Spec’n’Span

Rolf Lockwood

All is well in North America trucking. That’s the impression you’d be left with if you’d spent even just a day at the recent annual gathering of the Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC) in Tampa, Fla.

Attendance hit a new record of 2,716, a number that includes a chart-topping 175 first-timers.

Both figures tell the same tale pretty directly: the industry is back in tune and moving ahead. Unlike the last couple of years when the mood sat somewhere between dreadful and downright depressing, there was a tangibly good spirit in the air this time out. Being there was time well spent, all agreed.

TMC’s annual meeting and the trade show that goes along with it are not like other trucking events. For one thing, the focus is strictly on finding the best ways to spec a truck and then maintain it with efficiency and productivity in mind. There’s no glitz and glamour, no country music stars roaming the halls doing promotional stuff, no tire kickers.

While this small number doesn’t bother the TMC brass much at all, there were only 423 fleet people in attendance. That’s actually almost exactly half of the organization’s total fleet membership, which is an amazingly good turnout, percentage-wise. And every last one of them, save for seven or eight members of the press — we get “fleet” badges for some reason — was a buyer or at the very least a major influence on truck and trailer and component buying decisions.

Even so, it’s ironic that supplier personnel outnumber them by such a margin. All told, including nearly 1,100 attendees who were there just to man booths at the show — folks on the selling side of the game totalled more than 2,100.

Ancra’s Lift-A-Deck II “load maximizing system”
is generating an estimated 10 to 30 percent
increase in load averages while reducing
freight damage claims by as much as 50 percent.

Many of those, of course, were engineers and chemists and software geeks who create the widgets that the fleet guys buy and maintain, making TMC’s big event a critically important gathering where real work is done.

Informally and in dozens of small meetings, the two sides discuss little detail issues like guidelines for the design and installation of battery-disconnect switches. Or bigger ones like electrical system corrosion.

Such things are the subjects of individual Task Forces that work throughout the year to develop TMC’s vaunted Recommended Practices on just about every conceivable aspect of truck design, spec’ing and maintenance.

In a real sense, this is where your trucks come from and this is where — unless you’re one of the mega fleets that can dictate terms anyway — this is where you have the chance to influence how your trucks and their various systems are created.

Which then begs the question, why were only 423 fleet folks in attendance? Why, for that matter, are there only 854 fleet members?

You might be surprised to know that 32 owner-operators are TMC members.

You might also be surprised — and possibly disappointed — to know that only 80 Canadians were there at the Tampa Convention Center this time. And that might be a record of its own. That paltry attendance figure baffles many observers, including TMC leaders.

TECHNICAL SESSIONS

Each version of this annual gathering always holds two or three so-called Technical Sessions, usually on weighty subjects like engine emissions. This year there were but two, and they were less than stirring, some attendees thought.

One of them covered the usefulness of TMC’s Recommended Practices Manual and how folks can make better use of the RP system. The manual is literally bible-like and the RP system is brilliant, but those are generally accepted facts and don’t seem to warrant a major panel session, more than a few people were heard to say.

The other major session was on OSHA compliance. The meat of the thing was in the smaller Study Group sessions and an especially useful one ran under the “S.11 Energy Conservation” banner. It concerned truckstop electrification and efforts to move beyond the somewhat clumsy things we’ve seen in the recent past. Specifically, speakers were talking about a project to “electrify” U.S. truckstops led by Cascade Sierra Solutions, a non-profit enterprise based in Oregon.

It seems there will soon be 50 truckstops offering 120-volt power (or more) to trucks through electric pods or pedestals in systems supplied by Shorepower Technologies. It’s the result of a US$22-million federal grant through the U.S. Dept. of Energy first announced in 2009, which allows for rebates to truck owners who buy vehicles with plug-in capability to handle hotel loads electrically.

Seems to be a slow roll-out on this one. It’s notable that the private sector in one way or another is also funding this, to the tune of almost $30 million.
 

Not yet legal in Canada, the ATDynamics TrailerTail
is working wonders at Mesilla Valley Transportation.

