Air quality concerns will change fleet operations of all types. Will you be ready?

Dec. 10, 2001
Trucking has a long history of rapidly adapting vehicles and operations to fit changing conditions, in particular conditions created either directly or indirectly by government regulation. For some time now, clean air initiatives on federal, regional and even local levels have shaped truck engine technology. However, in the coming decades those initiatives could well foster far more fundamental changes

Trucking has a long history of rapidly adapting vehicles and operations to fit changing conditions, in particular conditions created either directly or indirectly by government regulation. For some time now, clean air initiatives on federal, regional and even local levels have shaped truck engine technology. However, in the coming decades those initiatives could well foster far more fundamental changes for the industry, changes that could not only reshape fleet operations of all types, but actually affect freight distribution patterns for the entire country.

Changes to trucks themselves are easy to identify. Regulations aimed at controlling and eliminating so-called mobile sources of air pollution have resulted in well-documented modifications to diesel engines. Exhaust gas recirculation, aftertreatment and other hardware strategies for meeting government mandates on diesel engine emissions over the next decade have already received much attention. Not so obvious, however, is the impact of those technical changes on fleet operations themselves.

For longhaul carriers, the implications for operational changes fall into two categories, both with the potential to negatively impact equipment and driver productivity.

First, the trend toward extending maintenance intervals will likely come to an end. New combustion strategies that lower diesel tailpipe emissions create more difficult internal stresses for engines, requiring fleets to keep a careful eye on preventive maintenance and perhaps reevaluate current PM practices and schedules.

Engine oils, for example, have been reformulated to meet the next round of emissions requirements in order to retain current recommended drain intervals. Fleets with extended intervals will have to carefully evaluate those practices and perhaps roll them back to keep them in line with the manufacturer’s more conservative timetables. And future rounds of tightening emissions can only increase pressures on oil performance.

The result, initially at least, will be tighter maintenance compliance, which translates into more rigid adherence to shop visits and at least some loss of operational flexibility, if not actual truck productivity.

Engines off

The other change is being driven by anti-idling efforts on local and state levels. Forbidding drivers from running engines to provide power and climate control while they rest, these efforts will force fleets to make greater use of truckstops and other dedicated facilities that invest in shore-power grids. Having to schedule stops in those facilities will limit operational flexibility as fleets attempt to balance driver on-duty hours with appropriate rest areas and delivery windows.

Alternatively, fleets could invest in onboard systems to provide drivers with power and heat. While that might restore some flexibility, it will also add cost.

On a more basic level, the need to avoid idling at major urban distribution centers such as the Hunts Point Terminal in New York City could result in two-stage schemes, with trucks being held at a remote staging area until a loading dock opens up. If staging areas included amenities not commonly found in urban terminals, drivers might view such an arrangement favorably, although it’s not clear whether it would speed up or slow down turnaround times. However, some facilities might try to avoid staging areas and simply tighten up delivery schedules to avoid lines of idling trucks, again restricting fleet operational flexibility.

For local and regional fleets, clean-air motivated equipment developments that lead to operational changes will most likely center around alternative fuels. Putting aside the issues of practicality and cost (see page S8), alternative fuels are seen as clean-air solutions for these types of truck operations because many operate in already congested areas that suffer from the most severe air quality problems, and they generally return to a central location every day.

The need to see trucks frequently is important because alternative fuels will require their own infrastructure. Compared to gasoline and diesel, most alternative fuels will only be available at a restricted number of locations, requiring operational changes to route trucks through those locations on a frequent basis.

While many local distribution and service fleets already fuel at central locations, building an alternative fueling station can be expensive and is often subject to local zoning and/or fire-safety laws, which means only the largest of those fleets will be able to develop their own facilities. The rest will most likely need to rely on central fueling stations built to service a number of fleets.

Alternative fuels also point to another type of clean-air initiative that will shape future fleet operations—economics. The federal government currently offers tax deductions ranging from $2,000 to $50,000 and tax credits of up to $4,000 for fleets investing in alternative fuel vehicles. Many states and local governments and even private industry groups also have significant grants and other economic incentives for fleets willing to switch to various new fuels (For more specifics on incentive programs, go to

For some fleets, specific alternative fuels also offer a more direct economic benefit. As gasoline and diesel prices rise, alternatives become more cost-effective, especially when they also bring tax incentives and grants. For some fleets, those economic arguments will motivate the switch in fuels and any operational changes that may be needed to make that switch.

Similarly, federal and local incentives are also being offered in the name of improving air quality to help fleets reduce idling. (See FO’s special report on alternatives to idling in the August 2001 issue.)

Freight-smart traffic

While most of trucking’s attention has been focused on the negative economic impact of clean-air efforts, there are indications that the industry could also see some productivity benefits as the effects of congestion on air quality come under more scrutiny.

Regional transportation strategies and intelligent transportation system ( ITS) projects now being developed all contain commercial traffic elements. Some involve development of freight “villages” that would concentrate rail, ocean and road transportation for more efficient operations, while others talk of “truck-only” lanes on freeways and other preferential treatment for commercial vehicles in congested areas.

ITS projects that provide real-time traffic reports and perhaps proactively manage that traffic to reduce spot congestion would also have a positive impact on service and delivery fleets that have to deal with that traffic every day. There are even discussions about establishing central “concierge services” where people could pick up package deliveries, eliminating the need for multiple attempts to make home deliveries.

As congestion is recast as an air-quality issue, it also increases justification for political and regulatory solutions to the problem. In the past, trucking has felt at a disadvantage compared to the general public when it came time to weigh the costs and benefits of such solutions. There are indications, however, that the balance might be shifting when it comes to regulations that either restrict or enhance truck productivity.

The recent extended economic upturn was due in large part to a revolution in the country’s manufacturing base as corporations restructured operations to drive out cost and drive up productivity. That revolution has been hugely successful and, as a result, never before has the country’s business structure been so dependent on trucks as an integral part of the production line.

Any move to disrupt or significantly change trucking’s ability to fulfill that role will have to be considered in light of its broader economic impact. In other words, trucking is now understood to be a key link in the supply chain and the national economy. New truck-productivity proposals must be evaluated for their benefits to both the nation’s economy and environment.

Crystal balls are never as clear as fortune tellers pretend. Predictions on the future of freight distribution and commercial truck operations may sound convincing, but realistically they can only point at possible directions and probable outcomes. The one certainty, however, is that there is a clear public mandate for cleaner air and that mandate will affect trucking. The only reasonable course for the industry is to accept that mandate and to look for ways it can take best advantage of the resulting changes to improve its operations.

About the Author

Jim Mele

Nationally recognized journalist, author and editor, Jim Mele joined Fleet Owner in 1986 with over a dozen years’ experience covering transportation as a newspaper reporter and magazine staff writer. Fleet Owner Magazine has won over 45 national editorial awards since his appointment as editor-in-chief in 1999.

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