Truck Technology

Also in the LA Times this morning (guess which Web site I’ve been reading), a piece on how the trucking industry is now finally pushing itself to get more than five miles a gallon out of its trucks, spurred on by (you guessed it) high fuel prices, which mean that it can cost up to $1,800 to fill up a truck’s fuel tanks. That astounds me; I get depressed about paying $60 to fill up my minivan. This piece is of special interest to me because several of my neighbors drive trucks for a living, and the fuel crunch has been hitting them where they live. If truckers start going down, it’s going to make for bad times in the little rural town where I live.

30 Comments on “Truck Technology”

  1. Speaking from Germany, where filling the tank of a stationwagon (hey, 2 car seats and a cat!) can cost 75Euros (is that a million or only $$115 right now?) using diesel (which is cheaper here, cleaner, and far more miles(kph)per gallon, I have no sympathy for an industry which I have watched idling its engines for hours while polluting the air and wasting fuel. It’s a good thing that high prices are forcing industry and usage changes. If oly some of this money resulting in record corporate profits would acyually go to subsidizing public transportatio and green energy (as here in Germany where solar power is accessible to the middle classes) and wind power is a significant %age of the utility industry. Can’t wait for a gov’t that actually cares about the air, water and earth(vitriolic erstwhile Republican).

    Ouch, didn’t realize how angry this topic makes me…

  2. For the SF approach, go back to “The Big Lifters” by Dean Ing — change the game. Make it more economical to use trains by improving the intermodal transfers — trucks that are efficient for short-hauls from rail exchanges; ways to remove containers from moving trains (dirigibles!). And that’s without going to the high-end ideas in the book, such as a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle which carries no fuel (I won’t spoil it).

    There are some obvious limits to trucking efficiency: you can’t make them too much lighter — the cargo is most of the weight. Something like a small diesel turbine/electric, like trains use, might be feasible. All electric is right out, unless we build slot-car systems on the interstates, in which case, we might as well be using trains again. A hybrid isn’t unfeasible (especially with the diesel turbine), but only offers its efficiencies for off-highway part of the trip.

    There’s no way it’s going to turn them into 40MPG subcompacts, but yeah, I’m in favor of reducing smog and oil consumption. Unfortunately, the most likely outcome will be lobbying for more states to permit multi-trailer “truck trains”.

  3. you want depressed, it takes 40GBP to fill up the tank of a renault clio. (A really small super-mini for non UKians) I wish UK petrol prices were as “high” as American ones.

  4. The new Australian Labor government is about to cancel solar power subsidies for families earning more than $100k per annum – the only people likely to have enough money to consider solar power in the first place.

    Now the solar industry is in a panic, with mass cancellation of orders and a very shaky future.

    Stupid, all very stupid.

  5. Idling diesel engines do not waste fuel. First some lemmas:
    1) Diesel engines use very little fuel while idling. Very little.
    2) Diesel engines are much less efficient when they are cold.
    Therefore, the amount of fuel wasted by warming up your cold diesel engine while driving down the road is actually less than leaving the engine running and keeping itself warm.

    This doesn’t hold in all situations (warm weather, very long stopovers) but a idling diesel truck is often a good thing (unless you’re trying to hold a conversation).

  6. Also, saying a truck gets 5 miles per gallon is an unfair comparison with a car that gets 40 miles per gallon. If the car weighs 3500lbs, that’s 70 ton miles per gallon. The truck is pulling 40 tons and getting 200 ton miles per gallon, which is actually (from this perspective) much more efficient.

    There’s always room for improvement, of course. If you look at these numbers for trains or ships, they’re much higher again.

  7. I have a very good friend in the carting/logistics business in the midwest and, as you say John, it is getting really bad for truckers. Fuel prices are exorbitant, sure, but particularly so for the inefficient rigs responsible for getting so much of what America relies upon from point A to point B.

    As I understand it, the increase in fuel prices has eaten through what used to be the trucker’s healthy-to-dubious profit-margin after fuel costs. Its affecting their ability to make ends meet, leading to less trucks available to move product where its needed.

    A bad moon on the rise.

  8. The high volume of OTR trucks today is a direct result of the loss of local mfg in America. A tremendous amount of goods comes into the West Coast from China and must be shipped across the country to consumers.

