Article

The Real Cost of Trucks

Why equipment costs more today... or does it?

August 2008, TruckingInfo.com - Feature

by Steve Sturgess, Executive Editor

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If you think about what you bought for a tractor in 1980 and what you get when you buy a tractor today, you quickly realize they're not even the same animal. Why 1980? That was the year the Motor Carrier Act deregulated trucking, leading to widespread and intense competition in the marketplace. MCA '80 took away the safety net of regulation, rate bureaus and protected hauling authorities. Randy Marten, chairman of refrigerated carrier Marten Transport, summed it up in an interview in the mid-'80s. He knew from being a produce hauler - an unregulated part of the trucking industry even before 1980 - "Following deregulation we knew what the rules were. There were no rules."

But just as Marten prospered from deregulation, so did the fleets that used the opportunity to build "market presence." Heavy Duty Trucking's special issue, "The Rise of Truckload," in January 2005 tracked the emergence of some of the fleets that have risen to dominance in the truckload side. Consolidations happened all over, as well. And the combination of a new, savvy marketplace and the ability of these fleets to put the screws to suppliers put significant pressure on the truck manufacturing industry to compete for their dollars.

At the same time, truck makers were facing other market pressures. With the industry reeling from the impact of deregulation, regulators sought to ease the pain by improving the efficiency of the transportation system with the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982.

For trucking, it changed everything. Where overall lengths and gross vehicle weights previously had been constrained - especially by bridge railroad states like Illinois - truckers were freed up to run common configurations coast-to-coast on the Interstate system. It sounded good in practice, as indeed it was, but it virtually stopped the trailer industry in its tracks for the whole of 1982 while everyone waited to see what the legislation would offer up and even whether the act would pass.

In the end, right in the closing moments of the year, the new STAA rules said that states could not mandate an overall length, nor could they require a shorter trailer than 48 feet when running on any part of the federal Interstate Highway System. Trucks could also run 80,000 pounds everywhere the Interstates went, instead of the 72,800 pounds some of the bridge states had required. Also included was a provision to allow 102 inches overall width for trailers instead of 96 inches. This meant a much more efficient side-by-side loading of pallets instead of the old "pinwheeling," which took a lot of handling time. With these longer and wider trailers, states also had to grant access to terminals and facilities close to the Interstates, though those provisions took more than a little while to sort out.

To an industry that had virtually standardized on 42-foot by 96-inch trailers, it meant throwing out the existing equipment in order to compete. Overnight, these trailers became obsolete and fleets rushed to buy new equipment or stretch their existing trailers by 6 feet while still constrained by the old width.

Today, the ubiquitous 48-foot van and reefer have also become a piece of history, as the migration to the 53-footer over the designated highway system brought further efficiencies and flexibility of operations. This was more slowly accommodated as the various conditions of access to and from the Interstate and the designated highway system were worked through.

THE CONVENTIONAL COMES OF AGE

The removal of the tractor dimension from the overall vehicle length drove fleets to adopt conventionals in response to a new phenomenon: the driver shortage. Drivers universally preferred the conventional. So starting in 1983, there was an ever-rising clamor from drivers who wanted the perceived safety and security of having that big hunk of iron out in front of the firewall. And ride quality and steering stability were issues, too. Those short cabovers would beat you to death and dart and squirm all over the road.

This changeover took many years, though, forcing truck manufacturers to assume the burden for the design of new conventional models while keeping their cabovers fresh.

Of course, one new design that had drivers talking was the Kenworth T600A, which debuted in 1985 in response to the spike in fuel prices in 1982-83 (see cost comparisons chart for the erratic performance of the fuel price index over the last 28 years). The T600A was a skunkworks project led by the late Larry Orr. He is quoted on the Kenworth web site: "When we were developing the T600A, we decided to incorporate everything we could come up with to reduce drag. As it evolved, we managed to do that, but we were a bit concerned about its appearance. It didn't look like our traditional long-nose conventional."

I recall driving one of the two trucks introduced at the Mid America Trucking Show that year. The comments over the CB weren't kind. One anonymous voice proclaimed "I don't care if that thing does 20 mpg, I wouldn't be seen dead in an ugly sucker like that."

