An engineer by training, Michael Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE), started his career in the industry at Navistar getting a crash course in trucking.
“During my time at Navistar, I had a lot of different jobs. I was kind of a utility player and got to see the commercial vehicle industry from a lot of different sides,” Roeth explained. “I ran a manufacturing plant. I was responsible for safety recalls, as well as engineering, customers, and technology development. I got to see the industry from a wide perspective and really fell in love with it.”
What really interested Roeth about trucking was the way those within the industry collaborate with one another.
“This industry is not for the faint of heart because every truck is different in a way,” Roeth said. “How we get through that is through a high level of collaboration: The suppliers work with the manufacturers, builders, the fleets, the governments, and all kinds of research groups—and that's always intrigued me.”
When Roeth was offered the opportunity to run NACFE, he knew that fuel economy and efficiency was not top of mind for the industry. He took his experience in developing a fuel economy roadmap at Navistar and went to nonprofit NACFE, where he could work with all players in the industry to help make improvements.
“In the last five to six years, the industry turned to sustainability—how companies can save on fuel costs,” Roeth explained. “But as fuel prices always fluctuate, those solutions are always temporary and always changing. So, we began to think about how to make permanent cost changes. There is a need to be more responsible with our resources, which is driving us to burn less fuel, to work on the pollutant emissions, NOx and particulate matter, and then carbon with the global warming challenge and other sustainable challenges.”
According to Roeth, the transportation industry has had a rallying cry around sustainability, which has driven the push toward electrification.
“Battery-electric vehicles have been selling for 100 years,” Roeth explained. “But there have been a lot of challenges with it from the engine, storing fuel in a tank, battery development, the renewable nature of our electricity supply, solar and wind and even hydrogen, and other renewable energy solutions. I get asked all the time, why should we burn electricity? Or why should we power our vehicles with electricity, if they come from coal? Well, coal is declining, and solar winds are coming up, and other power generation. There is a sense of urgency around this, and players in the industry are all aligning for it.”
“There are talkers and walkers, and Run on Less (RoL) was born out of that idea. The first year we did RoL, it was seven long-haul trucks. The second year with RoL Regional, it was 10 trucks. Now, RoL—Electric is 13 trucks, totaling 30 real-world examples with hundreds of people talking about the impact that fuel economy has on each aspect of the industry. And those are the walkers; those are the people that are out there making it happen. Those are the innovators and the early adopters who are pioneering these solutions for us so the world can benefit from it.”
Roeth explained that there are fleets and companies adopting electric vehicles right now, but they are keeping those advancements to themselves.
“The early adopters that we work with at NACFE are sharing what's going right, what's not going right, and we can help others to follow. And then we can scale,” Roeth added. “Now, some would say, 'Why would they want to share with you what they're learning because it's a competitive advantage for them?'” The work that NACFE is doing is to take that data—the information gained by fleets adopting electric vehicles—and present it in a way that all those in the industry can understand so that they can more easily adopt those same practices.”
Roeth believes the success of the trucking industry comes in three parts: getting real-world experience, collaboration, and action.
“Get out and go experience the industry," he advised. "The pandemic has kept us behind a computer screen and presented the risk that we won’t go out and won’t go see our customers to really understand their problems to come up with proper solutions, so make sure you’re getting out there. Secondly, collaborate. The industry is very collaborative and wants to be collaborative. If you’re not a collaborative person, you should find other work somewhere else. Be open-minded with those around you and always be curious.
“Lastly, just act. Go do it. Walk the walk. Say yes even if you’re scared. Yogi Berra once said, 'When you come to a fork in the road, take it.'”