Six of the trucking industry's leading innovative fleet execs shared their thoughts on hot issues at HDTX.  -  Photo: Tavits for HDT

Six of the trucking industry's leading innovative fleet execs shared their thoughts on hot issues at HDTX.

Photo: Tavits for HDT

When you think about innovation in trucking, these days hot topics such as battery-electric vehicles and autonomous technology may come to mind. But being a forward-looking industry leader involves less sexy, but no less important, areas as well, such as safety and maintenance.

HDT’s 2022 Truck Fleet Innovators discussed all these topics and more at the recent Heavy Duty Trucking Exchange event in Scottsdale, Arizona. There they were presented with their Innovator trophies by Editor in Chief Deborah Lockridge and Chris Cooler, VP of sales and marketing from Innovators sponsor East Manufacturing. The awards ceremony was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Jim Park, HDT Equipment Editor, kicked off with a couple of questions from Cooler to the six-person panel. (Two of this year’s eight Innovators were unable to attend or to send a representative to accept the award on their behalf.)

Working on the Future of Trucking

At PGT Trucking, Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, its Future of Flatbed program encompasses corporate initiatives that focus on developing innovative shipping solutions for our customers while meeting environmental sustainability goals and enhancing the driver and employee lifestyle.

It's an effort that company officials are investing a lot of time and effort into, with an innovation committee of “people who are smart and willing to solve problems,” said Andrew Erin, director of safety and risk, who was there to accept the award on behalf of PGT President Gregg Troian.

As part of the Future of Flatbed initiative, PGT is piloting both autonomous technology and zero-emissions trucks.

“We’re in early days in both projects,” he said. “In talking to customers they have two major concerns,” he explained. “One is capacity and the other is drivers.”

Many of its large customers have specific targets for net-zero and carbon intensity. “They don’t know how exactly they’re going to get to that, so they’re really interested in hearing about what we’re doing,” he said. “Our view is if we don’t find a way to make these things happen we’re not going to be here eventually.”

Zero-Emissions Trucks

Tony Williamson came to Total Transportation Services Inc., known as TTSI, in 2007 with a background in environmental, initially joining the company as director of operations, at a time when the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were ramping up their first Clean Air Action Plan.

Williamson was there on behalf of CEO Vic La Rosa, who passed away this summer, to accept the award posthumously on his behalf. Today, Williamson is director of compliance and sustainability.

“Vic stated then that he would flip his fleet to zero emissions as fast as the technology was available,” he recalled. This was at a time when many in trucking were concerned the new clean-air rules went too far, too fast.

“When battery-electric first came out, it was a joke; we only got two hours out of those batteries.”

But by the time TTSI tested two Nikola Tre electric truck recently, he said, things were much improved. One truck averaged 147 miles a day and still had battery power left over.

“We were just blown away,” Willamson said. “It was Vic’s vision to continue pushing that. One of his last things,” he recalled, getting emotional, “Vic called me at the end of May and said, ‘If they can go $3,200 on a lease, we’ll buy those trucks.’

"We have a new CEO; he came in and said we will push Vic’s vision. Vic was my mentor and I will truly miss him.”

TTSI started testing and demonstrating fuel-cell-electric technology starting in 2009, pointed out Williamson. The company operated the first fuel cell truck in a drayage application, he said, from 2011 to 2014. However, the startup company that was providing the trucks had some financial issues and closed the doors.

In 2018. TTSI started trying out the new generation of FCEV offerings – nearly a dozen of them. “We currently have Nikola FCEVs running for 90 days,” he said. “Those trucks are phenomenal.”  They’re currently running in a drayage operation, but the plan is to put them into short- and medium-haul once they work out “a few hiccups.”

TTSI is collaborating on Shell on a FCEV project for short-haul starting in a couple of months and plans to do one with Michelin in about a year to see if a FCEV can run 500 miles.

Asked which ZEV technology is most promising, battery-electric or fuel-cell electric, Williamson said, “It’s not going to be a clear cut winner. It’s going to be based on application.”

PGT has ordered 500 Nikola battery-electric vehicles, but it sees fuel cells as the more likely long-term solution because of the weight issue.

HDT's Truck Fleet Innovators took home trophies honoring the award.  -  Photo: Tavits for HDT

HDT's Truck Fleet Innovators took home trophies honoring the award.

Photo: Tavits for HDT

Alternative Fuels

Zero-emissions trucks aren’t the only way to make trucks greener, and that was the focus of Monte McLeod, director of autogas, ThompsonGas, Frederick, Maryland.

Propane, or autogas as it’s often called, is “a fuel just like gasoline or diesel,” he explained. “This is the only country in the world where it’s not widely used. We produce in the U.S. more propane than any other country, 30 billion gallons a year, and we export about 20 billion of that of that. In smaller vehicles it works very well. For delivery vehicles, things like that, propane is a perfect fit.” UPS, Fedex, Amazon are all using propane in some places, he said. School buses are another use case.

“You can retrofit existing vehicles, you can do mono fuel or bi fuel,” McLeod said However, he noted, propane only works with engines designed for gasoline, not diesel, because it needs that spark ignition.

Propane also can play a role in fleet electrification, he said. “We’ve got a new skid that can fuel propane vehicles and a level 2 charger, and you can use it anywhere.”

While Keith Wilson is excited about battery-electric trucks and looking forward to getting his first Class 8 trucks in 2023, he’s also a big proponent of renewable diesel. Wilson is president and CEO of Portland, Oregon-based less-than-truckload fleet Titan Freight Systems.

