Sixty feet of controversy

Truck News

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – On Nov. 6, Walmart Canada took the wraps off a radical new tractor-trailer design it says increases cubic capacity by roughly 30%.

The ‘supercube’ trailer was designed and built in Ontario, in partnership with Innovative Trailer Design. The trailer itself is 60.5 feet long, 7.5-ft. longer than the industry standard. A lowered floor and 126-inch interior increases trailer capacity by 28%, offering 5,100 cu.-ft. of storage, and a drome box mounted to the back of the cab adds another 521 cu.-ft. of carrying capacity. The trailer is pulled by a Freightliner cabover. The tractor-trailer doesn’t exceed existing length or weight restrictions.

Andy Ellis, senior vice-president, supply chain and logistics for Walmart Canada, introduced the design to stakeholders at the 2012 Transportation Sustainability Conference.

“The conference provided us with a chance to showcase the supercube trailer not only with supply chain and transportation professionals, but also with other retailers,” Ellis said. “We’ve always said that sustainability is not a competitive advantage. We’ll share the knowledge and technology put into this truck with anyone who’s interested, just as we’ve shared the knowledge gained from our sustainable fresh food distribution centre in Balzac, Alta.”

Walmart’s supercube trailer was built under a special permit through a pilot program at the Ministry of Transportation in Ontario. The MTO is granting permits for four trailers, and two tractor units, and Ellis said the first of those vehicles was set to begin making deliveries as early as Nov. 12.

“This is a pilot,” Ellis said. “We’ve got a permit to put four of these trailers on the road in Ontario. We hope we get permission to extend it. At that point we’ll obviously work with our carrier partners. But this is not just about Walmart. We’re very happy to share the specifications created through ITD with everybody…It’s no bigger and no longer than a traditional truck – it’s just been optimized as far as its cube. That was really important in the design.”

Carriers of low-density cargo could benefit from the improved productivity, Ellis pointed out.

While Walmart is more than happy to share the design with other shippers and carriers, the trucking industry hasn’t exactly greeted the new configuration with enthusiasm.

The Ontario Trucking Association (OTA) held a carrier meeting prior to its annual convention Nov. 8 to discuss the new configuration. Numerous concerns were discussed about the manner in which the new trailer was brought to market and the oversight – or lack thereof – that could occur going forward.

In a statement, the OTA Board of Directors declared: “The proposal to allow the longer trailers is not something the trucking industry has been advocating for or promoting. Therefore the proposal does not enjoy the support of the trucking industry that previous changes to Ontario’s allowable truck configurations did. (The move, for example, to 53-ft. trailers or the controlled used of LCVs).

“However, the association’s long-standing position is that it is not opposed to changes to Ontario’s truck weights and dimensions standards that would enhance the productivity of the industry, its customers or the provincial economy at large so long as the proposed vehicles maintain or enhance highway/road safety; meet or exceed provincial dynamic performance standards; produce environmental benefits such as reduced GHG emissions; and allow for a sufficient return on investment. Only carriers with acceptable safety records, which are prepared to ensure the safety of their drivers, should have access to special permits. As well, shippers need to show responsibility by using only carriers with acceptable safety records and which are prepared to ensure the safety of their drivers and vehicles.”

The proposal, according to the OTA, failed to satisfy those criteria. OTA also objected to the shipper, in this case Walmart, being granted a permit to operate the trailers when in reality, they’d be pulled by third-party carriers.

“Our members are very uncomfortable with this proposal as it currently stands,” said OTA president David Bradley. “The proposed issuance of special permits to a shipper is a major game-changer for the industry; it completely turns the whole approach to monitoring and managing truck safety on its head. This must be changed. The industry is already heavily invested in the standard North American trailer of 53 feet; however, as an association we support innovation and a more productive economy where it makes sense. Right now, the Walmart semi-trailer would appear to mainly have application as a specialized trailer for dedicated runs, but if the floodgates are opened the consequences could be enormous. We need to set some strict criteria and ground rules before heading any further down the road.”

Asked to explain the issuance of a permit to Walmart Canada for equipment that would ultimately be operated by a third-party, for-hire carrier,  and fall under said carrier’s CVOR, MTO spokesman Bob Nichols said it simply didn’t happen that way. He said the supercube pilot will follow the tradition of past pilot projects, especially when it comes to who is responsible for the trucks and trailers.

“There is no change as to how these permits are being handled,” Nichols told Truck News’ sister publication MM&D. “The permits for this limited pilot will be issued to Walmart’s carrier and not to Walmart.”

However, a Memorandum of Understanding between the Ontario Registrar of Motor Vehicles and Walmart Canada Corp., obtained by Truck News, seems to imply otherwise. It reads: “The Registrar of Motor Vehicles, by authority of Section 110.1 of the Highway Traffic Act, agrees to issue Special Permits authorizing Walmart to operate extended semi-trailers on Ontario roads and highways.” The end of the document reiterates: “This MoU will remain in force as long as Walmart holds Special Permits.”

Nichols told MM&D that the trucks and trailers won’t be allowed on Ontario roads until the details of the pilot have been finalized.

“The ministry is currently in the process of sorting out the details of how this very limited and controlled trial operation will take place,” Nichols said. “MTO is working with industry to finalize the conditions for trial operations, including how many carriers would be allowed to participate.”