Normally these electrified parking spaces (EPS) offer 120-volt/60-cycle/20-amp power but more — like 480 volts — will be made available to run reefers some time soon.

In his presentation Cascade’s Jon Gustafson stressed the cost of idling a diesel engine vs. the cost of using an EPS, the latter being US$1 an hour. With diesel costing three or four times that much, the electric option would seem to be a bargain and could save several thousand bucks a year. With environmental gains to boot.

Shorepower chief Jeff Kim got a little more specific, saying that 11 off-duty hours in an EPS would cost $11 vs. $31 for idling, assuming fuel at $3.00 per gallon. Pay options include using a 1-800 number, an on-site kiosk, or an Internet log-in, so things are pretty driver-friendly.

Skip Yeakel of Volvo Trucks also spoke on the panel, noting that the idea of electrifying a truck is as old as the hills. He cited the good old block heater as evidence, saying that going beyond that to offer a shorepower option is not a big leap.
Volvo seems to be on the forefront of this electrification effort.
 

(Meanwhile, anybody who visited the familiar 730 truckstop near the Quebec-Ontario border recently would have seen electrification at work on another level. A Canadian player, Longhaul Truck Stop Electrification has introduced “pod-free” electrification, essentially a network of electrified parking spaces. The 730 is the first facility on the continent to offer the service and sells two levels of service; one for $2 an hour; the other for a buck an hour.

INNOVATIONS

There were no blockbuster introductions at TMC –there never are because attendance numbers are low and few members of the press are on hand — but that’s not to say there weren’t new things on display at the compact trade show accompanying the TMC annual meeting.

You’ll see evidence of some of them in the Product Watch of this website.

Look for the innovative Fontaine/Volvo frame-integrated fifth wheel, the clever EZ Claw air hose protector, the very simple mounting system for Laydon’s new “economy” trailer skirt, and Ancra’s “load maximizer” trailer decking that looks like it could make you a buck with little effort.

All trailer-oriented, you’ll note, though there were other introductions, too. Like Dana’s new SPL-250 and SPL-170 service-free u-joints now available on its heavy-duty Spicer Life Series driveshafts.

They actually aren’t entirely new, borrowing from technology that’s been available from Dana in Europe for 13 years.

There did seem to be a concentration on trailers at this year’s TMC event, whereas a certain focus on 2010 engines was expected by many. On engines, nary a word. This may well indicate a new and welcome interest in what happens behind the tractor. It’s about time. Trucking people — manufacturers and buyers alike — have focused for decades on the trucks and tractors themselves. The engines, the gearboxes, the sleepers. Finally, the money-saving potential of the trailer has forced more than just a backward glance.

One of the more interesting trailer-oriented moments was actually in a press conference.

ATDynamics, makers of the TrailerTail aerodynamic extension for vans, brought Jimmy Ray to a small assemblage of motor noters and he wowed us.

Ray is executive vice president of Mesilla Valley Transportation, a mostly refrigerated fleet based in New Mexico, and he’s all trucker. A no-nonsense sort of guy who works very hard on the smallest of details in an effort to make more miles per gallon of diesel.

Some 650 of MVT’s 3,500 trailers have been fitted with TrailerTails and have logged more than eight million miles since last August. The result? A verifiable gain of five to six percent in fuel economy and a saving of US$180,000.

ATDynamics has SAE test data showing a 6.6 percent saving, incidentally.

The average installation time for a TrailerTail is two people in 45 minutes, the company says, and the purchase cost — including a trailer skirt — is under US$3,000, according to Ray.

Ray goes beyond bolt-ons like that, in fact. He sees measurable differences in doing utterly simple things like moving the hanging licence plate from out of the air flow at the trailer rear. He patented spun-aluminum wheel covers. He uses fixed fifth wheels with the tractor-to-trailer gap reduced to 19 in. from 26.

He says that lots of his drivers do better than 10 mpg, sometimes reaching 11. And get this, he gives away a Harley-Davidson motorcycle every three months in an incentive scheme for drivers.

Seems to be working.

Rolf Lockwood

Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to Trucknews.com.

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