    Much is shipped by rail to a local hub and then trucked in to warehouses and stores, but the items people are not willing to wait for are trucked direct from the port.

    When we had regional mfg, items were trucked shorter distances thus less fuel consumption, not to mention more good paying blue collar jobs.

    Rant off.

  9. In my part of the US the railroads have been pulling up rails for decades because they couldn’t compete with the OTR shippers…Now that the costs are rising for OTR, many folks are going to wish the rails were still there.

  10. It’s good that rising costs are forcing innovation, but bad that the people being punished for the lack of innovation are decidedly not the ones who dropped the ball in the first place. The Washington Post keeps running these full-page ads from “The people behind America’s oil and gas industry,” which keep asserting that they can’t lower prices because of foreigners/government taxes/their ‘responsibility to hard working Americans’/motherhood and apple pie.

    Well, the real people behind America’s oil and gas industry are the consumers–truckers and other high-buyers on down the line to the working poor who are scrambling for second or sometimes third jobs so that they can afford to get to work at all. When a group of people characterized by designer suits, luxury cars, and obscenely large mansions tells me they can’t afford to lower prices because their profit margins are too thin, it makes me wish I believed in kicking people in the face.

  11. As I understand it, if truckers start going down, it’s going to make for bad times for *everyone*, or at least everyone who in any way uses products shipped on trucks.

  12. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa.

    Where does “Idling trucks do not waste fuel” come from. If you finished the entire article, you’ll note that the APUs *pay* for themselves in a year because of the gallons per hour that can be used by the trucks idling. I can personally confirm this as my uncle owns a small trucking firm and recently converted *all* of his trucks to use an APU because of the tremendous cost savings.

    Yeah, diesel is more efficient than a gas car when idling (if you are idling for more than a minute, you really should turn your car off – it’s how hybrids get a lot of their city mileage) – but it’s still a massive waste when done overnight.

    Also – as far as MPG, I don’t think anyone was comparing cars to trucks here. IF anything, trucks should be compared to other freight hauling methods – rail and water – at which point they lose miserably. Consider that going from 5mpg to 7.5mpg with a few aero changes is 50% gain in efficiency – how do you *not* do it.

    Sadly, rail capacity is at max in the US – we’d need more track and going to better places to use rail. Much freight is already shipped via the rail to hub to truck method unless it’s time sensitive, but there is room for improvement.

  13. North American dependence on trucks has a lot to do with our unintended subsidy of the trucking industry: rail has to buy and maintain its own (expensive) roadbed. The trucking industry uses public roads. Yes, they pay a share of the cost through taxation, road tolls, and fuel taxes, but they don’t pay the whole shot like the railways do.

    As someone above said, we are going to regret our lack of railways. They are about as efficient a means of overland transportation as exists. And I have never seen any will for construction of public railways other than those for mass commuter transit.

  14. I just blogged yesterday about how West Michigan truckers and car drivers are beginning to slow down. I’m paying over $4/gal for midgrade right now, down from premium, and because of a horrendous commute get a tank of gas every two days. So since I exceeded $4/gal, I’m experimenting with slower and was going to try 60mph in 70mph zones, but there seem to be plenty of truck and car packs willing to go 65mph, so I’ve added myself to that cohort.

    What I’ve heard on the news is that some of the trucking firms are giving their customers a choice — allow for longer delivery times or take a hit from a fuel surcharge — and most customers are saying take the extra time to slow down and save money.

    The good thing in all this, if there is a good thing, is that these are “voluntary” changes, please note the quotes, as opposed to forced, a la the Nixonian 55mph national speed limit, one of the two most hated laws in the country. (And a law that I suspect is responsible for a general decline in civility, since we now have a generation raised under parents who “chose” which laws they wanted to abide by, but that’s another very long rant.)

    Dr. Phil

  15. Read a very interesting piece about increased use of coastal and inland waterways to move more than just bulk freight, they are starting to use barges to move containerized freight. Apparently, moving freight via barge is twice as efficient as rail, and 10X as efficient as truck.
    The port of Los Angeles is working hard to get more rail in their system. Now, if we could just convince people to stop buying so much mind numbingly stupid crap, we might have a shot….

