Jeff Champa's picture

Jul 6, 2017


Jeff Champa

Vice President, Product Management

The Law of Unintended Consequences isn’t immutable, like the law of gravity. Nor are all consequences labeled “unintended” necessarily unexpected. Still, we often use that term to refer to the secondary, and sometimes surprising results stemming from an intentional action or actions taken for some other, seemingly more important reason.

Just so, significant improvements in the fuel and economic performance in heavy duty trucks over the past 20 years have been the positive, even serendipitous, unintended consequences of federal laws principally aimed at reducing the amount of pollutants emitted by the trucking industry. Some mechanical and economic performance improvements perhaps were anticipated — or at least hoped for — by those who advocated for pollution-reduction rules over the last two decades. But it’s clear that those secondary performance and economic improvements most assuredly were not the goals of those regulations.

Now, however, it is becoming clear that marrying additional pollution-reduction targets to additional cost reduction goals likely is the best way for the trucking industry to achieve both.

Environmental regulations: Turning a burden into a benefit

The Environmental Defense Fund, the private, non-profit activist group that for decades has supported tough regulations forcing businesses to reduce emissions, says that freight movement (by truck, rail, air, and water) is responsible these days for 16 percent of all corporate greenhouse gas emissions. But that’s way, way down from what it used to be in the 1970s and 1980s despite substantial growth in both population and freight tons transported in this nation and globally. And though the transportation industries were not always happy about the regulatory actions advocated by the ADF and other environmental groups, the two sides are discovering ways to use technology to take the next, much tougher steps to further reduce emissions while simultaneously improving the economic performance of trucks, trains, aircraft, and ships.

In many respects, regulations were used as blunt instruments to force industries — especially the trucking industry — to reduce emissions. But along the way, the targeted industries developed technologies that not only did that, but also reduced their own operating costs enough to offset most or all of the higher costs associated with those technologies’ imposition and development. For example, a 2017 model Class 8 truck can cost $20,000 more on an inflation-adjusted basis than its 1997 predecessor because of all the emission reduction technology incorporated in it. But it now takes 70 such trucks to produce the amount of pollutants produced by just one 1997 model.

Meanwhile, the improved fuel performance, mechanical durability, and advanced technology-enabled systems and driver-performance tracking technologies built into 2017 big rigs can combine to cut $10,000 or more a year off their annual operating costs. That means modern trucks not only produce fewer emissions as their predecessors, their owners can recover the added costs driven by those emission-reduction efforts in less than two years of driving. That’s a win — a big win — for both the environment and the industry.

Using technology and telematics to find further efficiencies

Now, however, the job of squeezing both additional environmental improvements and greater economy out of trucks is getting harder. All of the low hanging fruit, to use the cliché, has been picked.

That’s where rapidly advancing trucking technology promises to play an even bigger role. For most of the past 20 years, truck makers and trucking companies focused on technologies aimed at reducing emissions have discovered that while making those changes they were also increasing their trucks’ mileage and, therefore, reducing operating costs. And now that all the obvious changes have been made to engines, transmissions, and other components, the industry increasingly will rely on sophisticated technology to squeeze out harder-to-get incremental improvements.

Improved truck and trailer aerodynamics, loading and packing practices, and tires are helping push the emissions and operating cost envelopes a bit. But the biggest gains still to be made likely will come through three avenues: driver behavior modification, big improvements in route planning and real-time route management, and even better tracking and real-time management of operating components ranging from engine performance and tire pressure to cabin comfort and load balancing systems.

In each case, onboard technologies — often lumped together under the category of telematics — will play increasingly important roles. Onboard technologies will take on jobs that no driver can do, or do well while also trying to drive — jobs like monitoring engine pressures and temperatures in order to make subtle performance changes as trucks move from humid to dry climates, from cold to hot outside temps, from daytime to nighttime operations, or from open road to urban congestion conditions. Those changes can only be made effectively and in real time as a truck moves down the road by onboard systems programmed for such tasks, or by fleet managers who can monitor those operating parameters via real-time cellular or satellite connections.

Trucking companies increasingly will be compiling data from all vehicles in their fleets and about every driver in their employ in growing databases in order to gain insight into small operational details that no human can track without the aid of computers. Using that data, fleet managers will gain knowledge and insights that will help them select the exact right vehicle and driver combination for specific routes and assignments, buy the right mix of trucks to meet differing mission demands, and reduce the incidence of breakdowns and unplanned trips to the garage by better anticipating when a component is nearing a failure point.

Doing those things will produce greater operating efficiencies that not only will reduce fuel burn and other operating costs but please drivers by removing more of those events like breakdowns, traffic jams and overly long and inefficient routings that drivers hate. And, in the process, reduced fuel burn and improved mechanical and driving performance will lead to further reductions in harmful emissions.


Opinions expressed in the content posted here are the personal opinions of the original authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of Omnitracs, LLC or its subsidiaries ("Omnitracs"). The content is provided for informational purposes only and is not meant to be an endorsement or representation by Omnitracs or any other party. This site may also provide links or references to non-Omnitracs sites and resources. Omnitracs makes no representations, warranties, or other commitments whatsoever about any non-Omnitracs sites or third-party resources that may be referenced, accessible from, or linked to this site.