It's not just about the trucks, but we can't do it without the trucks

A great piece in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye last week.  The article highlighted the impressive productivity gains trucking fleets have made recently. These, in turn, have led to a reduction in average truck miles of two percent from 2006. 

Two percent might not seem like much. But, by increasing the productivity of these assets, this change avoided over 8 million tons of carbon pollution last year.That’s no small feat.

As the article noted, these gains weren’t the result of a new technology or a superior truck. These gains were driven by operational improvements, such as  moving more goods per truck because of lighter weight and smaller packages, and better planning and routing so there are fewer empty trucks on the road. These are the exact types of operational strategies that comprise our Five Principles For Improving Supply Chain Efficiency And Sustainability.

When it comes to the carbon reduction potential of these  strategies, an 8 million ton reduction is just the tip of the iceberg.  Supply chain optimization and modal switches can save millions more tons. Collaborative logistics strategies have the potential to cut annual emissions by 200 million tons. These steps save companies money too – as Ocean Spray Cranberries has demonstrated.  We need to do all of these … and we need to do a lot more too.

For as important as these efficiency steps are, they are not going to be sufficient on their own. 

Fact of the matter is that emissions from freight transportation are projected to increase by nearly 200 million metric tons over the coming years.  For context, this increase is greater than what is expected in the commercial, industrial or residential sectors.  Freight already accounts for over half-a-billion tons of carbon pollution each year in the U.S.  We simply can’t afford to see such a significant growth in freight emissions.

So, how do we not only avoid this growth in emissions, but actually bring them down?  We need to pair increases in significant productivity gains with radically more efficient trucks.

Trucks are expected to account for over 80 percent of the increase in freight greenhouse gas emissions. Successful efforts to not only slow the growth in freight emissions – but actually reduce emissions from today’s levels, must improve trucks first and foremost.

Increasing the productivity of trucks is a needed step forward.  Every time a company gets more products on a truck or avoids an empty backhaul it equates to fewer trucks on the road. Using more carbon efficient modes is critical too.  Rail emits six times less carbon per ton mile than trucks. Ultimately, there will still be a lot of trucks on the road and we need for these to be as efficient as possible.

It was, therefore, great to also read in the article the interest truck buyers and truck makers have in more efficient trucks.  As the piece noted,

“Truck makers are pinning their hopes on more fuel-efficient vehicles to stimulate replacement demand, looking to emulate the success of auto makers in driving demand back to pre-recession levels.” And;

“A loaded heavy-duty tractor with a detachable trailer typically uses a gallon of fuel every 5 to 6.5 miles. Getting just one more mile a gallon saves thousands of dollars a year on the fuel cost for a single truck.”

How far can we push these trucks? Cummins and Peterbilt recently revealed that they built a truck for the DOE Supertruck program that "averaged 9.9 miles a gallon in road tests last fall."

Also, the CEO of Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) Martin Daum recently called for his company to deliver a 10 MPG truck to the U.S. market. He noted that the company – which is the market leader for truck chassis and number two for truck engines – already manufactures a tractor that combined with a full trailer aerodynamic package can produce today a 9.3 mpg tractor-trailer today.

We have the technology to build radically more efficient trucks today. We also have the knowhow to use them much more productively. Let’s do it.