Monthly Archives: January 2018

Alternatives Are About More Than Electric And Natural Gas For Truck Drivers

We took some time out lately to talk about moves in natural gas. Yet, as our eye always remains on the current diesel price, there are other options out there as well. Of course, natural gas does remain at the top of the “alternative fuel” heap for trucks, electric drive and fuel cell technologies continue to show promise. Could we see one of these forms of energy rise as a worthy alternative for good ole’ diesel?

So, what are the alternatives? For commercial motor vehicles, the options mainly include propane, or autogas, biodiesel, renewable diesel and dimethyl ether (DME). Much like any other choice-based option, each has its detractors and advocates.

While propane has been in use for a long, long time, and the two diesel variants can be used simply by filling up with them, DME is more of an outlier. It seemed to pique a lot of fleet’s interest some time ago, but doesn’t be appearing to make a huge splash on the fuel scene.

According to Kenny Vieth of ACT Research, “Because each company’s goal for its fleet is different, even two similar fleets may make different fuel choices. Each fleet will assess its own corporate goals, the local/regional availability and price of the respective alternative fuels, and any regulations and incentives for the areas in which the fleet operates before making the fuel decision. Cost, range, weight, performance, and time will all factor into each fleet’s decision.”

In the lower GVH classes, propane autogas makes a good value proposition. As an alternative to standard diesel, renewable diesel demonstrates nearly the same level of performance while simultaneously allowing fleets to burnish their “green” cred.

Biodiesel is especially useful because of its versatility. It can be blended into many difference forms, whether the truck needs to focus on performance or fuel efficiency. Biodiesel also offers innovation in how it is acquired. New companies are bringing new methods to bear and the line on what a biofuel is becomes increasingly blurred.

DME is still a bit of a black swan. Currently, DME is used mainly by Volvo. According to John Moore of Volvo Trucks, “Sustainable sources of energy are the future and Volvo will continue to research and invest in the sources of energy that provide the best value for our customers.”

The main problem with DME is that – because of its outlier status – there is very little infrastructure support or performance or engine-durability testing, to-date.

So, with all these options on the table, which ones might be best for your fleet? The best way to answer that question is by looking at each one individually, by strength and weakness. We’ll start with Autogas.

The Story of Autogas

Propane, otherwise known as liquified petroleum gas, is only referred to autogas when it is used in the context of a motor vehicle fuel. Across all quarters autogas is considered a viable, competitive alternative for light-, medium- and in some cases, heavy-duty commercial motor vehicles (CMV).

Compared to other fuels, autogas is ideally suited for more sustainable operations. It significantly reduces harmful emissions, is more affordable than traditional gasoline and can be produced almost entirely right here in America.

But what kind of fleet would be suited for this sort of fuel? Autogas is ideal for fleets that are centrally fueled. They can also be used in application where refueling stations are shares. Autogas infrastructure is quite built out across the country, with a few options.

Finally, a point of major desirability, autogas is considered a non-contaminant. When it comes polluting the air, land or water resources, autogas meets EPA the same requirements as those in place for gasoline and diesel infrastructure.

The one area where autogas may be deficient is for long-haul applications. Still, fleets can opt for bi-fuel vehicles, which are built with gasoline back-ups within their propane autogas infrastructure.

A Look at Biodiesel

Biodiesel has come a long way in the past few years. Today, biodiesel can be produced domestically using renewable sources such as vegetable oil, animal fat or restaurant grease. The federal Renewable Fuel Standard sets stringent requirements and biodiesel meets all of them.

Although biodiesel does emit CO2, it does so at a far lower rate than standard gasoline or diesel engines. Still, that doesn’t mean biodiesel is not without its flaws. The major complaint users have is that biodiesel performance suffers in cold weather. This drawback is typically the result of the blend being used.

Biodiesel can count several different sources in its main component. Feedstocks, oils, agents and other factors can change the composition of the biodiesel one way or another. Conventional wisdom says that regular number 2 diesel should be combined with a blend of 5% to perform well. Since both diesel and biodiesel can crystallize in cold weather, fuel blenders must take great care to ensure they get the blend right.

One way to combat fuel crystallization is to add a cold flow improver or other heater of some type. Fortunately, there are plenty of aftermarket options for ensuring your fuel doesn’t crystallize.

Getting Renewable

While some may get confused, biodiesel and renewable diesel are two totally different fueling options. The two terms should not be considered interchangeable. Rather than being derived from cooking oil or something else, renewable diesel is derived from biomass, meaning some sort of plant-life.

