Transformational Trucking, How The Trucking Industry Can Avoid The Automotive Industry's Fate

The volatility of fuel costs and the reeling economy have taken their toll on the long-haul, heavy-duty trucking industry, though their tribulations have received less attention than those of the auto sector.

More than 2500 owner operator trucking companies--self-employed commercial truck drivers or small businesses--went bankrupt in 2008. And in late February 2009, Transport Topics reported that Class 8 tractor sales hit a 17-year low in sales.

Heavy-duty, long-haul trucks' smokestacks emit 6 percent of the United States' carbon dioxide per year, so with carbon regulations becoming all but certain in the next year or two, some serious changes will have to be made. It's safe to say the industry is at a critical juncture. Doubling the efficiency of the average Class 8 tractor-trailer from 6.5 miles per gallon to 12.3 mpg across the U.S. fleet (half a million trucks) can save 3.8 billion gallons of diesel, or $7.6 billion assuming $2 per gallon price of diesel. According to a 2008 analysis written by RMI, this could be done in the next few years with readily available technology like auxiliary power units, more efficient widebase tires, and improved aerodynamic mechanisms, such as trailer side skirts.

Success Stories
Already, companies like Walmart and US Foodservice have retrofit their fleets and altered their trucking policies. In July 2007, Walmart 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.

Though these gains are impressive, RMI's mobility and vehicle efficiency team, MOVE, feels the timing is right to push for more transformational change. We hope to set the stage for long-term goals, like using alternative fuels or running trucks on electricity, while also pushing for immediate efficiency gains through:

• Increasing the aerodynamics of new trucks and trailers.

• Increasing the use of tires with low rolling resistance to reduce fuel consumption

• Decreasing the weight of new trucks and trailers to increase the miles traveled per unit of fuel

• Associating efficiency and productivity gains with monetary value, thus prompting uniform industry incentives for driver training, load and route optimization, and so on.

• Increasing freight hauled per trip by mandating aggressive and internationally competitive fuel economy, length, and weight standards

• Accelerating the adoption of efficient technologies by developing supportive policies and funding mechanisms

In April, we are convening a Transformational Trucking Charrette to address these challenges together with executive level managers and experts from all segments of the heavy-duty trucking value chain.

By combining the critical steps listed above with improved engines and synergistic technologies, trucks that deliver freight at half or even one-third the environmental impact will soon be hitting the highway, increasing profits for suppliers and reducing the costs of food and goods for the rest of us.

By: Rocky Mountain Institute, Prateek Chourdia and Maria Stamas

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Tags: Fuel Efficiency | Transportation