“About 10 years ago we wanted to reduce our emissions 20%,” he said. “All the large companies were doing it.” But even with all the aerodynamics and other fuel-economy improvements they could come up with, the fleet only saw its mpg increase by 6%. Still a long way from that 20% goal, he said, “We started looking at all our energy sources and happened to find renewable diesel.”

Because California and Oregon have state programs to promote low-carbon fuel, he said, Titan can buy it for the same price as petroleum diesel. (In other states there’s a substantial price premium.)

“Then we found the maintenance costs were dramatically lower; we reduced workplace poisons, all those benefits led to a competitive advantage. One of the problems we had was regens, DPF changeouts. We’ve been using renewable diesel for three years now in our Oregon operations and haven’t had a regen or a DPF filter changeout in that time.”

McLeod pointed out that there’s also renewable propane, which is said is a byproduct of renewable diesel.

How the Emissions Discussion is Changing

In response to a question from the audience about tailpipe emissions vs. net-zero goals, Wilson said, “We’re getting away from tailpipe emissions because that’s just one part of it. We talk about carbon intensity, well-to-wheel, lifecycle emissions. In Oregon if I have an EV, it actually will have a higher carbon intensity than my renewable diesel, because we’re primarily coal and natural gas energy.”

“We don’t need to chase EVs; we need to chase the carbon reduction of whatever alternative we use.”

Williamson had similar concerns discussing natural-gas fuel. TTSI currently has trucks running on renewable natural gas.

“We have to be careful as a society when we talk about zero emissions,” he said. “A few years ago, we were just looking at tailpipe emissions. Now you look at things like, where is the source of lithium batteries? If we use biofuels, is it taking foodstock from consumers? Let’s work from the well to the tailpipe.”

McLeod also touched on the topic of overall carbon reduction, citing DME (dimethyl ether), which Volvo was researching a decade ago. Also known as biomethane, it’s methane gas captured from organic sources such as plant materials and meat and fat scraps from restaurants. “Biomethane and renewable propane can be used tougher for lower carbon intensity,” he said. “I think we’re going to find solutions, but I don’t think they’re going to be what we expected.”

“As we transition from a fossil fuel economy…. How do we get from here to there?” he said. “Are we waiting for that [zero-emissions trucks], or are we trying to do something in between? I can’t wait for 2050. Let’s figure out a stopgap while we’re figuring out everything else.”

Autonomous Vehicles

At Titan Freight Systems, the less-than-truckload operations follow standard routes, so his team is discussing autonomous technology, said Wilson.

“As soon as that is ready for prime time, Titan would be first up; it would be a great application for us. We hope to be one of the first to begin that process, but I think as far as being commercially available, I think we’re looking at a decade.”

PGT is working with Locomation as a partner in developing its Autonomous Relay Convoy system. Locomation’s ARC system consists of two-truck convoys that are electronically tethered. Its Human-Guided Autonomy solution enables one driver to operate the lead truck while a second driver rests in the follower truck, which is operating autonomously.

Some operations don’t lend themselves to current or near-future autonomous technology, noted a couple of the panelists.

“I wouldn’t put ‘em in a drayage operation,” quipped TTSI’s Williamson.

Kyle Kristynik, president of Houston, Texas-based Jetco Delivery, there to accept the award on behalf of former CEO Brian Fielkow, said, “My guys and girls are navigating the Houston traffic, so I don’t see that for quite a while.”

“I think Level 5 [autonomy] is probably a long ways off in a way that’s commercially viable in terms of moving more loads,” added PGT’s Erin. “But I think there are companies that aren’t quite level 5, more of a level 4, limiting the more challenging areas like weather and construction zones. I think we’re going to be operating some degree a lot sooner than a decade, but that sci-fi world, it’s a long ways off.”

Truck Safety: 'Not Cops and Robbers'

Many proponents of autonomous technology believe that it could operate trucks more safely than human drivers. But at Jetco, the focus is on people.

When asked about the keys to changing the safety culture at a fleet, Kristynik emphasized “finding the right people, people that believed that philosophy from the get-go; whether it’s operations or drivers.”

Jetco hires a very small percentage of driver applicants. Kristynik tries to talk to each and every one of the new hires on their first day. “One of the first things you hear from me is if you ever feel unsafe, call my cell phone,” he said. “I have fired clients in the past and I will do it again.”

“It’s not cops and robbers; the safety dept isn’t there to ‘catch’ the operations department. In the history of Jet, we’ve had some operations people and drivers who didn’t feel that way. But what happens is their peers end up rejecting those people and will bring it to our attention and they’re gone just like this (snaps fingers.) It’s our number one, non-negotiable value.”

Because turnover is small, customers see the same drivers again and again, and those drivers take care of the customers. “That’s allowed us to grow.”

People, Tech Key to Maintenance

Addressing company culture also was a factor for Tim Gallagher when he took over as vice president of maintenance and facilities for United Petroleum Transports, Oklahoma City.

“We had to address some issues that weren’t being addressed in the past,” he said. There were some bad behaviors that weren’t acceptable moving forward. “Just because this guy’s been here for 20 years, whatever he says goes?” No.

It was important, he said, to start out at the ground level by providing the right training for shop technicians, bringing in vendors and other experts. “We’ve done a lot with go/no go. We continue to impress that on technicians and also our drivers.”

People alone are not enough, however. Gallagher is using Drov telematics to supply real-time information on things such as tire pressure, vibration, and brake condition. “We have real time information; we know where the trailer is at all times, we know when the driver picks that trailer up. Maybe we see a couple tires with low pressure and call him up and say, ‘Hey, how was your pretrip today?’” (A comment that was greeted by laughter from the audience.) “We’ve had multiple times when tire pressure starts dropping. Now, not only can we notify the driver but also start on the solution.”

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