For a fuel to be classified as such, renewable diesel must meet the registration requirements established by the EPA as stated under section 211 of the Clean Air Act. More recommendations can be found in the American Society of Testing and Materials specifications. The specific verbiage can be found under sections D651 and D975.

Renewable diesel also goes by hydrogenation-derived, or “green diesel.” It can also be produced with animal fats and oils, but in this format, it is used either alone, or blended with a little petroleum. The petroleum must be refined to a certain ASTM specification as stated by the Department of Energy.

Doing it this way allows renewable diesel to be used within existing diesel infrastructure and applications. In fact, according to the Department of Energy (DOE) fuel producers have begun designing an HDRD substitute that the hope will be a substitute for just about any straight-petroleum based blend on the market. Ideally, the goal is to get the vehicles to function optimally using the fuel without having to invest significantly in changing or updating their internal components.

Renewable diesel also has benefits beyond its green cred. It also meets quality standards for new diesel engines and – for the most part – is compatible with current diesel fueling standards and infrastructure. The fact is, high combustion/high quality renewable diesel offers the same vehicle performance while making great strides to keep its footprint as “green” as possible.

What Is DME?

Sitting at the bottom of this list is Dimethyl ether or DME. This fuel first hit the scene back in the early-2000s, though at the time development was happening primarily across the pond. Motivating the development of these vehicles was Europe’s aging fleet. Europe has been at the forefront of studying and implementing green technologies for a long time.

Yet, for some reason DME never made it big here in America. The main reason for this can be found in the fact that over the past decades, diesel fuel has done a good job cleaning up its emissions profile. Compounding the problem, diesel prices are far too attractive.

Competing which more popular natural gas and autogas alternatives have also taken a chunk out of DME’s appeal. Since DME is a synthetic product, it could be produced in the U.S. on a large scale using natural gas feedstock.

Manufacturing infrastructure for DME is already in place, since CMVs using autogas must likewise be handled the same way, in a pressurized storage container at an ambient temperature. DME also doesn’t emit particulate emissions the same way conventional engines do, meaning less components installed on the truck. There is a serious weight and cost saving advantage to these engine types.

With a very high cetane number, DME can match diesel in energy efficiency and power, yet can all but eliminate emissions since its combustion does not release carbon-to-carbon bonds. A downfall? DME has only half the energy density of diesel fuel, which means it will need to be stored in tanks that are twice the size of normal variants.

While plenty of DME demonstrations have taken place in both Europe and America, it remains to be seen if this promising alternative fuel will catch on. The big elephant in the room. DME is not commercially available yet in the Unites States, but will it be in the coming future? Only time will tell.

The fact is, as more and more fleets and consumers turn to alternative fuels and sources of energy, expect things like renewable diesel, biofuels, DME and other synthetic options to flood the market. Although we certainly haven’t seen diesel’s last days, that’s not to say diesel’s days are not numbered.

Truck Driver – The Secret To Getting The Bypass Green Light

No matter what level you are at within your organization, or if you are an owner-operator, it’s very likely that if your safety scores are not up to your standard, you simply aren’t getting as many bypass green lights at inspection points as you would like. Fortunately, there is an answer.

With so much regulatory change happening within the trucking industry, state enforcement agencies are doing everything they can to help trucking operators increase safety levels and drive up fleet safety scores. After all, these are the men and women who enforce these rules every day. Certainly, they are there to help.

So, what would they recommend? What are some ways trucking companies and owner-operators can better work with law enforcement to improve safety across the board?

Taking Safety Seriously

If there is one thing a fleet can do to ensure those within your organization have safety and inspections at the front of their mind, it would be to join a state trucking association. Every state has its own trucking or motor carrier association.

Most, if not all, of these entities conduct events each year focused on truck and truck driver safety. Even more, these events are generally attended by those who work in commercial truck enforcement. Having your fleet’s name seen at these events cannot be a bad thing in the eyes of an inspector.

In fact, according to a former officer with the Missouri State Highway Patrol quoted in a trucking magazine, his agency regularly sent enforcement officers to events hosted by the Missouri Trucking Association. By making themselves available, officers allow trucking interests to get enforcement clarification while demonstrating that they take these matters seriously.

Even attending state truck driving championships can yield benefits. Although many will be there for the entertainment, these are still great places to gain access to large groups of truck drivers in one place. Allowing officers to clearly explain enforcement actions to interested parties can be extremely helpful and help reinforce good behaviors in truck drivers.

