Shaping the trucks of the future

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Trucking companies succeed through efficiency. End of story.” –John Woodrooffe, director of the transportation safety analysis division at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).

So I spent a day earlier this week attending the Moving the World: The Future of Freight Transportation conference, hosted by Volvo Trucks North America (VTNA), Volvo Group North America, and the American Trucking Associations (ATA) at the Swedish embassy in Washington D.C.

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[You can click here to view some photos from the conference.]

The main theme of this meeting centered around how to make trucks more productive – which, as many folks in the business already know, really means how do we make them bigger and allow them to haul more freight by weight, while keeping them safe, fuel efficiency, and environmentally friendly?

Now, of course, mentioning “size and weight” where commercial vehicles are concerned raises the hackles on a fair number of advocacy groups – and even among truckers themselves. Because, let’s face it, bigger and heavier trucks means hauling more for less – meaning drivers and owner-operators don’t get paid more for hauling more in most cases.

There are also very pertinent safety issues to be dealt with where bigger, heavier trucks are concerned. They need more stopping distance, for starters, which means better brakes, and that dovetails into the need for stability control technology as well.

[Anne Ferro, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, discussed the safety focus of her agency and why safety as an issue should remain uppermost in the minds of truckers large and small.]

Furthermore, driving a bigger, heavier truck takes real skill – you don’t just plop another 20,000 pounds onto today’s rig and expect the handling to be the same.

Yet we’ve also got some other facts to face. Our highways are old and overcrowded, and no one wants to raise taxes (or tolls for that matter) to pay for more of them. Yet demand for freight transport – despite the economic hard times we’re in – keeps growing.

Truck traffic has increased 11 times faster than road capacity over the last decade or so and the amount of goods hauled by trucks is expected to double over the next 25 years. Indeed, that’s just nature taking its course as the U.S. population continues to increase.

[Here are two speakers discussing why more productive trucks are critical for a number of reasons.]

The U.S. Census Bureau, for example, noted recently that U.S. population increases by 2.6 million each year, which is equivalent to adding a new city of Chicago every year, on top of the 310 million already living in this country. Those folks have to eat, have to wear clothes, and use a ton of other things. And 80% of this nation’s population is served only by trucks – much as we’d like to think differently.

So allowing bigger, heavier trucks to operate on select portions of U.S. roadways can make a lot of sense from a pure numbers perspective. Increasing freight hauled per truck – by size or by weight carrying capacity – ultimately means fewer trucks. That’s fewer vehicles on the road, less fuel burned, and fewer tailpipe emissions (although, after 10 years of emission control mandates, there’s not much in the exhaust anyhow).

Now, is it this simple? No way. Again, you need better safety technology, better driver training, and better operating behavior to preserve the well being of truckers and motorist’s alike out on the asphalt. And we need shippers and receivers to help trucking companies pay for that, too.

As Steve Williams, president and CEO of flatbed carrier Maverick USA (and a former ATA chairman) noted, those tendering freight never cared much about safety in the past – they looked solely for the cheapest transportation option around.

So rates – and driver pay – need to go up to not only make it economical for truckers to haul more per vehicle but to help pay for their safety needs as well.

The question really comes down to this: we need to do more with less. We want our freight transportation system to burn less petroleum, produce fewer emissions, clog up the roadways less, yet still be able to deliver goods quickly – indeed, be able to deliver more goods quickly. Allowing for bigger, heavier trucks could do that – albeit with a lot of work.

[Here’s some thoughts on why trucking will remain an essential ingredient in the U.S. economy for a long time to come.]

Can it be done? The devil, as they say, is in the details.

One thing is for certain, I can tell you this: Americans in general, even those who openly dislike trucks, are not willing to go back to the days of “allow four to six weeks for delivery.”

In the Internet age, consumers want to order everything and anything under the sun (food, furniture, clothes, even cars) at the click of the mouse and expect it to be delivered to their doorstep in mere days if not hours (and you can thank FedEx and United Parcel Service for that level of expectation by the way).

That alone may propel more rational discussion concerning the shape of trucks to come in the future.

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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