It sounds like a great idea: A driver pulls his truck into a parking space at a truckstop or rest area, hooks up an apparatus to his window, and gets fresh, clean, temperature-controlled air, along with TV and Internet connections, movies, educational programs, and electricity to run the microwave oven or coffeepot in his sleeper - all without idling his truck.
That was the premise of IdleAire, Knoxville, Tenn., when it launched in late 2000. Environmental concerns loved it, and the company has been very successful in getting government grants. But truckstops were slower to implement the system than initially targeted, and drivers have a love/hate relationship with the system. The company has never made a profit in over seven years in business.
Last month, after underwriting was withdrawn for a planned public stock offering and the company spent weeks intensely searching for funding, it filed voluntarily for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.
IdleAire had a net loss of $93.44 million in 2007 on revenues of $37.23 million, compared to a net loss of $60 million in 2006 on revenues of $13.98 million. So even though revenues were up 166 percent in 2007, the company lost about 50 percent more money than the year before.
IdleAire did not respond to requests for an interview.
IdleAire has done an excellent job with marketing, with getting government grants, with pushing all the right political buttons, observers say. But it hasn't been enough.
In its annual report, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission just weeks before the bankruptcy filing, the company admitted that "adoption of our ATE (Advanced Truckstop Electrification) technology is still relatively limited."
At the end of 2007, IdleAire had 130 locations in more than 30 states, the majority of them (108) at TravelCenters of America, with a total of 8,423 spaces.
Over the years, IdleAire has repeatedly missed its stated goals regarding number of locations. For instance, in 2004, Tom Badgett, then-CIO, said the devices would be at 250 locations by the end of 2005. But when the end of 2005 rolled around, they had only 24 sites.
IdleAire underwent rapid network expansion from the second quarter 2006 through the third quarter 2007, but late in 2007 apparently they ran out of steam - and money.
The company believed that as more IdleAire spaces became available, more truckers would use the system. But, as they noted in the annual report, "improvements to system utilization rates were slower than forecasted," and that the company's ability to become profitable "depends in part upon our ability to achieve a higher system utilization rate." The annual report shows about a 25 percent utilization rate at best.
That's a problem, because the IdleAire system is too expensive to put in spots that don't get used. It costs about $1 million to install the system at an average size travel center with approximately 65 parking spaces, or about $15,000 per parking space.
The operation is also manpower-heavy. Of the company's approximately 1,200 employees, about 80 percent of them are located at IdleAire's truckstop and terminal facilities.
As a result, IdleAire has gotten deeply into debt - to the tune of $303.6 million, according to its bankruptcy petition.
In its annual report, the company noted that government grants - more than $55 million by the end of 2007 - have helped it fund its operations. (However, it had only collected less than half of that amount, $25.1 million.)
"That's what IdleAire was best at - getting federal money to build their facilities," says Fred Kirschner, who has been in the truckstop business since the 1960s and operates a Petro in Scranton, Pa., which offers IdleAire.
Some observers have expressed concern that if IdleAire goes under, it could give the whole truckstop-electrification business a black eye and make it more difficult for other companies to get government funding.
Not helping that concern are recent published reports in the Knoxville media that Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale has been accused of pushing to get a million-dollar grant awarded to IdleAire, then investing $10,000 of his own money in the company once the grant went through, raising questions of conflict of interest.
IDLEAIRE'S CHICKEN-AND-EGG DILEMMA
IdleAire has said that a larger network and higher utilization are key to its success. But it faces a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Truckstops and travel centers are reluctant to sign up because they're not sure the demand is going to be there. But fleets and owner-operators don't want to rely on using IdleAire because there are a limited number of locations - so the demand truckstops are looking for isn't there. It's a vicious cycle.
"I think for truckstops, there is a question of, will drivers use it, how long is this going to be the type of system that they want, and for systems that take more space in the lot, can I part with so many spaces in order to put this equipment in?" says Mindy Long, vice president of public affairs for the truckstop/travel association Natso.
The size of the IdleAire installations, which involve a large overhead truss, has been a stumbling block for some truckstops, especially those that already have limited real estate for truck parking.
Jubitz Travel Center in Portland, Ore., never felt IdleAire was an option, and about nine months ago started offering a plug-in truckstop electrification system from Shorepower instead.
"In our case, where our parking's very limited, the IdleAire required more space than we had available," says Lee Pederson, fuel operations manager for Jubitz.
Nevertheless, many fleets find the lack of up-front investment an appealing reason to use IdleAire. And, wary of rapidly changing regulations, some feel that using a truckstop-based system is safer than investing in on-board technology such as APUs that could run afoul of new regulations in California or elsewhere.
And many drivers love IdleAire. In fact, at Arrow Trucking, where they have the system installed at their terminal in Tulsa, Okla., as well as using it at truckstops, they found out the drivers loved it too much.
"We made our decision [to use IdleAire] based on eliminating an hour of idling time on the engine for every hour of usage of IdleAire," explains Jim Cade, executive vice president of maintenance. "It hasn't really worked out that way."
