Q&A: NACFE Executive Director Mike Roeth

December 2014, - WebXclusive

by Deborah Lockridge, Editor-in-Chief - Also by this author

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Mike Roeth, Executive Director of the NACFE. 
Mike Roeth, Executive Director of the NACFE.

Mike Roeth is the executive director for the North American Council for Freight Efficiency. We talked to him about his group's mission and fuel economy and freight efficiency in general.

HDT: Can you explain in a nutshell what the North American Council for Freight Efficiency is?

Roeth: We're an unbiased, nonprofit group that listens to what the industry is doing, particularly the early adopters of technologies for freight efficiency or fuel economy, and share their data, their information, with the broader audience in order to accelerate the adoption of these technologies. We're trying to pull these technologies forward so we can get the benefits from them, quicker.

A big tenet of what we do is we want all stakeholder groups involved. We work with the fleets/end users but also truck builders, trailer builders, component manufacturers, other associations or non-government organizations, the government with respect to EPA SmartWay, NHTSA. We don't lobby or advocate for anything but we do help those people who do that with some of the data and information.

HDT: Give us some examples of the things NACFE does.

Roeth: The first thing we started with and is kind of a hallmark is our annual fleet fuel study. This now includes 14 fleets and over 50,000 tractors and it looks at their purchasing of about 70 technologies over the past 10 years. We use that data to help them benchmark one another but every bit as important to share it with the industry. What are these fleets buying, how quickly did they adopt and what kind of fuel saving benefits are they having.

The second thing we do is confidence reports. Here we collaborated with the Carbon War Room, Richard Branson's group, to study promising fuel efficiency technologies in a lot of detail. We've published reports on tire pressure systems, 6x2 axlesidle reduction and now transmissions. We're trying to answer the question, what confidence do fleets have in buying these technologies. And we do that after interviews with the manufacturers of the technology, the truck and trailer builders, the fleets, owner-operators and other organizations that might have data for us. We make our conclusions on benefits and consequences of buying these technologies and also the best practices some fleets have told us about adopting them.

At the end we rate the technology as to its payback and the maturity of the data that gives us that confidence. So we could have a technology that has a really short payback but has very little data, and that would be something the industry ought to pause a little bit and make sure the data really supports that payback calculation. Many of the technologies we find there's a strong relatively short payback and a lot of data available so we're pretty confident those are technologies they should pursue.

The third thing we do is just be an active voice in the industry. I'm on a National Academy of Sciences committee looking at these technologies. We're very active at industry events. We're just very available to the industry on the topic of freight efficiency and fuel economy.

HDT: With only 14 fleets and over 50,000 tractors, I'm assuming these are pretty large fleets?

Roeth: There are a couple of smaller ones. What we're looking for are fleets that are very diligent, very scientific in how they study these technologies. Whether they're large or small doesn’t really matter.

HDT: How can smaller fleets can use this information?

Roeth: We did some work a couple years ago on the barriers to buying these technologies, and we asked, who do fleets trust for information on these technologies. Kind of unsurprisingly they said themselves first, but secondly and way ahead of everything else were other fleets. Fleets really do respect and rely on information from other fleets, which also shouldn't be surprising. If we want to go to dinner we ask our friends what's the best restaurant. So we try to learn from the fleets that have already made these decisions. Smaller, medium, and even large fleets have made decisions based on these reports. Just because you're large doesn’t mean you're diligent in studying these things.

HDT: These reports are free, right?

Roeth: We're an open organization, and we see it as contrary to our mission to put a cost to these reports. They're available to anyone who wants to read them, understand them and take action on these technologies.

It takes resources and people and travel etc. to get it done, and so right now we're finding that we can do that through sponsorships, along with some philanthropy money, some funds we've been able to get to match that industry money. And it is challenging because our DNA, our whole being is being impartial and unbiased, and being able to assess these technologies at that level, so when people fund us, that's what they're getting. They're not getting us advocating for that particular product. But that's exactly what industry has told us they needed.

HDT: What drove the founding of NACFE?

Roeth: Back in 2009, we were starting a recession. Five years before for the first time diesel went over $1.25. Five years ago we were five years removed from that kind of cost of fuel. That group of people who attended a Rocky Mountain Institute workshop in Chicago and the eight or 10 founders of NACFE that worked on creating it after the workshop were convinced this was a new time we were entering into for trucking -- not only did we need to design trucks that lived for a million miles, design them for the new EPA emissions levels, design them to be cost effective and have features that attract drivers, now we also had this huge need for they had to be fuel efficient. The need for trucking efficiency now is every bit as big as it was. Looks to me like it was pretty prophetic.

We had a lot of great ideas in the '70s, and then fuel prices dropped and all those great ideas went away until we needed them again – and then we had to nearly start over.

HDT: What's your background and how does it play into what you're doing now?

Roeth: I'm an engineer by training went to Ohio State. Right out of school I got into the heavy duty industry with what at the time was McCord radiator. The first 12 years of my career I worked there, and in 1996 moved to Navistar and developed new trucks. I was the primary leader on the WorkStar vocational truck, then led the warranty quality group there in the early 2000s, before catching this bug on new technologies and fuel economy. That led me to leave in 2009 and start working independently, helping to start up this organization and eventually the agreement with the Carbon War Room.

To be successful, we want to make public otherwise private information, whether it's at the fleets or the manufacturer, and oftentimes they will share but they won't really go public with it. They'll share with their best customers but keep it pretty close to the vest. For us to be really successful is to convince them it's good for the industry and also good for them to share that information. I'm a very open person and I can connect companies and people and find appropriate ways to use sometimes confidential information.

HDT: With plummeting fuel prices and what seems like a glut of crude oil, there seems to be some loss of interest in sustainability efforts in some circles. What are you seeing?

Roeth: When I first really got attracted to fuel economy technologies and ideas, it shocked me that almost all of them had their patents back in the 1970s. I don't want to get into the same situation we had before. We had a lot of great ideas in the '70s, and then fuel prices dropped and all those great ideas went away until we needed them again -- and then we had to nearly start over.

There's this roller coaster of lower fuel prices, people say, 'OK we can stop buying Priuses and buy big SUVs,' but I think this cycle's going to be a lot shorter. ATRI's number for 2013 for fuel costs is 65 cents a mile and even staying at wherewe are right now, we'd still be in the mid to high 50 cents per mile to operate a truck, so it's still a very large expense.

We don't want to fall into what happened in the '70s when innovation into things like natural gas engine development or battery work for hybrids and other technologies, even simple things like [automated] transmissions or aerodynamic devices or tires [was abandoned]. We'd like to keep the effort going strong so we can save the gallons of fuel. It's not only a dollar benefit, it's also an emissions one, an environmental one and a good steward one to use less petroleum.

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