When everyone is communicating on the same wavelength, there is less likely to be confusion or misunderstanding. These efforts go a long way to ensuring safety is a priority and inspections go down without a hitch.

Of course, we cannot guarantee that attending state trucking events will win your operation any bypass green lights, but it certainly couldn’t hurt!

Submitting for Voluntary and Outreach Inspections

If there is one thing that will impress an inspector, it’s when a truck driver proactively asks for an inspection. This is especially true for new trucking companies, those that have little safety history or those who have failed inspections in the past. An easy way to improve your fleet’s safety scores is to rack up many “clean” inspections.

You may be surprised to learn this, but it is not all that uncommon for truck drivers to stop at a scale house and proactively ask for an inspection. With nothing to worry about, getting it out of the way can be hugely beneficial down the road.

Yet, this approach does not come without some risk. If an officer does agree to the inspection and you haven’t done your due diligence, you could get safety dings if the inspector finds problems. So, if you do decide to submit to a voluntary inspection, make sure you have thoroughly checked your vehicle before having it inspected.

There are also other ways to get more inspections. If a law enforcement agency visits your fleet because they were invited and finds problems during an inspection, they can provide you with feedback without assessing a penalty, which can be hugely beneficial considering the same courtesy would not be given if the problem was found during a weigh station or highway inspection.

Some states even proactively reach out to carriers asking if they would like an inspection. In these instances, penalties are not applied for problems found. Instead, the enforcement officer will take a big picture look at how the operation is running and guide the fleet on how to improve its business model – all without writing a single ticket, of course.

Outreach inspections provided by law enforcement can address many issues with a fleet, rather than the limited range addressed at a weigh station. Take load securement as one example.

If a fleet calls up a state enforcement agency and says they need help with their load securement efforts from an enforcement perspective, an officer can come out, look at the program, and provide a comprehensive action plan. When visiting a fleet yard for an outreach inspection, officers try to address as many issues as they can, whether it be trailer utilization, hours-of-service compliance, or inspection information. The best part? It’s free for the carrier!

And of course, there’s the bypass green light. If your fleet is a well-known voluntary or outreach inspection entity in the minds of an officer, you increase the chance that said officer could recognize your fleet’s name and award you a coveted bypass green light.

Using Data for Inspections

Did you know that you can harness the power of big data to improve inspection results and wind up with more bypass green lights for your truck drivers? That’s right, fleet data can be used to begin or end a discussion with an enforcement officer regarding something that has got their attention.

Data can either back you up or prove you wrong. Either way, it provides itself as a valuable tool for a motor carrier to use to provide additional information regarding a vehicle or piece of equipment. Beyond what the fleet collects, there is also a lot of actionable data on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s SAFER System.

Fleets using the PrePass System also have access to a wealth of free data stored in the InfoRM Safety Intelligence System. This advanced database provides motor carriers with real-time insights regarding their ISS scores. Even more, it can even tell a fleet how much their scores might be affecting their bypass green light rate.

In the end, it really is a matter of fleets taking the time to study where their trucks are being inspected the most and why they get inspection dings. By paying close attention to these factors, fleets can decrease deficiencies, increase ISS scores and may be more inclined to be awarded a bypass green light at an inspection site.

The overarching goal of any of these techniques should be to prevent safety issues before the rubber ever hits the road. But in the case that an inspection is going to happen, how should truck drivers be prepared?

What to Expect During an Inspection

There are a great many good reasons why truck drivers need to be extremely thorough when completing pre-trip inspections, not-the-least-of-which being a safety violation avoided. Inspections happen. Not every truck will always get a bypass green light, but will they be prepared?

Here’s how it works. As your truck closes in on a weigh station, DOT inspectors pull up your BASIC scores. They will be looking for your ISS score, vehicle out-of-service score, and truck driver out-of-service score, with each being color-coded. With red being bad and yellow not the best, inspectors look for lots of red or yellow on their screen. If they see it, you can pretty much rest assured you will be pulled in for an inspection.

In some cases, if the rating system does not have enough data, a system spike may wind up generating an inspection. For fleets who have a great safety record and rarely get inspected, this is a reality.

There are several additional reasons why a truck driver may be inspected at a weigh station, including:

  • Poor ISS or out-of-service ratings;
  • Broken headlight(s);
  • A dirty truck;
  • Obvious damage;

It is also important to remember that sometimes inspections are simply random. If a trucker is picked for an inspection, there are six different inspection levels.

