Behind the Wheel
with Randy Mullett
America has fallen behind the rest of the world’s developed economies in truck productivity — a fact that’s largely unknown — and shippers and consumers should care because they are bearing the brunt of this shortfall through higher shipping costs, increased congestion, heightened emissions, less safe highways, and a diminished competitive position relative to foreign manufacturers.
Due to previous congressional action, it really does take an act of Congress to allow any improvements to repair this disadvantage. My question is: Why aren’t more U.S. shippers interested in this issue and why are even fewer actively involved in shaping public policy in this area?
In the last 25 years, starting with 1980, U.S. logistics costs as a percentage of the cost of goods sold benefited from several factors that also strengthened our economy. In 1980, Congress deregulated our trucking and rail industries, allowing competitive market forces to help lower rates and improve service.
Around the same time, reasonable truck size and weight changes were instituted taking trailer lengths from 42-foot to 45-foot, to 48-foot, to 53-foot, taking maximum truck weight on the national network from 73,280 pounds to 80,000 pounds, and allowing 28-foot double trailers to operate on the entire national network. Those increases were brought to a halt in 1991 when Congress froze truck size and weight on the national network. In the 1990s, information technology allowed better control of supply chains, ERP/DRP systems, and “just-in-time” inventory resulting in reduced logistics costs.
Over the same time frame, oil prices were stable or falling. By the early 2000s these improvements were more fully realized and the improvements in U.S. logistics costs stagnated and then increased with rising fuel prices and a slowing economy.
The pressure is on logistics departments and providers alike to reduce costs. Internally, companies are looking at so-called Lean methodologies to reduce waste and improve efficiencies; near-sourcing and re-shoring are increasing; and negotiations with providers are as intense as ever. Providers are being asked to reduce prices and improve service. Throw in a general desire to reduce emissions and you end up with a potential Gordian knot.
One solution available to rail, water, and air cargo has been to raise total capacity and lower costs by increasing vehicle size or configuration. Railroads have been able to double-stack particular routes and increase the length of trains; containerships have grown to an immense size; and planes have seen dramatic changes in size and design that have greatly improved efficiency. During this time, trucks in the United States, which handle more freight than all the other modes combined, have been prohibited from making any reasonable changes to how they operate on the national network.
It is important to note the United States is an outlier in this area when compared to the rest of the developed world. This increases the cost of doing business with us and puts our companies and consumers at a competitive disadvantage.
Fewer shipping costs. Increased highway efficiency. Reduced fuel consumption. Lower emissions. Safer highways. These are goals upon which everyone — inside and outside the trucking industry — can surely agree. A partial solution is allowing today’s 28-foot double trailers to be lengthened to 33 feet, with no additional weight. This would allow major progress toward all five of these goals, and in the process, put America back on track to a more competitive, efficient truck freight system.
Implementing twin 33-footers would primarily affect the less-than-truckload and small package businesses. This five-foot change would increase the capacity of each unit by 17 percent. When fully deployed in the LTL/package sector, each year these units would save 200 million gallons of fuel, eliminate more than 6 million truck trips, reduce truck VMTs (vehicle miles traveled) by 1.3 billion miles, prevent a staggering 4.5 billion pounds of CO2 emissions, and result in more than 900 fewer accidents. This is quite a compelling story.
Think of it this way: Five feet is roughly the difference in length between today’s standard pickup truck and a full-sized, four-door model or the distance between your arms when spread out. As shippers are struggling to fight the rising cost of doing business, here is a realistic solution that is readily available, relatively easy to implement, and would significantly reduce accidents, increase efficiency, reduce emissions, and all without harming highway infrastructure. I understand the political pressures that affect Washington’s willingness to act. I don’t understand why more shippers and consumers are not focused on this as a potential solution to lower their logistics costs, reach their environmental goals and improve international competitiveness.
Given the regulatory and technological advancements in truck safety over the decades since Congress instituted the truck-size and weight freeze, the notion that there is no way to safely take advantage of the benefits twin 33-footers would provide is ridiculous. With the American Trucking Associations projecting that freight volumes will increase by more than 20 percent over the next decade, and little hope of building our way out of the anticipated capacity crisis, this is a common-sense solution whose time has come. So, back to my original question: Why aren’t more U.S. shippers interested in this issue, and why are even fewer actively involved in shaping public policy in this area? You just may have more control over this area than you think!
Mullett is vice president of government and public affairs at Con-way Inc. He can be reached by email.