April 19, 2018

Technology often challenges long-held understandings about reality, and that can be especially true when it comes to the trucking industry. Because “everyone,” it seems, “knows” that all those big 18-wheelers emitting diesel smoke are major contributors to the degradation of our environment.

Of course, that widely-held perception is, in an ever-increasing way, incorrect.

To be sure, trucking continues to impact the environment, but staggering improvements made possible by new technologies have dramatically reduced the size and scope of that impact over the last two decades, even as consumer demand has dramatically driven up the tonnage of shipped goods. The North American Council for Freight Efficiency calculated a couple years ago that it takes 70 big trucks fresh off the showroom floor to emit in one year as much pollutants as just one truck did in 2002.

We’ve already made great environmental gains

A lot of work, a lot of science, and a lot of re-thinking how the trucking industry should operate has gone into creating that remarkable improvement. And the work, the science, and the re-thinking is continuing because the industry — from CEOs of the biggest lines in the nation all the way down to one-truck owner/operators — are continuously looking for ways to grow their businesses while shrinking both their environmental footprints and operating costs.

So, let’s take a quick look at how technology has brought about such improvement thus far:

  • Better engines: More than 20 years ago, truck engine makers recognized the need to build significantly cleaner-burning power plants. And, by increments they did so.  Diesel engines continue to be used in upwards of 96 percent of all trucks in North America, and likely will continue to be used heavily for decades to come. But the addition of a myriad of filters, scrubbers, and more efficient combustion chambers — coupled with ever-better transmissions — have taken engines to a level where, frankly, reducing emissions much further has become an expensive and near-impossible task.
  • Better engine monitoring: Everyone in the industry always understood the value and importance of keeping engines and other truck systems well maintained, but when trucking companies, supported by dynamic technology vendors like Omnitracs, began wedding state-of-the-art monitoring technologies to key truck powertrain and safety systems, the notion of preventive maintenance took a light-years’ jump forward. Not only were trucking companies able to detect problems with individual trucks before they caused roadside breakdowns, they were able to begin compiling data on entire fleets to get a better understanding of wear patterns, to stay ahead of newly discovered maintenance issues, and even to provide feedback to manufacturers in order to get better-designed equipment on future models.
  • Better fuel: If you can’t make the engine burn much cleaner than it already does, the next step is to make the fuel burned in the engine cleaner, or at least cleaner burning. Low Sulphur Diesel Fuel went a long way toward doing that. And 2006’s introduction of Ultra-Low Sulphur Diesel Fuel, which has only three percent of the Sulphur contained in Low Sulphur Diesel Fuel, has all but eliminated the site of big rigs emitting huge volumes of black smoke every time they pull away from a stop light.
  • Better fuel performance: Better engines, combined with better fuels, combined with better driving techniques being taught, combined with (technology-enabled) better route planning, scheduling, and dispatching equals improved mileage. Combine all of that with smarter packaging that allows one truck to carry more product and you get huge efficiency gains, measured not only in more miles per gallon but in fewer miles driven, more product delivered, and less time on each delivery. All that equals less fuel burned per unit of cargo hauled — and a net reduction in emissions.
  • Better tires and better truck and trailer bodies: The revolution in both tire construction and aerodynamic design of trucks and trailers arrived about the same time in the 2000s, producing more streamlined rigs that get two or even three more miles per gallon. And given the hundreds of billions of miles driven by trucks in North America each year, the savings — in emissions and in dollars — are staggeringly large.
  • Better drivers and more realistic schedules: Gone, for the most part, are scheduling expectations that used to force drivers to push their trucks and their bodies past all sorts of limits in order to deliver the product on some irrationally early deadline. The industry’s strong push for better driver training and safer operations coincided with the arrival of much more sophisticated fleet management systems. That has enabled companies to promise — and meet — ambitious delivery schedules in the “Just-In-Time” business world without pushing drivers to break speed limits or their own bodies.

More advancements will drive more gains

The trucking industry has made great environmental strides in the last decade. That doesn’t mean it can now throttle back on its environmental efforts. In fact, if anything, the industry will need to increase its focus on improving efficiency and applying technology in order to reduce its environmental impact. Because of all the success the industry has had in improving emissions and efficiencies, it’s going to take significant scientific, technological, economic advancements in order to further environmental gains. Luckily, there are companies, fleets, and drivers out there ready for the challenge.