In the end, it is vitally important that truck drivers understand that inspectors talk to many different truck drivers every day. Think of these men and women like referees in sports. Outside of a few occasions, rarely do you ever see a player treating a referee badly.

If there is one way to ensure you are on the bypass green light blacklist, it would be to treat an inspection officer with disdain, scorn, or disrespect. After all, these are the men and women who are doing what they can to help you operate safer and more effectively.

Being nice to an inspector might also yield valuable information. Let’s say you have been pulled in repeatedly in the last couple of days. If you nicely tell the officer this, they may be inclined to tell you what they see on their screen and why you may be getting pulled in for so many inspections.

Looking for that ever-elusive bypass green light? The secret lies in the inspection. Take them seriously and you’ll find yourself breezing by weigh stations and inspection points more often than not.

Self-Driving Trucks Still Have A Long Way To Go

Although many in the trucking manufacturing industry say that self-driving trucks will be a reality waiting just around the proverbial corner, it looks like the vehicles still have a far way to go before we see full implementation on our nation’s roads.

The fact is, legislation that would make it easier to adopt autonomous driving technology on commercial motor vehicles has yet to gain any traction on Capitol Hill. Will this change as the future gets closer?

Although the House passed a bipartisan voice vote to help speed the development of self-driving cars, the legislation, called the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution (SELF DRIVE) Act, says nothing of commercial motor vehicles.

As written in the legislation verbiage, the Act would assist in the rollout of fully self-driving cars using federal pre-emption of state authority. This basically means that car manufacturers would be exempted from safety standards that are not applicable to self-driving technology. The legislation would also permit the deployment of up to 100,000 self-driving cars annually over the next few years.

Some think that commercial vehicles were cut out of the bill as a nod to labor unions who see self-driving vehicles as a threat to jobs. In fact, the Teamsters Union lobbied very hard to ensure commercial motor vehicles were left out of the bill.

According to a statement from the union, “It is vital that Congress ensure that any new technology is used to make transportation safer and more effective, not used to put workers at risk on the job or destroy livelihoods.”

Movements in the Senate

Even more telling is that the Senate has yet to take up any bill or undertaken any debate surrounding self-driving vehicles of any kind, whether passenger vehicle or commercial motor vehicle. Still, that doesn’t mean they don’t intend to.

Senator John Thune (R-SD), who is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is aiming to hold a hearing, titled “Transportation Innovation: Automated Trucks and our Nation’s Highways.” The hearing aims to consider the benefits of self-driving technology and why commercial motor vehicles have been left out of self-driving legislation thus far.

The committee notes state that the hearing is intended to “examine the benefits of automated truck safety technology as well as the potential impacts on jobs and the economy.”

It was also outlined that excluding commercial motor vehicles has been an ongoing topic of discussion in bipartisan efforts to draft self-driving vehicle legislation.

Senator Thune went on to say, in introducing the legislation, that “self-driving technology for trucks and other large vehicles has emerged as a pivotal issue in Congress’ attempt to help usher in a new era of transportation. This hearing will offer all members of the Commerce Committee the opportunity to hear expert testimony on the future highway safety benefits of applying automated technology to trucks as well as perspectives on excluding trucks from legislation affecting small passenger vehicles.”

Scheduled to testify before the committee on the viability of autonomous commercial motor vehicles are Deborah Hersman, the National Safety Council President and CEO and former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board. Representing trucking interests at the hearing will be Chris Spears, President and CEO of the ATA.

The ATA has already outlined a position regarding this topic, as outlined by the association’s spokesperson Sean McNally, who was recently quoted as saying that the “ATA supports the development of this technology and we don’t think it makes sense to write legislation without it applying to all vehicles, and that includes commercial trucks which account for 33.8 million registered vehicles and 450 billion miles traveled annually.”

He went on to say that the ATA views “this legislation, and its soon-to-be introduced companion in the Senate, as a roadmap toward a future that includes more automated vehicles, and that map should provide direction for all highway users. It continues to be our belief that the technologies being developed today will assist, rather than supplant, drivers on the road.”

What’s the Deal with Autonomous Trucks?

When you consider the idea of an autonomous truck, it shouldn’t be hard to also imagine motorists being terrified of the idea of a “driverless” truck wreaking havoc on a highway. After all, a heavy duty commercial motor vehicle can be incredibly dangerous if something were to go wrong.

