Rolf Lockwood

Rolf Lockwood

About a century ago I ran a trip with one of my heroes from Buffalo to Dallas. I was with Jim Booth, Caterpillar’s long-time test driver and in-the-field troubleshooter. Nicest man on the planet.

Jim also operated his own fleet. This was a revenue run in his own tractor pulling his own van with some new and unreleased 400-horse Cat engine installed under the hood for his evaluation and mine. That truck was instrumented up the ying-yang – but the year was something like 1995, so “instrumented” was defined rather differently than it would be today. Still, we had a computer of some description and got printouts of our fuel economy, maybe even in real time. We each drove legs here and there, trying to match terrain and traffic with our switches.

We drove together several times over the years, but this was the only occasion when we could “compete” with evidence at the ready.

I do remember getting north of 9 mpg by way of very careful driving. Of course I couldn’t touch Mr. Booth’s performance. A legend in these terms, I think he was pushing 11 mpg. Dang!

Being a competitive son of a gun, I accused him of cheating. Jim was a hypermiler before that was a term, so of course he drove ever so slowly, like 50 mph, which I wasn’t prepared to do. I chose instead to go wickedly fast, maybe 55 mph, believing I could win by never shifting, never braking, and being oh so easy on the throttle. Yeah, well, I was up against an expert, and much as I tried to mimic his driving style, I think he was just an awful lot better. But don’t forget the speed thing.

A few years earlier I had entered a fuel-economy challenge in Canada, involving a much shorter highway run of about 150 miles, but the same sort of five-axle 80,000-pounder. My 9-point-something mpg figure was a winner and I walked proudly away with a very cool leather vest.

Engines were simple things then compared to what we have today, unfettered by EPA this and EPA that, so it’s probably unfair of me to bring all this up in the context of the proposed second phase of commercial truck greenhouse gas emissions and fuel efficiency standards. But the fact is, I know people who routinely manage to get mileage figures like the ones above, even with the wildly complex engines of this era. And I know carriers who expect that kind of performance or better – and get it. It really ain’t rocket science.

But however the rules are formed, one of my reader correspondents begs for patience and common sense.

A veteran western owner-operator, he tells an all-too-common story about his 2008 tractor that nearly bankrupted him. He figures it cost more than $600,000 over the five years he owned it, which includes lost revenue and warranty repairs borne by the manufacturer. His 2013 tractor has been much, much better.

What he doesn’t want in Phase 2 is the same sort of unreasonable pressure put on manufacturers to release technology before it’s ready, as we saw a decade ago with the emissions regs that led to this reader’s woes. Can’t argue with that. Kill downtime, and efficiency soars.