Because the drivers enjoyed the Internet, TV and other services, they were using it when they didn't really need it to keep the cab comfortable without idling. "For every hour on the engine we were eliminating, we were running up about three hours of IdleAire usage," Cade says. "So we had to put some restrictions in place to limit the amount of hours drivers could use the service."
Drivers have also had some complaints about the system: The head-in parking requires drivers to back out of the space when they're done, a dangerous proposition in crowded truckstop lots; they take up valuable real estate in parking lots where it's already hard to find a space; the window units are heavy and awkward; sometimes the air provided smells heavily of cigarette smoke; and IdleAire personnel are sometimes pushy in trying to convince truckers to use the service.
And those who want to use the service are sometimes frustrated when truckers park in the IdleAire spots and don't use the service.
Even those who like IdleAire say that if they are going to be stuck somewhere longer than the usual mandated rest period, it is sometimes more cost-effective to get a hotel room.
Some observers say the window of opportunity for IdleAire to become an established and profitable business may simply have passed them by. Since IdleAire was founded, the number of anti-idling options available on board trucks has exploded, with truck and engine OEMs and even refrigeration unit manufacturers bringing new options to market.
"IdleAire is a short-term fix," Kirschner says. He believes the future is in on-board solutions such as APUs. "If you go someplace that doesn't have IdleAire, you have to run your 600-horsepower engine where a 3-horsepower engine will work. The people who are buying trucks today should be demanding from the manufacturers that they build into the truck an APU."
For many reasons, IdleAire cannot be the only anti-idling strategy for most companies.
Research by Argonne National Laboratories for the U.S. Department of Energy found that technologies with hourly charges, such as IdleAire, are most cost-effective for truckers that do not do a lot of idling. On-board technologies offer better payback for high idlers.
Some companies find IdleAire makes the most sense as part of a larger overall strategy. At Celadon, for instance, they use an auxiliary heater to help reduce idling in the winter, In the summer, options for keeping drivers cool include IdleAire if it's available, or a hotel room - or in some cases, idling the truck.
It's impossible to know what will happen to IdleAire, but the company could emerge from bankruptcy, quite possibly under new ownership, stronger and in a position to take advantage of market re-energized by high fuel prices and increased societal emphasis on being "green."
Chapter 11 bankruptcy can give a company a new start. A 'Chapter 11 debtor usually proposes a plan of reorganization to keep its business alive and pay creditors over time. The court can grant complete or partial relief from most of the company's debts and contracts.
Often, if the company's debts exceed its assets, at the completion of bankruptcy the company's creditors end up with ownership of the newly reorganized company.
This could well be what happens with IdleAire. According to the bankruptcy petition, as of December 31, IdleAire had $210.9 million in assets but total debts of $303.6 million. Published reports indicate that the corporate name IdleAire Acquisition LLC was reserved the same day the company filed for bankruptcy.
The bankruptcy filing lists as the main creditors a group of unnamed lenders represented by Wells Fargo Bank, which at the end of April provided a line of credit up to $25 million. As part of the agreement, IdleAire hired a major turn-around management and restructuring consultant, CRG Partners Group.
According to court papers filed in relation to the bankruptcy petition, the credit agreement relating to the bridge loan "expressly envisions" further funding in the form of debtor-in-possession financing, and also says that "IdleAire's obligations in connection with the bridge loan are secured by a first priority lien on essentially all of its assets."
So these unnamed lenders could well be IdleAire's new owners.
There are a couple of things going on that could be a boon for the reorganized company: increasing anti-idling regulations, and new entrants into the market that IdleAire created.
Natso's Long says truckstop operators in California are showing a lot of interest in truckstop-based anti-idling systems because of the state Air Resources Board's strict anti-idling regulations that went into effect earlier this year. She says other states are looking at adopting similar regulations.
"The rising number of idle-free truckstops in North America brings into focus the applicability of on- and off-board truckstop electrification technologies," says Sandeep Kar, an analyst for Frost & Sullivan, which looked at idle reduction technologies as part of research on 2010 emissions, released earlier this year. (Off-board technologies are those that require no special equipment onboard the truck, such as IdleAire; on-board technologies are basically shore power.)
"Idling regulations directly affect over 2.5 million heavy trucks used for long-haul purposes in North America," Kar says. "More than 650,000 of such trucks have sleeper cabs, which offer an attractive growth potential to developers of cost-effective and pertinent idling solutions. The North American and global emission reduction and fuel-conservation efforts are expected to gain considerable momentum in the foreseeable future, underlying the need for innovative technologies such as idling reduction systems and solutions."
Another thing that may eventually help IdleAire, ironically, is the emergence of competitors. Two relatively new offerings in the market are CabAire LLC and AireDock by Craufurd. Both offer similar services as IdleAire - heating, air conditioning, Internet connections, TV - but each has different features that may appeal to truckstop operators for whom IdleAire was not a good fit.
"Idleaire made the whole market; they were pioneers," says Jeffrey DeSantis, one of the owners of Craufurd Manufacturing. But IdleAire is best for large facilities, he says. "Now you have our system and a couple of others that are different ways of getting to the same problem and solving it. Each customer likes a different flavor of ice cream."