Where truckers are concerned, imagine if they were to hear that a fleet they work for was considering opting for a self-driving fleet. Could you imagine a greater motivation for the employees of that fleet to make a drive for union representation?

While it is likely that the average motorist will eventually embrace the idea of a self-driving car, minivan or pickup truck, there will likely be a steep learning curve. Even more, smart highway and roadway technology still has a long way to go before we see this become a reality.

Still, many truck drivers worry that once autonomous technology becomes roadworthy and compliant, they may end up out of a job. Fortunately, this may be a misplaced concerned, especially in the age of semi-autonomous commercial motor vehicles.

Many believe that the big push will be towards semi-autonomous vehicles before fully autonomous vehicles. As we have reported in the past, semi-autonomous trucks will likely still require an in-person truck driver to handle driving duties once the truck exits the highway and proceeds onto city streets.

Another consideration factoring into this debate is the ongoing truck driver shortage. It isn’t out of the question to ask if fleets will migrate towards autonomous technology as the truck driver employment squeeze continues to become more acute. If it isn’t looking like we will have enough human drivers to safely transport our goods across the nation, motor carriers may find this technology more appealing.

Growth in the (Semi) Autonomous Market

What is a given is that the global self-driving market is expected to balloon by 40% by 2027. This represents upwards of $126.8 billion by 2027. According to market research firm Infoholic, “The increasing investments from the automakers, the rising consumer demands, and technology advancements in the automotive industry have led to the increased demand for driverless vehicles.”

Their research paper went on to say that “in the current market scenario, self-driving is not just limited to cars but is also gaining popularity among public transport and trucks. Thus, most of the enterprise sectors including retail, manufacturing, transportation, and logistics will prefer autonomous vehicles for delivery purposes in the future.”

The report goes on to segment the market and analyze it by specific product, vehicle and operating type. It also parses the data out by operational region. Software, hardware and services are expected to dominate the autonomous and semi-autonomous markets for the foreseeable future.

According to the Infoholic report, “The software segment is mainly driven by the fully autonomous vehicles when compared to semi-autonomous vehicles. Hardware providers have new business opportunities due to different types of components that will be used in autonomous vehicles. Additionally, hardware market share is expected to drop in the coming years as the adoption rate of autonomous vehicles increases.”

If you look at the North American region as the leading theater for autonomous vehicle adoption, then look no further. According to Infoholic, North America is “an attractive destination for key stakeholders due to the availability of high-end infrastructure, rising investments from automakers, and government initiatives.”

The Asia Pacific region will also be vital to determining how this industry develops. China, India and Japan are all looking to lead the market in these technologies. Indeed, China has already stated the lofty goal of phasing out gasoline and diesel vehicles sometime in the near future.

India’s government has also expressed interest in supporting electric and autonomous vehicles. Partnerships and merger and acquisition strategies will play a big role in how much these technologies are adopted, not just in North America and China, but globally.

The Final Word

There are a lot of stakeholders that have plenty to consider when it comes to the autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicle discussion. From truck drivers who fear being left in the dust as robots take over to fleets who may seek to cut costs and increase efficiency by employing these technologies.

Indeed, both unions and lawmakers have a lot to consider when putting legislation to the table governing self-driving technologies. Will industry lobbyists win out? Are technology companies up to the task of ensuring these advanced self-driving technologies are safe?

There is plenty of debate to go around. Right now, only time will tell if the industry will see any traction in the use of these technologies, whether now or moving forward, and there are plenty who are happy about that.

Trucking In The 21st Century

As trucks and cars are continually redesigned with advances new sensors and technologies, we are likely to see a future where how vehicles interact with each other on the road is dramatically different from how they operate on the road today.

Perhaps even as close to 10 years from now, vehicles going down the road will also look quite different. Still, they will likely continue to have drivers. Where the true innovation will come from is in the technologies that are being built into new vehicles. A new generation of smart vehicles will be wirelessly connected and come preloaded with impressive components.

Experts believe that the capabilities of these technologies represent exponential change within the truck market. Whether you’re talking about improved cost savings, safety, efficiency, visibility or more, the trucking industry could see itself fundamentally changed from the inside out.

There are essentially three technologies that are at the forefront of this change. They are:

  • Vehicle connectivity
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Autonomous operating systems

Certain aspects of these technologies can already be found on trucks of today. As they continue to evolve, they will only become more complex, capable and powerful.