  16. 1. It’s time for airships to return. I have a recollection of an airship company (Canadian?) that had their prototypes mysteriously burn (maybe 15 years ago). Fowl play suspected but never proven.
    2. Our capitalist economy is great for innovation (don’t want to lose that), but sucks for long term societal planning and anything else concerned with the public good. Do soccer moms really need a suburban to take the kids to practice? All the lobbing to keep pickup trucks and suvs from being included in the fleet mileage numbers smacks of collusion between corporate and political ideology (I’ll leave it to the reader to identify the parties at hand).

    While China’s demand for resources seems to have caught (or so it’s claimed (I don’t have any economist friends)) everyone flatfooted, spiking/rising energy prices should surprise no one (remember Jimmy Carter). Oil supply is limited and most of it is owned by people who have no great affinity for the US. Economic policies that would have ameliorated the eventual oil shock and eased the economy into a more restrained energy consumption model, were discarded (if ever fully realized) because you know the government is bad, only the market know what’s good for you; if you know what’s good for you.

    We need to evolve a better system; free market capitalism spurs innovation and generates wealth, which is great. But the balance sheet is the only bottom line, and as we have seen, for decades, corporations typically manage to the next quarterly report. A government for and by the people should be looking more long term and should be incentivizing the private sector to innovate solutions for the society before they become crises.
    Is should reorganize and edit this but my kid need help with his homework and so here it stands.

  17. Hilary @#18: “Our capitalist economy” provides that if soccer moms don’t really need a Chevy Subdivision to take the kids to practice, they’ll get rid of the Subdivision at the point when they get tired of shelling out $125 for gas every few weeks. Whether SUVs are included in the CAFE standards or not is irrelevant to this decision. And, for that matter, whether CAFE standards exist or not is pretty much irrelevant to people’s vehicle buying behavior. The SUV boom coincided with a period of historically low gas prices; now gas prices are going up, and people are looking for more efficient vehicles.

    Although according to reports I’ve heard, they may have a hard time trading in their Chevy Subdivision, because demand for used SUVs has crashed harder than the housing market, and dealers won’t take vehicles they can’t sell – or at least won’t take them for more than 20% less then they’ll get from an auction house after the truck sits on their lot for 90 days. Also a factor of “our capitalist economy.”

  18. Railroads run on diesel too.

    My friendly commuter service is planning to raise fares 7.5 percent on July 1.
    That’s just this year’s increase.
    They’re trying to replace their existing locomotives with newer, cleaner ones (with idle-control and all kinds of other goodies that have shown up in the last five or ten years).

    What I hate are the diesel buses, which (especially the school buses) are dirty.

  19. What I don’t get is why there aren’t any hybrid trucks (maybe there are, and I just can’t find them).

    It would seem that trucks would be a better scenario for hybrids, since the engines can be big (in size – part of the problem is making hybrids smaller), and big engines can use methods which simply aren’t efficient in small engines (I’m not an expert, but if you use a bigger engine, you can use higher temperature and so on).

    Are there any hybrid trucks? Does anybody know?

    This of course, is ignoring the solution of rail (which is *much* more efficient than trucks, and awfully underutilized in the States).

  20. Luigi Colani is already working on better aerodynamics for trucks.

    The ones at the link above are really intended for the European market – he’s currently working on a full sleeper OTR truck for the American market.

  21. ” I have a recollection of an airship company (Canadian?) that had their prototypes mysteriously burn (maybe 15 years ago). Fowl play suspected but never proven.”

    Damn those birds and their jealousy! There’s more than enough sky for blimps and for fowl if our avian cousins could just learn to get along and stop sabotaging our prototypes.

  22. I used to work for a company that did trucking fleet management hardware/software (GPS/satellite uplinks), and the efforts that fleet managers went to to increase MPG bordered on insane. We actually had an “idle time” report that they could run on all their trucks because it was highly requested.

    Anyway, the point being, to increase mileage the two best things you can do are:

    1. ensure proper tire pressure
    2. behavioral changes

    I have a friend from the aforementioned company who left and became a truck driver. He’s been at it a couple of months now, and is averaging 7.8mpg (fleet = ~5mpg). His bosses love him. And all he’s done is the behavioral stuff.

