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.


HDT: This year you announced a partnership with the Carbon War Room. Tell us how that's going.

Roeth: NACFE sort of quietly just passed our five-year anniversary. About two years ago we started talking with the Carbon War Room, started by Richard Branson. They were doing work in four sectors and had identified 28 to work in, and trucking was one of them they had not started any work in. So throughout 2013 we talked with the Carbon War Room about collaborating and how do we get these technologies highlighted and looked at. So about this time last year we entered into collaboration and so in 2014 we've been executing it.

HDT: What new things has that partnership allowed you to do?

Roeth: It allows us to go faster with our work. We've completed four confidence reports and we have eight more that will encompass all the tractor-trailer technologies. We did those four basically in 2013 and 2014, and now we're going to complete the next eight in 2015 to mid-2016. The next two are engine parameters and tires.

I think the best example is our new tech guide website, www.truckingefficiency.org. It's a real guide to these 70 technologies and goes into a lot more detail on each one when we've completed our confidence report. That website clearly has the markings of NACFE and Carbon War Room all over it.

HDT: The Carbon War Room just announced another alliance, with the Rocky Mountain Institute, whose mission is "to drive the efficient and restorative use of resources." One of the areas they target is trucking. What's your relationship with RMI?

Roeth: This is a circle of life. NACFE was born out of a workshop at Rocky Mountain Institute in 2009. As NACFE started to grow and get sponsorships, we flew the nest from RMI. Now we've done the work with the CWR and CWR has selected RMI as another great collaboration, and trucking will just benefit from that as well. RMI is a real think tank on energy. They've been at it for more than 30 years and they will provide us with some research capabilities and some other really smart people. Trucking will be part of what that alliance works on as well.

I also think this was a year for us where we became sort of a go-to source in the industry for fuel economy of tractor-trailers.

HDT: What would you say NACFE's most significant accomplishments have been in 2014?

Roeth: The website, this tech guide, truckingefficiency.org, I'm proud of that. The response to it has been that it's simple, that it's a great portal, a great way to get into the more detailed confidence reports. These reports end up being 40 to 100 pages and sometimes they scare people off, so the tech guide gives the high level, then you can go into the executive summary and then go into the full report.

I also think this was a year for us where we became sort of a go-to source in the industry for fuel economy of tractor-trailers. That's very rewarding, because …we're making sure anyone in the industry has high-quality information. We have spent time with new companies developing products in the industry that don't know trucking, and we can help them with the facts and figures. We've worked with companies that are talking with the government about GHG regulations, like the Union of Concerned Scientists and other that can use us to validate their assumptions.

HDT: What do you think is the most important thing for our fleet readers to know about your efforts?

Roeth: One of the things the founders said to me when I was asked to run it was that we want everybody at the table. We don't want to have a meeting where we sit around and say the problem is the fleets or the problem is the truck builders don't get it or there aren't enough suppliers or the suppliers aren't very good. So the founders stated we will always have a strong mix at our meetings, on our board of directors, that the reports will interview all stakeholders. I thinj that came from a lot of frustration that it's kind of human nature, you have a meeting, whoever's not there, that's who you blame, and you think you're making progress but you're really not. We're all at the table, we're all working for solutions that will work.

HDT: You're not just about fuel efficiency but also about freight efficiency. One of the ways to achieve that is through trucks that can haul more cargo. Some say Congress will never up truck size and weight limits. What's your strategy?

Roeth: One thing we can do within the regulations is lower the weight of the truck and trailer. So for bulk hauling or reefer or dry vans that gross out, we can lightweight the truck, through technologies that also save fuel like 6x2 axles, lower displacement engines and wide base tires. I also believe that the density of the freight is going up in our trailers. Packaging is smaller, the 3pls are helping us fill up the trucks on the routes.

I think there are some really innovative solutions coming out within this environment of not wanting to increase length and weight. One is allowing boattails on the back of the trailer, a fuel saving device that regulations have allowed even though it increased length. The other is the potential of increasing pup trailers form 28 feet to 33 feet, that would require a regulation change, but it's something that' getting a good bit of discussion. Another piece is these trucks are highly capable. With better aerodynamics, the power we need to pull these trucks is less, stopping distances are strong. The technology continues to improve where possibly weight and length considerations might be considered.

HDT: What's next for NACFE?

Roeth: Next is completing these additional eight confidence reports to fill out the 70 technologies. We're continuing to look for emerging technologies and putting into place a process where we can keep these reports up to date. And we'd like to get into other freight efficiency modes. We're beginning to study intermodal. Maybe the smaller trucks like package delivery trucks and operating practices for delivery vehicles could be in our future. That's an area that's expanding, so how can we help that industry. Another could be all of the trucking around ports, which is somewhat in the intermodal sphere, but how do we get the freight out of the ports onto drayage truck and onto longer haul truck or rail most efficiently.

But right now we're staying very focused on finishing the work on tractor-trailers.

HDT: Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, is one of the founders of Carbon War Room and is a well-known public figure. What's he like?

Roeth: I found him to be very smart, he listens extremely well. We did a CNBC interview together, and he had some extraordinarily good questions for me about our trucking work. Very engaging, charismatic, but also one that you leave a conversation with him and think, 'Wow, when could I have another one of these, and how could I help him?' I think that combination of skills is very rare.

HDT: Anything else you'd like our readers to know?

Roeth: Clearly I appreciate the support of the industry. I'm really proud of those organizations that have stepped up and helped us, because that's the only way we can get this done. I think it's a reflection of the industry. I've always thought of the industry as very collaborative and caring and dedicated, so it shouldn't surprise me, but we definitely appreciate it.