Nichols pointed out there are significant differences between the supercube trailer proposal and LCVs, which consist of two 53-ft. trailers pulled by a single tractor.

“LCV vehicle permits were developed in consideration of an increase in the overall vehicle combination length, which required engineering assessments of off-ramps, driver rest areas and intersections along their proposed route,” he said. “Apart from the length of the trailer, the overall combination length, height, width and weight of this proposed new tractor-trailer combination are the s
ame as a standard tractor-trailer (rather than an LCV) and the permit requirements for this pilot were developed accordingly. Walmart developed a new design for a truck-trailer combination with increased storage capacity, without extending the total length of the combination. Walmart’s concept resulted in a design that will improve cargo volume by 28% and the potential to reduce the overall number of truck trips on Ontario roads, relieving traffic congestion and keeping our air clean. This innovative new combination met the requirements of extensive dynamic performance testing that all other vehicles currently in regulation or under special permit are required to meet.”

In fact, Nichols said the MTO is hopeful the configuration proves itself over the next year and can be expanded to additional applications.

“Ontario is interested in learning more about this truck-trailer combination during the pilot project period to examine their effectiveness on Ontario roads,” he said. “We are also interested in its potential to reduce the number of trucks on Ontario roads and its ability to reduce overall fuel consumption by carriers. The international trade corridor that runs from Montreal through Ontario to Detroit, Mich. is the most important on the continent. We will continue to look at ways to improve goods movement across the province, while keeping our roads the safest in North America.”

Not to be lost in all this is the fact the supercube is a very compelling alternative for transporting lightweight product. Benny Di Franco, president of ITD, said his company enjoyed working on the project.

“When they came to us, we said it’s a no-brainer. It’s fully do-able and a great idea. We haven’t changed anything within the laws. We’ve just allowed more capacity in the trailer without getting any longer,” Di Franco said.

Among the more interesting innovations: the trailer comes with a scissor lift capable of handling 15,000 lbs, so a forklift can be used to stock the front section of the trailer. A bogie airbag lift system raises the height of the trailer to meet the standard loading dock height of four feet.

Inside the trailer interior, a fully welded and sealed lightweight all-aluminum flat floor with anti-slip surface minimizes trailer weight while providing a safe and low-maintenance surface. Flush-mounted LED lights in the ceiling with a timer switch at the trailer entrance provide excellent visibility for loading and unloading freight.

The drome box can contain four skids and rolls to the rear of the truck frame so it can be loaded by forklift. The trailer itself weighs 14,590 lbs, about 3% more than a conventional trailer. Walmart’s Ellis was the driving force behind the project. His European background inspired the design.

“I’m originally from the United Kingdom, so I looked at the semis on the road here, and I looked at the amount of wasted space that is available on the tractor-trailer unit,” he explained. “I thought about ways to combine the regulations from the UK and the regulations in Canada. Then I set a challenge to my team: how can you build an innovative tractor and trailer unit that optimizes the use of the cube? Walmart doesn’t typically weigh out on deliveries, because of the type of freight we carry. It’s boxes with small domestic appliances, electronics, clothing, apparel, which isn’t as heavy as other commodities. So when we put trucks on the road, we never weigh out. We always cube out. So the challenge was how do you put more cube on the back of the truck and take more deliveries off the road, and take the amount of trucks off the road? What you see here today is a combination of that work where you’ve got no wasted space in front of the tractor unit. And we’ve optimized the total length of the vehicle.”

The cargo capacity will typically allow the retailer to carry enough merchandise to supply two stores during one run, he added.

While industry reaction has been mixed, Ellis remains hopeful the configuration will catch on.

“Subject to the approval of the Ministry, we will put more trucks like this on the road in Ontario and hopefully roll them out to other provinces in Canada,” he said.

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  • Of course unions would be against driver and fuel savings. Let’s see; 25% fewer trips means 25% fewer safety issues. What’s their case? It would have been nice if the reporter had asked them that question and at least reported a spurious response from the union; instead of merely reporting on their objection to a form/naming technicality.

  • Walmart works for the best interest of Walmart. Walmart has never been or will be a good corporate citizen.
    “Whats good for Walmart is good for China and the Waltons”.

  • Michael is making a large statment about something that is not in the article.
    A stupid statment, union bashing is below this site.

  • Yes Wal-Mart works only for Wal-mart ask any of their employees especially the one locked in the stores at night. Follow their greedy history and it is one one the prime reasons we live in such a hurried world today. When is enough enough

  • Seems to me I remember way back when the 53′ trailer was a experiment for terminal to terminal!! Then all of a sudden we were using them to to Drops & pick/ups on local runs. Nobody thought of the customers dock set up or room to get these things in & out safely. Some of these places were designed for a 40′ or less trailer & was a “squeeze” w/a 45 footer, then the 48 footer now 53’& now 60.5′???? Tell me this won’t become the “norm” as soon as the trial peroid is over & the carriers start to yell “foul” The drivers pay was “supposed” to be substanceually more for the LCV’s but that didn’t happen from what I’ve heard???& won’t here either!! Man I’m glad I got out of this rat race before I had to re-do the lic at 65.