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Posted: November 01, 2009

Guest column: Trucking industry needs to get in gear with the times

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Hiroko Kawai

You drink sustainably harvested coffee and eat only local produce. You bicycle to work, and walk to the farmers' market. But even if you consider yourself a very conscientious citizen, your life is still touched by trucking.

The trucking industry transports about 70 percent of all the goods in America today, moving nearly $24 billion in value in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Yet despite their ubiquity, for 50 years long haul tractor-trailer designs have remained fundamentally unchanged. Most only average six miles to the gallon and their structure is still, in the words of Andrew Smith, CEO of ATDynamics Inc., "the worst shape to move down the highway at 55 miles per hour ... a big rectangular box."

In April, Smith and 40 other trucking industry players - including manufacturers, component suppliers, engineering design firms and state and federal level policy makers - met to try and bust the "efficiency barrier" confounding the trucking sector today.

Convened by Rocky Mountain Institute (www.rmi.org), the event launched a partnership between RMI, the Environmental Protection Agency and the industry to provide practical ways to save fuel and increase fuel efficiency.

Fuel prices are trucking's Achilles heel, accounting for nearly one-third of owner-operator costs. For years, as oil prices remained low, controlling energy costs was unimportant for most trucking firms. But when prices surged last year, driving fuel expenses higher than some salaries, trucking companies - and their shareholders - began demanding a better way to manage their fuel costs.

While prices have remained steady this year, the trucking industry remains at the mercy of fuel-price volatility - which are then eventually passed on to the consumer as higher prices at the retailer, the restaurant and the grocery store.

Despite accounting for less than half of the nation's fleet, long haul, heavy-duty trucks account for almost 80 percent of fuel consumption. Their size, speed and poor aerodynamics mean they are laden with "low-hanging fruit" in terms of cost-effective efficiency and retrofitting opportunities.

Making them more like a Japanese bullet train - a rounded and aerodynamic design; eliminating the gap between the tractor and the trailer; and adding "skirts" to better distribute air flow - will go a long way to conserving fuel.

A more streamlined shape then allows for a smaller and more optimized engine, one that can pull the same freight load without expending as much energy or consuming as much fuel. Finally, ensuring goods in the trailer are packaged better can help guarantee a fuller but potentially lighter load.

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But the trucking industry is complex and regulated by a hodgepodge of national and federal laws. A lack of trustworthy information has left owner-operators without the resources to understand which technologies offer the best bang for their buck.

And, having been burned by "snake oil" pitches promising easy solutions to fuel efficiency challenges, the key players are reluctant to invest in improvements.

The time is ripe for change. According to RMI's recent analysis, the technology already exists to double the energy efficiency of trucks in the nation's fleet.

Four distinct goals came out of the April event:
1. Accelerate the market adoption of efficiency- related technologies
2. Reduce the dependence on fossil fuel
3. Make the trucking sector more profitable
4. Make the freight industry more environmentally sustainable.

Three projects that support the above goals emerged. The first project is to create a technology-standards organization. On Nov. 3, RMI is kicking off this effort at the North American Council for Freight Efficiency's inaugural meeting in Chicago. (Visit www.frieghtefficiency.org for more information.)

The second project will create a national freight agenda by unifying the industry's voice to policy makers. Known as "Freight Without Borders," this project will correlate the research and standards developed by the USCFE with public sector regulations and incentives.

The third project is to develop a market-ready, highly efficient freight vehicle to demonstrate, showcase and prove the findings of the first two projects, including intermodal exchange with rail and ship.

Through these projects and in conjunction with the USCFE, Rocky Mountain Institute's goal is to forge partnerships with key industry leaders and tackle many of the deficiencies and inefficiencies facing freight mobility today.

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