Imagine a semi-truck that can broadcast and receive data anywhere and at any time. Each of these systems, as they are integrated, will feed off each other and further increase their operational value.

Big rigs of the future may essentially turn into giant, rolling computers with self-monitoring and remote maintenance capabilities. Vehicles will be able to communicate with operators, other vehicles and even the road itself.

This real-time flow of information will have spillover effects all up and down the supply chain. As a result, the trucking industry will benefit from telematics capabilities and big data number crunches. But how will the industry cope with all this change?

Integrating the Technologies

While there will be plenty of change happening under the hood and in the cab, the appearance of the truck will remain relatively the same. This is simply a cause of the aerodynamic and body construction methods of today. They still work.

Don’t expect a tractor that looks like a space ship. Their look will evolve, but their basic shape will stay the same. The most important things are what the new vehicles will be capable of. Not only will they meet green standards but they will be more business-friendly.

One of the great drivers of new technology is a fleet’s desire to control fuel costs. Fuel remains a motor carrier’s biggest operational cost. As a result, expect to see a greater adoption of electric powertrains over the next decade.

Powertrain enhancements will also become more commonplace as the drive for greater technological integration continues. This integration will be required if a vehicle is to make it through daily operations on a “smart” system.

For these new components to function together, improvements in communication will have to follow. Cameras, sensors, radar and other onboard systems will have to share data and operate with other systems, as one fully integrated vehicle.

What This Will Look Like

Imagine a future where the vehicle you are operating can track moving and stationary objects in real time. Then the system feeds that data into the automated manual transmission. After the onboard computer has gathered data from the GPS, mapping, internal route and other systems, it can make decisions far faster than even a human’s reaction time.

It is likely that soon, truck drivers will be interacting with their vehicles in this fashion. Other variations come on the form of fuel management.

Future big rigs will be able to actively advise their operators on the best routes, optimal operating conditions and more. If there is a maintenance problem, the vehicle can immediately alert the operator and dispatch over a cellular system.

We will likely see this in the form of fully integrated truck driver infotainment systems. These in-dash units will eventually replace aftermarket units. They will empower truck drivers in truly game changing ways.

Taking a Closer Look at Connectivity

But is integration the total answer? Perhaps the real game-changer is connectivity. We’re talking about a Class 8 vehicle acting like a giant mobile data collection and analysis center. This could represent a new wave of trucking technology, and the best part is that a truck driver will still be required.

Future trucks will be more interconnected than ever, but will still require human input in order to get the job done. Even specific components within these vehicles will be able to talk to other components and other vehicles.

These developments will represent a new frontier in safety, efficiency, comfort and longevity. Once the process of transforming these into dive-by-wire systems is complete, a new era in trucking will have arrived.

Systems like these are often referred to as intelligent mechanical systems. When you have sensor and laser systems working in concert with environmental recognition and control systems, the possibilities are endless. Throw in artificial intelligence and supercomputing technologies, cloud storage and broadband communication, and nearly anything is possible.

The Shift Into a New Century

What is likely to cause a major shift in the industry will not be how these technologies impact truck drivers, but how fleets view their trucks under the new regime. Motor carriers will go from asking what they can do with a truck to asking what a truck will do for them.

Trucking is a vital industry, though some may say boring. Yet now trucking will lay claim to some of the most innovative and advanced technologies around. Huge tech players like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are getting into the game. New upstarts are changing the way trucks are manufactures.

Suddenly trucking has become technologically cutting-edge. And while new trucks are already equipped with sensors and advanced technology, what we are seeing now will be unlike anything we see in the future. Some would say trucking is somewhat outdated and inefficient. Will technology change all that?

The fact is this: As sensors and computers built into trucks explode in numbers, modern telematics and big data systems will provide a level of insight and actionable data like we’ve never seen before. Consider that technicians don’t blink an eye about sensors on fuel pumps, oil coolers or radiators and other components. In the future, it will be unthinkable to be operating with a truck that doesn’t contain sensors or data transmission capabilities.

Daimler reports that their European models already come built-in with over 400 sensors. They are also fully wirelessly connected with software that includes hundreds of millions of lines of code. That’s more than an airliner.

How Far Will This Go?

The massive number of sensors and advanced systems is going to continue evolving. Could it be that we may even see a day when sensors are on truck drivers and freight themselves? From monitoring for sleepiness to ensuring reefer cargo is adequately cooled, there’s going to be a sea change in vehicle monitoring and tracking.

