ATA chief sees move to natural gas, better days ahead for trucking

Bill Graves, American Trucking Assns. president & CEO, is optimistic about the future of trucking and predicts that the increased use of natural gas as truck fuel will bring major changes to the industry. However, the former two-term Kansas governor expressed concern over the apparent inability of Congress to agree on a transportation bill and the higher Interstate speed limits being posted in some states.

Speaking at the 14th Annual Pegasus TransTech User Conference in Clearwater Beach, FL, Wednesday, Graves said that the barriers to wide adoption of natural gas as a mainstream fuel are being addressed.

“This will change the landscape,” Graves said, adding that for the first time there will be serious competition between suppliers of diesel and of natural gas.

Pilot Flying J, he noted, has announced it will begin making natural gas available within its network of truckstops. Graves also said that as more companies are deploying natural gas-powered trucks, resale of used units presents less and less of a challenge.
Virtually every manufacturer offers natural gas models, he said, and trucks that burn natural gas as opposed to diesel endure less wear and tear, thus retaining value.

The only downside, he noted, is that Congress appears unwilling to pass tax credits that would spur more fleets to adopt natural gas.

The general trucking economic environment is improving slowly, Graves said, pointing out that carrier CEOs were currently in a “cautious, go-slow mood” and are not anxious to buy new equipment or launch any major expansions and predicted that the return of a robust economy will probably have to wait until after the November elections.

However, he said, those carriers who survived the depths of a recession that greatly reduced the ranks of truckers and thus of available capacity, are in an excellent position to prosper when the economy finally rebounds.

“The people who are still here will do well,” he said.

On the safety front, Graves expressed concern that a number of states have raised their speed limits. Kansas, where Graves served two terms as governor, recently boosted its maximum speed on the Interstates to 75 mph, he noted. Since many cars travel at, say, 8 mph over the limit and trucks are often limited by fleets to 65 mph or lower, speed differentials can be a safety problem, Graves said.

Despite the challenges the industry faces, Graves concluded, trucking’s future looks bright.

“I’m as optimistic as I can be,” he said.

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