SAFE press event Photo: Sean Kilcarr/Fleet Owner

Report: Trucking undergoing ‘technological revolution’

Big gains in fuel efficiency and safety lay ahead if policymakers give the industry ‘flexibility’ to achieve them, group says.

There are growing opportunities for trucking to improve highway safety and reduce fuel consumption through a wide variety of technologies, according to a new report by Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), but the industry will need legislative and regulatory help to achieve them.

According to a report entitled Heavy Duty Innovation: Energy, Automation & Technology in the Trucking Sector released by SAFE this week, changing size and weight rules to allow for longer twin trailers, broader adoption of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), plus the commercial deployment of platooning and eventually autonomous trucks, should allow the trucking industry to reduce fuel consumption while improving its safety footprint.

For example, adjusting regulations to allow for longer 33-ft. trailers in LTL operations – known as twin-33s – versus the 28-ft. size limit now in place could result in an estimated 23 billion gallons of diesel saved by 2050, according to SAFE’s research.

Furthermore, encouraging wider use platooning technologies – now being pilot tested across the U.S. – could save up to 20 billion gallons of diesel fuel through 2050, the group said.

“Though heavy long-haul trucks only make up 4% of the U.S. fleet, they account for 13% of daily fuel consumption by the transportation sector,” explained Robbie Diamond, SAFE’s president and CEO, during a press conference and panel discussion held in Washington D.C. this week. “That’s three million barrels of oil per day.”

Photo: Sean Kilcarr/Fleet Owner

He stressed that the U.S. transportation sector is in the midst of a “technological revolution” and that policymakers need to give the trucking industry the “flexibility” it needs to maintain America’s competitive advantage and spur economic growth.

“We seek to make sure policy is not a barrier but an accelerator of innovation,” Diamond said, pointing out that former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke once noted that half of U.S. economic growth since WWII has been due solely to technology and innovation.

“Innovative vehicle designs, as well as platooning, connectivity and automation technologies have the ability to enhance roadway safety, increase fuel efficiency and result in significant cost savings,” he added.

C. Randal “Randy” Mullett, founder and principal of consulting firm Mullett Strategies LLC and a former executive with XPO Logistics and LTL carrier Con-way Inc. (which XPO bought and rebranded), noted during the panel discussion that trucking capacity not keeping up with freight demand. “So the question we need to answer is: how do we handle that demand without putting more trucks on the road and burning more fuel?” he said.

Mullett also pointed out that there is a “temporal disconnect” between government and private sector that prevents industry from “leapfrogging” to new technology. “We’re still thinking about policies and procedures developed years ago,” he stressed, noting that efforts to mandate speed limiters on trucks has been an on-and-off regulatory initiative for the past 15 years – one that’s yet again at a standstill.

Another example is autonomous vehicle technology because, according to SAFE’s report, freight transport presents a “more predictable and less complex driving environment” on interstate highways when compared to more complex urban road networks.

However, those efforts are being threatened by Congress, which has omitted heavy duty trucks from current autonomous vehicle legislation, the group said.

To break such policy logjams, SAFE proposed in its report a range of recommendations to provide what it calls the “necessary clarity and flexibility” for trucking to pursue a variety of fuel saving and safety-focused efforts. They include:

  • Truck platooning should be exempted from existing following distance laws.
  • The federal government should pre-empt the ability of states to set their own autonomous standards.
  • Congress should transition to performance-based standards for commercial vehicles and, in the interim, authorize the use of twin 33-ft. trailers.
  • The federal government should quantify the fuel efficiency implications of ADAS technologies.
  • The federal government should preserve the 5.9 GHz spectrum band for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication pathways; called “V2X” communication.

The panelists at SAFE’s press event also noted that encouraging such policy efforts isn’t easy and is only the beginning of what can be a difficult path to deploying new technologies.

“We need certainty so we can plan development,” noted Mike Cammisa, vice president of safety policy connectivity, and technology for the American Trucking Associations (ATA). “We need to smooth out the ‘potholes’ so [regulation] does not get in the way of encouraging new technologies.”

“It’s important to think about how we regulate so we can let technology mature and ripen in a responsible way,” added Mullett.

Another challenge with new technology is its cost, as it tends to be very expensive, noted Catherine Boland, vice president of legislative affairs for the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA). “And if it makes the truck heavier do you lose fuel savings?” she asked.

But the benefits are definitely there – especially when it comes to safety stressed Mullett.

“When I was at Con-way, we retrofitted forward and backward looking cameras on all of our trucks,” he said. “That helped us reduce frontal crashes by 87%. That’s why new technology is important.”

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