Fuel prices put big rig tech to the test

The most intense tech interest is around trucking applications that optimize operations in a way that increases overall fleet fuel efficiency

What's in it for me? That's the refrain from truckers when it comes to adopting innovative new technologies. And who can blame them?

While a raft of new and emerging high tech products can help owners of large trucks and truck fleets improve safety and comply with regulations (see Big rigs go high tech for a list of the contenders), the most intense interest is around applications that optimize operations in a way that increases overall fleet fuel efficiency.

RFID tracking is all fine and good, but as diesel fuel prices soared to an average of US$4.45 per gallon and oil prices topped US$135 a barrel, the pressure to look at fuel-saving technologies is increasing - and the payback for a gallon saved is looking better and better.

A fully loaded eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer rig gets 5-6 miles per gallon. Trucking companies and independents are pinched between high gas prices and more stringent EPA emissions rules that will require a substantial investment and could increase the cost of new rigs by thousands of dollars by 2010. "Costs are up 10, 15, even [US]$20,000 per truck," says Tom Weekly, director of operations at the OOIDA Foundation, which represents the interest of independents.

While higher fuel prices may improve the payback for some technologies that affect fuel efficiency, the intense pressure on the bottom line could very well retard adoption of many other innovative technologies - even those that could save lives - unless they have a quick bottom-line payback.

Congress has been working on legislation to provide incentives to get more fleets to use safety technologies. "The other way is mandates," says Jim Tipka at American Trucking Associations, an industry lobbying group that services large carriers.

But mandates are the last thing independent truckers want to see. "Small drivers will go out of business because they can't afford them. The more technology you add, the more costly it becomes," says Rick Craig, director of regulatory affairs at the OOIDA Foundation.

So while the potential is there for technology to enable trucking firms to run safer and more efficiently and improve compliance with federal regulations, those without immediate paybacks are unlikely to be adopted any time soon.

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Robert L. Mitchell

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