If these new "flavors" prompt more truckstops to offer these all-in-one idling reduction systems, it could help resolve the "chicken and the egg" dilemma that has plagued the concept and help make off-board truckstop electrification an important part of a multi-faceted solution to excessive truck idling.
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
At least two new companies are betting that as fuel prices continue to soar and strict truck idling regulations proliferate across the country, there is still room for growth in the market for truckstop-based, all-in-one anti-idling systems.
CabAire, Enfield, Conn., is a division of Control Module, which has nearly 40 years of experience providing custom computing, data collection and machine control technologies to transportation companies and others. It started installing the first of what it calls "next-generation truckstop electrification" (pictured above) about a year ago, at the American Auto Stop off of I-95 in n North Stonington, Conn. That truckstop faced local regulations addressing not only anti-idling, but also engine noise reduction and lot lighting.
CabAire offers heating/cooling, cable TV, high-speed Internet, block heater power, and power connections for in-cab appliances as well as for refrigeration units.
The system's "towers" are underground and not as space-hogging as the IdleAire gantries. One "tower" can serve two parking spaces. The window adapters weigh less than 5 pounds.
CabAire offers the flexibility of working in any size parking lot, from 10 to a thousand spaces, and is modular so truckstops can get the features they need. Its automated design means attendants are not required on site. There are optional security features, such as entrance/exit gates and security cameras. Vehicle detection and anti-idling sensors automate parking space/lot management and emissions reporting.
In addition to the existing location in Connecticut, CabAire has a number of projects in design phase, has been awarded a second contract in North Carolina and has received commitments from a number of truckstop owners and other facility owners across the country. (More info: www.cabaire.com)
Craufurd Manufacturing, Belchertown, Mass., is a sister company to England's Craufurd Technologies, which has decades of experience in making specialized heating and air conditioning units. Its AireDock anti-idling system is a stand-alone HVAC unit that can heat or cool a truck in just minutes in ambient temperatures up to 120 degrees or down to 40 below. There are also power outlets for in-cab electronics, Internet, streaming video, and plug-ins for a block heater. The window adapter is universal and only weighs about 8 pounds.
The system is flexible and compact; each unit serves one parking space and sits on a 30-by-30-inch concrete pad, and is 74 inches high. Vehicle-detection sensors let the truckstop know which spaces are occupied so it can manage an advance reservation system if desired. Depending on the situation, truckstops may buy, lease, or enter into a joint venture with Craufurd to manage the system. Craufurd doesn't plan to try to manage the systems, instead focusing on the technology itself.
The company is about a year and a half old but really introduced itself to the industry at the Natso convention early this year. It is currently installing the system at five truckstops - two in Massachusetts, as well as ones in Wisconsin, Washington and Texas. The company has even had a couple of major trucking companies contact them about working together, guaranteeing a certain amount of traffic if the system is installed in certain truckstops. (More info: www.craufurdmanufacturing.com)
AN IDLEAIRE TIMELINE
December 2000: IdleAire Technologies is founded.
August 2001: IdleAire opens two commercial demonstration facilities in New York state.
February 2002: Petro Stopping Centers announces it will be the first travel plazas to offer IdleAire.
July 2003: IdleAire's Advanced Travel Center Electrification (ATE) system is named by R&D magazine as "one of the 100 most technologically significant products."
December 2003: Pilot Travel Centers signs agreement allowing installation of IdleAire technology in its travel centers. IdleAire currently has 12 locations.
April 2004: Petro Stopping Centers agrees to open its entire system of travel centers for immediate installation of IdleAire.
August 2004: IdleAire announces it will install its system at all TA company locations across the nation.
September 2005: IdleAire announces its first truck terminal installation at Arrow Trucking in Tulsa, Okla.
January 2006: IdleAire sells $320 million in discount notes, giving it the funding to install the system at about 210 locations.
November 2006: David Everhart, co-founder, original CEO, resigns as chief operating officer due to medical issues.
September 2006: IdleAire is operating 67 sites across 21 states, a 179 percent increase over the 24 sites operating a year earlier.
July 2007: For the first six months of the year, IdleAire widens its losses to $44.4 million, from $25.8 million the previous year. Total net revenue increases to $14.9 million from $4.2 million.
September 2007: IdleAire files for an initial public offering with the Securities and Exchange Commission. It now has 127 locations across 33 states.
February 2008: Tom Badgett, IdleAire's chief information officer, secretary and co-founder, announces his retirement.
Mid-April 2008: In its annual report, the company says, "If we fail to secure sufficient funds to pay our operating expenses and payments due under our senior secured discount notes, we may be required to suspend ATE installation activities permanently, liquidate assets, incur additional debt or file for a bankruptcy proceeding."
April 30, 2008: IdleAire secures a line of credit up to $25 million and borrows approximately $3.7 million from a group of unnamed lenders. Turnaround consultant hired as part of credit agreement.
May 12, 2008: IdleAire files Chapter 11 bankruptcy.