On the Ground Realities (and Solutions) for Truck Companies Looking to Go Green

Rocky Mountain Institute

On the Ground Realities (and Solutions) for Truck Companies Looking to Go Green

Heavy class-eight trucks could feasibly save double to triple the amount of fuel they burn, amounting to 3.8 billion gallons of diesel avoided and $7.6 billion dollars gained per year in the United States.

Trucks could even reach these fuel economy levels with readily available technologies like auxiliary power units, more efficient wide-base tires, and improved aerodynamic mechanisms, such as trailer side skirts. (See Rocky Mountain Institute's 2008 peer-reviewed report for details).

This double to triple efficiency opportunity was a starting assumption at RMI's recent trucking summit, which included trucking suppliers, OEM representatives, drivers, government employees, and industry experts from across the country.

And while no participant second-guessed the opportunity, all agreed the challenge of overcoming political, economic, and cultural barriers, could not be overstated.

"Not a single new technology is needed to get to 1990 emissions levels. And many components immediately make money for those who build and sell them, but still there's a snail's pace of transformation," said Don Baldwin, Product Marketing Manager at Michelin Tires.

Determining the reasons for trucking's "snail's pace of transformation" and finding solutions to accelerate the pace comprised the 3-day summit.

It's Hard to Adopt Efficient Technologies

With low, 1-2 percent margins, a truck fleet can't afford to take a lot of chances.

Using new technologies presents reliability and liability risks, plus a new component's service and maintenance infrastructure is all but guaranteed to be immature.
The 10 Barriers to Efficient Trucks


1. Lack of trustworthy, targeted information and sources
2. Prohibitive technology rollout costs
3. Diverted resources due to misaligned policy
4. People and freight share infrastructure
5. Sparse and fragmented R&D
6. Customization requirement prevents economies of scale
7. Short-term payback expectations outweigh competing priorities
8. Limited access to capital and financing
9. Lack of credible testing methodology
10. Inconsistent state-to-state weight and length regulations

To stay in the black, companies have to keep their trucks running round the clock. If a new aerodynamic trailer device breaks down or a wide, single-based tire goes flat, getting a replacement as well as a technician who understands how to install it could be a huge challenge.

Typically, between acquiring a part and a finding a mechanic, it takes 48 hours to repair a broken component. New parts can take longer, and if they break down more frequently, that's lots of lost time and money--not to mention the speed with which the poor employee who specked the new parts would be out of a job.

And as regards liability, what if a new aerodynamic device falls off a truck? In the event it causes an accident, a company could be tied up in court for months if not years.

Fear of such problems might seem overblown, but the risk is simply not worth taking for companies with limited capital. It's hard enough for a purchaser to keep track of new technologies, let alone undergo a lengthy and costly testing process. Plus, relying on the word of a salesman with obvious interests in selling his or her new product, contains its own perils.

On the flip side, without guaranteed demand, suppliers have little incentive to invent. "Capital outlay in the OEM industry is huge," Katherine Miles from HybridsPlus pointed out. "It takes millions of dollars and an average of six years to develop new products."

Current Policies Create Even Greater Barriers

The external environment facing truckers is perhaps even more daunting than the industry's internal barriers.

Between February 2007 and October 2008, diesel prices rose nearly 100 percent, from $2.40 to $4.70 a gallon, and then came down to $3.00. Business plans had to change accordingly, and due to the unpredictability, many companies suspended investments in new fuel-efficient strategies altogether.

In the words of Andrew Smith, CEO of AT Dynamics, "The solution to doubling freight efficiency is creating a new playing field where we price oil appropriately, and then allow the private sector to compete." Several participants advocated a stable price floor. The feeling was that a high price for diesel is manageable if one can plan for it.

Extraordinarily varied, state-by-state policies are equally frustrating for the industry. State regulations range from how much weight a truck can carry, how long it can be, the position of its axles, and what equipment is allowed on board-from aerodynamic efficiency all the way down to chains.

Any given trucker might therefore have to make changes at state borders, like moving an axle, or even dropping one of his trailers if he was carrying three and now can only carry two or if he was carrying two and now is only allowed to carry one.

According to Mike Ogburn of the International Council on Clean Transportation, the opportunity extends beyond harmonizing current regulations. "If you do manage to harmonize, it'd be best to include some new opportunities like higher weights, managed to make sure bridges are still protected, or longer lengths, managed to make sure safety is preserved," he said. "These are efficiency steps available to the truck industry without actually having to go make giant vehicle investments."

Sometimes truckers carrying windmills have to wait two weeks before they can get a permit to pass through the next state noted Baldwin. "It'd be great if states could agree to more consistent regulations on interstate highways at least," he said. "It's true that states get revenue in permitting operation and they share in the costs of damage to their infrastructure, so it makes sense for them to regulate. But it's an insane environment today for trucking fleets."

Baldwin used the example of old single-tire restrictions based on a belief that the technology damaged the roads in the 1980s. Today, single tires replacing duals all of a sudden come under those restrictions when they don't do the same amount of damage, he noted. "Michelin and its competitors have gone in and educated state departments of transportation and state trucking associations to the facts and the science," he said. "But it's like one state at a time. It's a very, very lengthy process. And there are still five states out there that have restrictions on weight-per-inch-width of tires."

This directly affects us, as taxpayers and consumers, he noted. "By the way, we pay for the inefficiency in everything we buy carried by trucks," he added.

Company-Specific Successes Provide Inspiration

While the summit's goal was to accelerate efficiency gains system-wide, a few company-specific success stories provided inspiration to the group.

Companies like Wal-mart and US Foodservice have successfully retrofit their fleets and altered their trucking strategies. In July 2007, Wal-mart increased its heavy-duty, long-haul truck fleet’s efficiency by 15 percent and plans to double its entire fleet efficiency by 2015, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 26 billion pounds between now and 2020.

US Foodservice, one of the country’s premier foodservice distributors, saved $8.2 million in fuel costs and avoided 22,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions (equivalent to more than 4,400 cars) by improving the efficiency of its fleet by more than 4 percent compared to a 2007 baseline.

Overarching Solutions

Determining what's preventing the trucking industry from achieving their interests---reaping more profits by delivering freight more efficiently--was just the first step taken at the Transformational Trucking Charrette. (See all 10 barriers industry participants agreed upon here.)

Fortunately, there's reason for hope. Says Baldwin, "Paradigm shifts in the industry have happened before. We spent years convincing the market it was safe and cost-effective to eliminate the spare tire, and that, in fact, you could go for 50 or 100 miles with no air in our newly designed run-flat tire. Our efforts went fairly well. By the time we were done persuading, our competition had sold more than we had."

For details on initatives summit participants will pursue, see the transformational trucking summit website, and for live video interviews with trucking participants, visit the RMI website.

Maria Stamas wrote this article during her tenure as an analyst at the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Truck photo CC-licensed by Flickr user HVargas.