The information collected and shared by trucks should only make for safer roads and more efficient flows of traffic. Shipments will arrive with full transparency from all sides. Whether the fleet, truck driver or law enforcement needs to know what’s on route, they will be able to access that information in real time.

Expect additional component streamlining to occur as well. Back in the day, truck and engine makers needed to constantly recertify when they installed a new electronic control module or aftermarket exhaust treatment.

Today, ECMs and more are added with regularity. As data from GPS systems and other onboard components explodes at an exponential rate, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility to say that the number of onboard sensors is likely to explode as well.

Cloud integration will reduce the need for trucks to have onboard memory capacity or data sharing capabilities.  As more and more commercial motor vehicles arrive with these technologies installed, more and more users both within and without trucking will be able to access and leverage a truck’s data.

As one example, imagine a municipality sees many lane departure warnings from a certain part of the highway. With this information, they may surmise that a pothole needs to be repaired. Shock system sensors might also record valuable, actionable data. Even better, when a problem is pinpointed, it will be accurate in its targeting down to a specific mile marker.

When it comes to freight, motor carriers will better be able to provide solid, real-time scheduling information based on weather, traffic conditions and more. This can be updated as the vehicle is traveling towards the drop-off point.

As technology continues to revolutionize the trucking industry, these changes will herald a new era. The legacy ways that trucking does business will fundamentally change forever. And we will still utilize truck drivers, fleet technicians and just about anyone else who has a stake in the freight game.

Will your fleet be ready when the time comes? Are you investing in your future by preparing for the coming change? If not you might be caught flat-footed.

Why Some Fleets Still Turn To Natural Gas

It wasn’t too long ago that enthusiasm in natural gas vehicles was at an all-time high. Yet, as the price of diesel has once again taken a large dip (though it did rise a little this past month), it could be said that natural gas vehicles flamed out.

Yet, it hasn’t. There are still a lot of fleets out there that consider natural gas the most optimal option for many buyers. Natural gas trucks are logical for three types of fleets:

  1. Fleets that must abide by stringent clean-air rules
  2. Fleets that want to burnish their sustainable reputation
  3. Fleets that want to save money over diesel fuel

When diesel prices were on the rise, motor carriers were not required to “go green,” nor was there motivation too. In more cases than one, fleets who made the switch to compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquified natural gas (LFG) sunk large sums of money into the technology. Abandoning it would seem to defy logic.

Yet, what does the future hold for natural gas fuels? Consider that the cheap diesel outlook may stretch into 2019. Will we see more natural gas adoption with that kind of timeline on the horizon? What will be the new compelling reasons to utilize this fuel?

The Natural Gas User

Look back just five years and the profile of the natural gas user has changed. Just a short while ago the primary motivating factor was financial. Today, fleets are taking a more long-term view, viewing natural gas vehicles as an investment. Whether it be to decrease an overall carbon footprint or meet other cost or revenue commitments, sometimes natural gas is the answer.

There certainly was a drop-off in sales of natural gas-powered trucks in the second half of the year as diesel prices dropped. The year started out positive, but then slowed as the months went by. Another factor weighing on the market is current uncertainty in environmental and regulatory policy.

Finally, natural gas vehicles still come in at a higher price point. The higher premium – when combined with low gas prices – make a ripe environment for market slowing.

Looking at who the largest purchaser of these vehicles was in the second quarter, it appears that garbage fleets, transit and school bus operators sit at the front of the back. One such example is that of Waste Management, who recently announced adding their 6,000th natural gas-powered garbage truck and cut the ribbon on their 100th fueling station.

Most of the change comes from fleets who already have the vehicles and are looking to replace units, upgrade to units or simply buy more units.

Still, natural gas remains an attractive option for garbage, municipal and vocational applications. Generally, vehicles use far more gas and belch out more emissions when used on city streets.

The Price of Oil

The elephant in the natural gas room is undoubtedly oil. With some oil market analysts predicting a rise starting in the fourth quarter, natural gas’ dry run may be coming to an end. Some even think we could see diesel prices hit $3 a gallon or more by 2019. Still others are more bearish on the market. At this point, it is hard to say which way the market will go.

If diesel prices do rise dramatically, there could be a solid business case for fleets to convert to natural gas. Other fleets may not have a business case even if diesel rises to over $60 a barrel. The fact is, natural gas doesn’t meet every application requirement for a fleet vehicle.

