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Walmart should be lauded, not criticized, for its supercube innovation

Sometimes writing this column is so easy, it becomes difficult. Huh? What do I mean by that? My challenge is to make my long-winded opinions fit in the allotted space, which is a struggle because the subject matter is so plentiful it’s...


Sometimes writing this column is so easy, it becomes difficult. Huh? What do I mean by that? My challenge is to make my long-winded opinions fit in the allotted space, which is a struggle because the subject matter is so plentiful it’s almost impossible to cover in one page. December’s Truck News with its cover story on Walmart’s 60.5-ft. supercube trailer (pulled by a Freightliner Argosy cabover with dromedary box) almost sent me into overload; it was a subject that I can relate to on several fronts.

It caught my eye immediately because I’ve always liked cabovers. The Ontario Trucking Association (OTA) apparently doesn’t share my enthusiasm. I want to throw in a quick disclaimer here, before the nasty e-mails start. I realize this organization does a lot of work in this industry of great benefit, most recently getting the ridiculous senior road testing requirement re-written – well done. However, based on my short time as a member, I feel that small carriers, even if members, are largely ignored by the OTA. I also have been bothered by the their perceived stance that any opinion differing from theirs, is simply wrong. The OTA’s initial comments regarding the Walmart truck appear to fall into that category.  The organization is not in favour of this truck, partly because it differs so much from the industry standard – and apparently because their input wasn’t requested.

My response to these points is, who cares who designed it? Isn’t innovation the key to advancement in any industry? If we didn’t advance with the times, 44,000 lbs would still be considered a maximum US payload, being pulled by a 6 mpg truck, with no air-conditioning, spring seats, and manual steering. If key industry members with deep pockets didn’t think outside the box, the equipment in this industry would make Fred Flintstone’s loader look high-tech. (We small carriers, being the vultures some see us to be, wait for any technology to be perfected before we buy in, because we obviously don’t have the resources to participate in the R&D game).

If someone outside of any industry organization comes up with a better mousetrap, congratulations. If played right, we will all benefit.

Any single truck capable of carrying 30% more freight deserves a good, fair test. This industry has, for too long, been recruiting drivers with minimal experience and shaky driving records. We constantly gripe about a driver shortage, fuel costs, and equipment and maintenance costs. What could be the problem with reducing the need for as many drivers or trucks? I have, in the past, recommended to customers that they utilize rail more often. Why would I encourage my customers to require more trucks, when I can’t find qualified staff to offer more equipment?  

It’s for these reasons that I think the Walmart truck should be explored, and if it works out, carefully copied by everyone who has the resources to, and the customer base, to use it with. My logic isn’t too deep: we have a shortage of good drivers, and equipment and fuel is costly. Most dry vans cube out before weighing out. Admittedly, these trucks would cost more to buy and operate, and hopefully would be a good excuse to raise driver pay.

Offer your customers freight rates based on available cubic trailer space. For example, 30% more space offered for 25% higher cost. High-volume customers save money, you need fewer trucks, and your new specialized equipment has more than paid for itself. Everybody would win.

But it’ll never happen under the current mindset controlling the industry. When LCVs hit the 401, I read a quote from a large carrier CEO that they would need to convince their customers to ship loads in pairs to realize savings. What? You had to invest in special equipment, special permits, and special terminal access. Why should the customer see any bonus savings from this?

The additional overhead and operating costs for an LCV come out of your bank account, so I figure that’s exactly where the additional revenue should go. Stop trying to find new ways to work even cheaper and to give away any innovative business practices. I can’t count how many times I have loaded two US loads together on B-trains, then gone to reload facilities in border towns, where they were reloaded onto two tandem trailers to finish the trip. My customers were able to continue moving their freight with a small carrier, where service was more reliable and predictable, but moving volumes of freight that could usually only be handled by a large carrier. They put out no extra expense or organization – we did. So any savings stayed in our bank account, not theirs.  Innovation is necessary, but shouldn’t be benevolent. I think Walmart is exhibiting a level of innovative thinking that should be encouraged, not scorned. Baby steps get baby-sized results. We need some big steps.

The last few years have made everyone far more creative, financially conscious and responsible. On the other hand, we’ve milked almost all the efficiencies out of the current tractor-trailer combinations that we can. It’s an overdue time to reinvent the wheel. I think a lot of people are angry they can’t claim responsibility for such an innovation, and as a result Walmart is not being besieged with inquiries about its new toy, as it should be. Too bad, I say.


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