While fuel pricing pressure eased almost the day the T600 bowed in, fleets who enjoyed the economy and the additional revenue margins made it a popular introduction, and it remains Kenworth's most popular model. It truly did deliver. In a cross-country demo in 1990, three different trucks, one with a Cummins L10 330, one with an N14 370 and the third with an N14 460 - big power at the time - scored 8.21, 7.99 and 7.68 mpg respectively.

By the end of the decade, the aero model with its associated set-back steer axle had to be included in every manufacturers' line-up, adding complexity to a production process that already included cabovers and conventionals with a host of options. Don't forget, most companies offered Caterpillar, Cummins and Detroit Diesel power, or a combination with their own power. Eaton, Rockwell and Dana all made axles and Spicer was still a transmission option. About the only component that had been phased out at this point was the two-stick gearshift combo.

Cabover and traditional conventionals abounded, as fuel was cheap - so cheap that 4.5 mpg was tolerable. And truck makers had the engineering time to indulge the driver with bigger sleepers, leading to the introduction of the Freightliner FLC long-and-tall, initially intended for the owner-operator market. However, it was such a draw for drivers it fast became the standard configuration for truckload carriers, by now the dominant sector in the trucking industry.

EMISSIONS REGULATION TAKES ITS TOLL

The late '80s saw the first impact of emissions standards on heavy duty trucks. Mandated by the Clean Air Act, the first heavy truck emissions hurdle was 1988, and the last 20 years have seen regular steps down in the amount of emissions allowed. By the time 2010 rolls around, in would take more than 6,000 modern trucks to equal the total emissions of a single 1988-regulated truck.

Making equipment to conform with increasingly strict emissions regulations came at an enormous cost that has had to be amortized over the products. Fortunately the engineering brought more benefits than just squeaky-clean emissions. The big step was 1991/1994, when diesel injection electronic controls proved to be the best way forward.

In hindsight, the concentration on heavy duty, on-highway emissions was the best thing that could happen to trucking, trucks and truckers - and the environment. The result, at least in the early stages of the application of emissions controls and the advent of electronics, was that the new engines were not only cleaner, but they also were more economical. Moreover, when the engines were cleaned up and used less fuel, they lasted longer. And given intelligent controls that could help protect from driver abuse, suddenly a big-bore diesel could go a million miles without being opened up. This was a major advance. In the early '80s an in-frame overhaul with pistons and liners and mains and rod bearings at 350,000 miles was just par for the course.

Along the way, engine makers learned a lot about combustion, injection pressure, flame temperature and the trade-off between NOx and particulates, or PM. By 1998, truck engines were emitting one sixth as much PM and 60 percent less NOx than those of only a decade earlier.

In the same timeframe, electronics were pressed in to service for that other mandate, anti-lock braking. But this time around, the evolution of FMVSS121 was managed better by the regulators, and the electronic controllers were many generations more advanced than had been tried in the earlier ABS fiasco of the mid '70s.

In fact, electronic controllers had so proliferated that by the 1996 launch of the Freightliner Century Class, there were no fewer than 20 microprocessors on its chassis.

That year saw something of a step change for both manufacturers and end users, as first Western Star introduced the Constellation, then Ford debuted the new A- and L-Line replacements for the venerable Louisville. The wraps were pulled off the Kenworth T2000 that summer, and the Freightliner Century Class bowed in at the American Trucking Associations' annual convention in Chicago late that year. Volvo's VN broke cover, too. 1996 was truly a remarkable year for remarkable new truck products.

One of the factors driving the flurry of new introductions were the many chassis changes needed to accommodate the 1998 engines.

The market was booming. The economy was strong, and trucks were flying out the doors with strong sales incentives - read buybacks - making the deals too good to walk away from. Pat Quinn, co-chairman of U.S. Xpress, said after the whole house of cards collapsed in 2000-2001 that they knew it couldn't be sustained, but the deals were just too good to pass up.

Truck prices were not a whole lot more than they had been in 1980, yet the level of sophistication was like night and day. Darry Stuart, long-time maintenance guru and last year's chairman of the Technology and Maintenance Council of ATA, explains that market forces made trucks an incredible bargain in the late '90s. In 1998, a $66,000 daycab tractor was less than four times the cost of the average car and less than double the average annual income in the United States. In 1980 it had taken the average worker two and a half years to earn the equivalent amount.

According to our analysis, trailers were tracking well below the consumer price index, but were less of a bargain than the significantly up-featured tractors.

