North American Tractor-Trailers Can Be 50 Percent More Fuel Efficient

The global trucking industry produces 1.6 billion metric tons of CO2 per year, making it responsible for 5.75 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Even when the rest of us are enjoying cheaper fuel, fuel remains the largest cost of operating a truck, costing more to a company than the driver. Heavy-duty tractor-trailers in the United States alone consumed 25 billion gallons of fuel in 2013. That’s around $105 billion at average 2013 prices.

With trucking predicted to grow by two percent or more each year, improving the fuel efficiency of this industry is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and supporting profit margins in an increasingly regulated industry. Achieving an average fuel efficiency of 9 MPG—a 50-percent increase from the current level of 6.2 MPG—would save North American trucking $40 billion per year in fuel and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent.

Identifying Available Solutions and Market Barriers to Adoption

The good news is that there are options to make this happen. The adoption of numerous efficiency technologies makes economic sense for fleets and truck owners under current market and policy conditions. For example, “If 100 percent of the heavy-duty tractor-trailers in the U.S. invested in a set of aerodynamic devices by 2020, the fleet would avoid 50 million tons of CO2,” according to Tessa Lee, an associate researcher at Carbon War Room. “This would save nearly $33,000 in fuel costs per truck over the five-year life of the truck, paying back the initial investment in just 14 months.”

Recognizing over 70 efficiency technologies available in the industry that offer cost savings and relatively quick return on investment, the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) and Carbon War Room (CWR) began investigating why—with profitable solutions at-market in the industry—fleets weren’t lapping up the solutions. NACFE was launched in 2009 with the help of RMI, as an outcome of the Transformational Trucking Charrette and the NACFE inaugural meeting, both highly supported by the industry.

NACFE and CWR identified several market barriers limiting adoption of efficiency technologies, including:

  • Insufficient information stifling demand:
    • Lack of credible information on the performance of these technologies, including return on investment and payback times
    • Perception of efficiency technologies as insufficiently reliable
  • Finance: In some instances, lack of access to capital to cover upfront costs
  • Supply: Lack of availability of these technologies from manufacturers or other vendors

The barriers facing the industry fit well with CWR and NACFE’s strengths: CWR could leverage its experience in the shipping industry to fill a gap in market information and NACFE could leverage its knowledge of the trucking industry to study the available technologies. Together, we would be able to encourage technology adoption and work towards shifting industry behavior.

Overcoming Market Barriers

In 2013, CWR and NACFE created Trucking Efficiency to address the information and finance barriers to large-scale deployment of fuel-efficiency technologies and help operators adopt proven technologies with confidence. “It was a great match. NACFE had the industry knowledge and network, and CWR had the boldness, brand, and ability to articulate our work to inspire action,” says Mike Roeth, executive director of NACFE and operation lead of Trucking Efficiency.

Trucking Efficiency:

Creates and shares comprehensive, unbiased reviews of available efficiency technologies
Provides a forum for the industry to come together for open dialogue and collaboration
Facilitates greater industry demand for improved efficiency

In the words of trucking heavyweight Mike O’Connell, senior director of the supply chain fleet of Frito Lay, “The industry needs independent, credible assessments of the best fuel-efficiency technologies. Trucking Efficiency provides that information.”

When making decisions, fleets trust their own experiences first, followed by that of other fleets. As two nonprofits, we would be well-placed to aggregate information from the industry, including offering fleets the option to share their data and experiences anonymously, and be able to act as a credible source of information, free from bias. “If UPS makes an adoption decision, everyone else is watching. We wanted to be able to get UPS and other leaders in the industry together with small, medium, and large fleets to discuss their decisions openly,” says Roeth.

Generating Adoption

To advance our goals, Trucking Efficiency provides comprehensive, unbiased technology reviews through a series of publicly-available “confidence reports” and a first-of-its-kind tech guide centralizing all data on available technologies and opportunities for the sector. Each confidence report assesses available technologies, discusses challenges and best practices for their adoption, and provides figures on performance gains and payback periods, along with a multitude of datasets from industry testing.
Confidence reports on tire pressure systems, 6×2 axles, idle-reduction solutions, electronic transmissions, and engine parameters are currently available. In 2015, we plan to publish confidence reports on tires, downspeeding, lightweighting, maintenance, driver coaching, and aerodynamics.

“ has become a trusted source of information in our decision-making process around new components and specification that we are considering deploying within our fleet,” says Ezel Baltali, supplier relationship manager of Ryder System, Inc.

Trucking Efficiency also facilitates open dialogue in the industry through our workshop series, which brings together industry leaders and technology experts to facilitate shared learning on available efficiency technologies and provide open debate on the benefits and challenges of adopting them. This allows us to connect fleets with those they trust most, even their competitors.

Lastly, Trucking Efficiency is working to better understand the financial barriers preventing adoption of these technologies and exploring the development of innovative financial models to cover the upfront costs of purchasing technology and conducting performance testing.

Certainly ambitious, our goal is to work with the trucking industry to change decisions and decision making, creating greater efficiency as a part of the new normal for business. Our work has benefited incredibly from partnering with the industry and our leading NACFE fleets. We have already seen our reports impact adoption decisions of large fleets representing more than 100,000 tractor-trailers.

Successes So Far

Steve Phillips, senior vice president of fleet resources at Werner Enterprises, told Carbon War Room that “Werner Enterprises has outfitted approximately 15,000 trailers with automatic inflation systems to improve fuel economy and tire wear while also decreasing roadside breakdowns, in conjunction with Trucking Efficiency’s first confidence report on Tire Pressure Systems.”

Following our second confidence report on 6×2 axles, UPS changed its 2014 tractor purchases from a 6×4 to a 6×2 configuration to improve fuel economy by two to four percent, according to Dale Spencer, director of automotive engineering at UPS.

The technologies that Trucking Efficiency proposes are not only a way for the industry to profitably increase its fuel efficiency, but will help achieve myriad other benefits for fleets, drivers, and the environment.

Along those lines, Frito Lay has been using the data in these reports for the past few years to accelerate its efforts to improve fuel economy. “In 2014, our trailer aerodynamics efforts were expanded to include tails on the back of the trailers to improve efficiency by another three to four percent,” says O’Connell.

The Future

We continue to see a growing number of fleets shifting their adoption decisions to more-efficient technologies. However, success is still a ways off. As Trucking Efficiency’s operation lead Mike Roeth says, “Success for us is getting $70 billion back into the pockets of fleets and operators, and cutting fleet fuel bills significantly.” It’s a tall order, but we are making progress. And, along the way, we can set the example for what can be achieved in trucking fleets throughout the world.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.