  23. As an accountant with over 10 years in the trucking industry, I know there isn’t a trucking company out there that hasn’t been trying to get their fleet mileage as high as possible. Fuel costs have always been the second largest cost for any trucking company. The highest cost is labor. Higher MPG has always meant lower fuel costs, lower tax costs, and more profits.

    The reason semi’s idle is so the driver’s environmental systems can stay on. The alternative is to either be in a metal box during the summer w/o A/C or in the winter w/o heat. Those conditions lead to either heat stroke or frostbite, depending on where the truck is.

    The APU payback time has only been reasonable since about 3 to 4 years ago. The reason it hasn’t isn’t necessarily cost but ability to haul the cargo. Many trucking customers load the trucks to the weight limit. An APU lowers the carrying capacity by a not insignificant amount. The fuel cost savings has to be large enough to offset the revenue lost and pay for buying the APU.

  24. I don’t know how much you can do with giant trucks, but if we’re serious about cutting emissions (and saving money on gas) from automotive traffic, we need to concentrate on the low end of the MPG ratings. The math is clear once you work it out, but it always surprises me how much more fuel you save with small increase in fuel efficiency in a not-very-efficient vehicle.

    So, for example, take our 5 mpg trucks. If they travel 1,000 miles, they use 200 gallons of gasoline. Now, say that we get a 7 mpg truck instead. Now in 1,000 miles, they use 143 gallons of gasoline, for a savings of 57 gallons.

    My 30 mpg Honda Civic uses 33 gallons of gasoline in that same 1,000 mile trip. That means that if I replaced my Civic with a magical car that runs on moonbeams and fairy dust, using no fossil fuels whatsoever, I still don’t save as much fuel as we do when we replace that 5 mpg truck with a 7 mpg truck!

    And while there may be a hell of a lot more Civics than trucks on the road, the 7 mpg truck is a lot more realistic than the magical moonbeam Civic. If we look at a more realistic improvement, let’s imagine I replace my 30 mpg Civic with a 40 mpg Prius: I save 8 gallons of gasoline in that 1,000 mile trip. That means we need to have 7 Civic owners go to Priuses to make up the fuels savings that we’d get from one truck upgrade.

  25. #25 Brian: I believe I saw an article in some magazine a few years ago that had some truck stops installing “umbilicals” at each parking space that provided elec. power, climate control, and Internet access to each truck thru an open side window so that they could turn the engine off for a long stop w/o the heat stroke or frostbite effect.

    Ever hear of it ? Did that ever get anywhere ?

  26. To JustAGuy @21
    I’m seeing a lot of noise in the trade rags about hybrid trucks. Most of this is for the mid-size delivery trucks though (5-10 ton capcity?) not for the 18 wheeler long haul trucks. Specifically UPS is trying a number of different hybrid designs including both electric and hydraulic hybrid systems.

    This is probably the best place for hybrid vehicles becasue they are making frequent stops that let them reclaim energy through regenerative braking. Long and mid haul trucks have a different use pattern and may not be able to reclaim enough energy to pay for the weight penalty of the hybrid system.

  27. David @6 is correct. MPG isn’t a good metric, especially when freight is moved. This trickles down even to the Prius level. An example would be a Chevy Blazer, hauling 5 people with approx 500lbs+ of cargo vs. a Prius at max capacity, 4 people and even less cargo (really, the trunk is smaller than my Impreza’s). Which is more efficient. Popular Mechanics did a similar comparison, with the 7 passenger Suburban. When it takes 2 hybrids to haul the same amount of people and gear, not counting the trailer capacity, it puts it into perspective.

    Dean @15. I worked for a major railroad doing track maintenance (engineering intern), and you hit the nail on the head. The RR pays for everything, which can run quite the sum if the speeds are over 30mph. The last handouts the industry got were in the 1800’s, discounting the government “fix” in the 1980’s, which was “fixing” the problem brought on by regulation. Oddly, because the RR’s are making money now (low margin, really), shippers want regulation again!

  28. moaners, in the Uk costs about twice as much for fuel (£1.10 per litre, or about $8.30 per gallon). It amuses me whenever I see stories about how americans are worried about high prices, because in Europe it is so much more expensive.

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