But the features had to take a back seat to emissions with the 1998 ruling that engine manufacturers had cheated on EPA certification in efforts to outdo each other in delivering top fuel economy for their customers.

In response, the EPA "pulled forward" the next regulatory change, scheduled for 2004, 15 months early to October '02. This - and the fines - was far more than a slap on the wrist for the engine makers that had been held to be in violation of EPA standards.

The problem? They were accused of setting cruise fuel tables outside of the set points of the certification test cycle. The engines still met the transient test cycle in cities, where exhaust standards were most important. It was only in steady-state cruise that the engines went to different calibrations. EPA held these to be "defeat devices," and the engine manufacturers signed consent decrees agreeing to abide by the new EPA timetable.

It was a dumb move by EPA, because it slashed the development time for the engines and the chassis to accommodate them. It was the debut of exhaust gas recirculation, and there were still a lot of unanswered questions as trucks and engines went in to production and service. The end result was trucks that cost a whole lot more as manufacturers of both engines and chassis had to recoup all that extra effort, and trucks that were less than reliable.

They burned more fuel, too.

In past emissions steps, reliability and durability and fuel economy had all improved. This time, they all suffered.

According to TMC panels, this situation has been greatly improved with the 2007 change, which was less of a technology issue than one of cost, with the addition of a diesel particulate filter at around $6,000 each - close to the cost of the average new car in 1980. The DPF component, more than any other, has led to the rise in new tractor prices in the last few years.

The continued upward trend for trailers most likely represents the commodities costs for steel, aluminum and rubber. But there are engineering costs to be amortized there, too. While the regulatory environment has little effect on trailers, commercial pressures have led to ever-lighter, higher-cube and more durable equipment with features such as anti-lock braking and roll stability. There have been aerodynamic improvements, too - and expect a lot more to come in that area, given the upward trend in the fuel price curve.

MORE FOR THE MONEY

If you compare a car from the early '80s to one today, you get air conditioning, central locking, electric windows, performance and braking, fuel economy, navigation systems and so on that you didn't get back then. But you pay for it. The cost has spiraled up, matched only by housing prices (at least, until just recently) and gas prices. The curves on the accompanying chart show a heavy truck tractor is still a financial bargain, well below the Consumer Price Index, yet carrying at least as much content as the average car.

Harder to show on a graph, the conventional truck of today is infinitely safer than the cabover of yesteryear. And it's not that big hunk of iron sticking out front that makes it so; there's a major contribution from the sophisticated electronics on board.

Kenworth Chief Engineer Mike Dozier pointed out in an interview that we are now coming to use the various sensors and systems together to intelligently control following distance, rollover detection and stability. Upcoming is automated braking. We have lane departure warning, anti-lock braking, even navigation systems to take the worry out of negotiating a crowded city.

Ed Saxman, who has had more than 30 years with Mack and Volvo, points to the cab structure improvements at his company that come from the Volvo heritage, but also notes that most manufacturers today design to the ECE29 crash standard or to SAE criteria. He said he remembers in the mid-'80s writing the engineering request for power steering to be standard on VolvoWhite trucks, as they were branded at the time. Now we are seeing rack and pinion steering. Heating and air conditioning are standard now, where they were almost unheard of in trucks of the early '80s. And while air suspension was not new in the early part of this period, there were still plenty of steel springs and even walking-beam Hendricksons.

But there's so much more. Dozier says that the concentration on meeting emissions standards has somewhat stalled the industry's ability to deliver fuel economy gains as it did in the earlier days. However, having got down to virtually zero NOx and PM for 2010, Dozier predicts the next stage will be efforts to improve fuel economy through the reduction of CO2. That will be a direct user benefit, but it also addresses CO2 emissions that may well be the next likely target for emissions mandates as the environmental focus shifts to greenhouse gases and global warming.

It's not all roses, though. As that cost curve starts to uptick, so do service costs of the new complex trucks, complains Darry Stuart. They are more difficult to repair in the fleet shop as well, especially since a good part of the service literature is proprietary and captive to the dealer.

But when we look at the big picture, we see that the level of accommodation for the driver, driving ease, safety, cost of operation, durability and reliability are all up. And today, despite the impact of the last two huge emissions changes, a tractor costs only 3.4 times as much as the average car.

What a bargain!

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