If diesel prices were to rise to $80 a barrel or more, then we might see greater across-the-board adoption. As companies take a long-term view, some already have fuel price fluctuations in mind.

UPS Natural Gas Moves

UPS, which has taken a long-term view, recently announced plans to build six CNG and 390 new CNG-powered vehicles and terminal trucks. The company already operates over 4,400 trucks.

UPS doesn’t look at natural gas as an either/or proposition. As their director of fleet procurement puts it, they view natural gas as supplementary, as opposed to an outright replacement for diesel fuel. Rather than switching completely to natural gas, they are simply adding more to their fleet.

As UPS removes old diesel trucks from the fleet, they replace them with natural gas variants, but still not in all cases. Not all locations or routes can be refueled by natural gas, so there is still a need for standard diesel trucks and other vehicles.

Of course, UPS did not make this decision on a dime. They took the time to make the necessary infrastructure investments required to make natural gas pay off in the long-term.

Other Manufacturers

Despite a slowdown in natural gas-powered vehicle sales, manufacturers still have plenty of skin in the game. Peterbilt, for instance, continues to manufacture many natural gas-powered commercial motor vehicles and has even enhanced their product line to accommodate refuse companies that utilize biomethane gas from their sites.

Considering refuse site biomethane gas is essentially a free resource, this represents a huge boon to these companies. Not only do near zero emission technologies burnish your green image, but they demonstrate value across a range of usage cycles.

Volvo is also getting in the game. Considering the Chinese-owned manufacturer has pledged to phase out gasoline-combustion vehicles by 2019, it should be no surprise they are also making ‘green’ moves in the truck space.

Still, for fleets who are looking to switch to natural gas purely as a cost-saving measure, the short-term proposition is not promising. There is a higher level of initial capital that must go into infrastructure and procurement expenses when a fleet switches to natural gas.

Other Benefits of Natural Gas

This does not mean that natural gas is not without significant benefits, lower price notwithstanding. Other factors go into whether natural gas is the right option. One example is that natural gas vehicles do not require the use of such parts as diesel particulate filters or catalytic reductions systems.

Fleets that are running small regional or municipal routes may find themselves requiring more frequent manual, parked regenerations. With natural gas-powered vehicles, you don’t get that problem.

As green fuels and technologies become more in demand, fuel sources as diverse as biomethane landfill, wastewater sludge, food waste and more become in vogue. Once you can tap into the limitless potential of free fuel sources, both the short and long-term proposition value for natural gas-powered vehicles becomes far more positive.

While there are plenty of positives to natural gas, there are other considerations. One such is that of the vehicle life cycle compared to its application.

Considering Life Cycle

The typical life cycle – or payback period – for a standard Class 8 big rig is around five years. To drive demand, the payback period must be short. In other applications, however, when a vehicle has a longer life cycle, natural gas presents itself as a viable alternative.

Natural gas tank systems are also designed to last longer than the truck they are built onto. This allows fleets that operate with them to re-use the most expensive component.

Finally, natural gas-powered vehicles hold their value, so a fleet who utilizes them don’t have to worry about what will happen to the resale value of their vehicles at the end of their life cycle.

What Will Drive Change

No matter what the benefit/cost ratio is to using natural gas-powered vehicles, the market will continue to flatten out until there is a major change in the price of diesel fuel. Yet, there is another factor that could cause major change in the market, and that’s California.

California has been pushing natural gas-powered vehicles for some time, even implementing it as part of Southern California Ports Clean Truck Program. California has specifically targeted light- and medium-duty commercial motor vehicle for natural gas-propulsion adoption.

As the state continues to push towards its zero emission goals, manufacturers are adapting their strategies. Cummins Westport, as one example, has been leveraging natural gas not as a cost-changing aspect, but more as a way to meet the near-zero emissions standards that California has regulated.

In partnership with the state, Cummins has produced an engine that produces a whopping 90 percent less amount of NOx and meets all current 2017 EPA greenhouse gas emission reduction requirements.

Of course, the trucking industry is not a monolith and fleets operate under different conditions. Not everyone will find an application for natural gas-powered vehicles. There is never a one-size-fits all solution.

Yet as people talk more about emissions reductions, alternative fuel vehicles such as natural gas will become more and more popular. While oil prices will continue to be a factor, there is certainly going to be plenty of growth in this sector as we move into later years. Such news is good not just for the market itself, but also for trucking and the environment. What’s not to like about that?