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Is there a silver lining to COVID-19?

April 8, 2020
With many states ordering its residents to stay at home, we've seen a decline in vehicle miles traveled, which is a cousin of fuel efficiency. I can’t help but think that this is a time for us to examine our business-as-usual operational practices.

People who know me, know I am an optimist. To be clear, I try to be positive, but I am not a Pollyanna. I know good can come out of a bad situation. And I am trying to maintain my optimism during our current battle against COVID-19.

Many states have issued stay-in-place orders and/or have told non-essential businesses they must close. As a result, we have lots of folks working from home, and have seen a decline in vehicle miles traveled.  Vehicle miles traveled is a cousin of fuel efficiency. We certainly have seen a reduction in vehicle miles driven by passenger cars, but we also have seen some of it on the trucking side as fleets are working harder than ever to fill trailers with essential supplies. But, of course, we also have seen a decline in vehicle miles traveled for fleets that are not servicing essential businesses.

If we look at countries who were hit with COVID-19 before the U.S. was and took measures to stop the spread including requiring people to stay-in-place and shutting down non-essential businesses, we can see some improvements in the quality of the air and water. Those are good things. It is too early to see that is happening in the U.S., but the optimist in me says we will see it.

In no way do we want to maintain this quality of life (or lack thereof), that the virus as foisted upon us, but I can’t help but think that this is a time for us to examine our business-as-usual operational practices.

I think we all can be asking ourselves some questions. How many of these in-person meetings could just as easily have been handled over the phone or via video chat? Is there a way for some of your employees to work from home some of the time?  Can you consolidate errands into one trip, once a week instead of going out every day to do one thing? Can fleets do more to fill trailers so that two trucks are not driving similar routes half empty? Can we do more about eliminating empty back hauls? Once business travel starts back up, can we do a few of those via these video services?

COVID-19 has made almost all of us work differently. If there is a silver lining in this (and I am a silver lining kind of guy), it’s that we now have an opportunity to apply the lessons learned from the pandemic to do a little more to improve our efficiency — freight efficiency and operating efficiency — while being a little kinder to the planet.

This first came to mind for me with an ATRI report where they showed highway speeds during rush hour through Atlanta and up the Northeast were about three times better than normal.  About 50 mph versus 20.  With trucks trying to make emergency shipments, this really helped their timeliness of deliveries.  How much of this increased speed would remain if we worked from home maybe 10 or 20% more than we do normally?

At least if we change some of our actions, something good will come out of this unfortunate situation. And for an optimist like me, that is a big win.

About the Author

Michael Roeth | Executive Director

Michael Roeth has worked in the commercial vehicle industry for nearly 30 years, most recently as executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE). He serves on the second National Academy of Sciences Committee on Technologies and Approaches for Reducing the Fuel Consumption of Medium and Heavy-Duty Vehicles and has held various positions in engineering, quality, sales, and plant management with Navistar and Behr/Cummins.

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