today: by eliminating noise and direct pollutant emissions – for example, DHL’s electrically powered parcel delivery vehicles. But the role of alternative drives will steadily increase for large trucks as well.

“The demand for transport services is continuously increasing and will continue to do so. At the same time, we as a global community have the challenge of saving CO2 to achieve a neutral CO2 balance by 2050. As transport industry, we can contribute to this, for example with new driving technologies, through automation and digitization.”

Dr. Frederik Zohm, Executive Board Member for Research and Development at MAN Truck & Bus SE in an interview with German technical association VDE


They have already been addressed: the extra-long trucks, which contribute to emission savings through a better ratio between load and tractor unit. In Germany, for example, the length of LHVs is limited to 25.25 m and the maximum weight to 40 t to 44 t (in intermodal transport). In other European countries, up to 60 t may be moved. In Sweden, test series with long vehicle combinations with a length of even 30 m and a weight of 90 t have been running for some time.

In many countries, however, LHVs – just like autonomous driving – are still at the test stage. The situation is different for the so-called road trains in North America or Australia. In Australia, these semitrailer units are allowed to be around 50 meters long, but they are designed completely independent of ecological issues and thus not suitable as a role model.

Of course, the future trends in road freight can be combined. One possible image of the future could be an autonomously LHV with sustainable propulsion – whether this will be an electric motor powered by 100% green electricity or a hydrogen drive is a question of technical progress and the political framework conditions. Presumably, further bridging technologies will be necessary on the way to sustainable transport logistics.

But the goal of sustainability is clearly in sight, and many logistics companies are helping to achieve it – and not least DHL Freight.


For many companies, road freight is the most attractive method of having their goods transported, primarily because of its cost efficiency and flexibility. For a sustainable future of road freight, the main concern must be to significantly reduce the ecological footprint of road freight: through the development of ecological drive technologies and the optimized matching of transport volumes and necessary driving power.

Not only does DHL Freight have many years of experience in the road freight business, but the entire Deutsche Post DPDHL Group is used to responding to new challenges with innovative solutions thanks to its eventful company history.

We have always pursued the goal of getting our customers’ goods to where they need them reliably, quickly, and efficiently – and now and even more so in the future, we will be doing this in an increasingly sustainable manner.

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