The campaign to increase truck weight and length continues to gather speed.
Last month, the Volvo Group held an environmental summit in Boston for fleet customers, government officials and others involved in the trucking industry. At that event, an executive from the company's U.S. operations issued “a call to action” (see page 58) on the issue of larger trucks, publicly calling for the trucking industry and public policymakers to think about the positive environmental and economic impact of heavier, longer trucks on U.S. roads.
The argument laid out for increasing gross weight allowances and overall length restrictions makes a good case, especially since you have a truck maker calling for a change that would reduce the number of trucks required to meet our transportation needs. Heavier gross weights and/or longer combinations would, of course, increase truck productivity, allowing fleets to move more freight with fewer trucks, a clear benefit for the industry.
But as the Volvo exec pointed out, there are also significant societal gains that go well beyond lower freight transportation costs. Fewer trucks mean less congestion on highways that are already at or beyond capacity. By Volvo's calculations, longer combination vehicles (LCVs) could mean 750,000 fewer truck trips per year on our roads. More efficient freight movement also means less fuel consumed, which means lower greenhouse gas emissions such as CO2. And they would even lower wear and tear on road surfaces with sizes and weights more closely matching the requirements of intermodal freight services.
It's not just the for-hire portion of the industry that sees value in the larger truck effort. A study released last month by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) found that many private fleets could also benefit from the added capacity (see page 12). Sponsored by the National Private Truck Council (NPTC), the study determined that private fleets able to use LCVs with gross weights up to 97,000 lbs. could cut fuel consumption by 11%. In total, UMTRI estimates that larger trucks would reduce trucking's annual fuel use by 3 billion gals. and CO2 emissions by 32.6 million tons.
The two major arguments against lifting truck size limits involve infrastructure and safety. Highway road surface issues could be handled by moving to tri-axle trailers for heavier GVWs, and LCVs would actually reduce road wear by removing one tractor for every two trailers moved. As for safety, new technology, combined with exceptional safety records for LCVs where currently allowed, would go a long way to answering concerns over that issue.
The one difficult issue left is the cost to convert fleets to tri-axle trailers or LCV operations. As one major carrier put it, those costs would be substantial and getting a return from customers for the additional capacity would be difficult, especially under current market conditions.
A recovering economy and the forecast for tight truck capacity it would bring are probably the best answers for that problem. Actually, a recovery would solve a lot of other problems as well, but that's a topic for another time.
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