TORONTO, Ont. — Pulling two trailers with just a single power unit is an efficient way of moving freight. It’s not quite two-for-the-price-of-one, but fuel and labor costs are lower on a per-trailer basis even if equipment acquisition and operating costs are similar. Greenhouse gas emissions are lower, too, and the overall safety record for long combination vehicles (LCVs) is stellar.
Platoons, which would autonomously connect a series of tractor-trailers behind one controlled by a driver, appear to offer a future competitor, and one that may ultimately prove easier to facilitate.
“Our fleet operations centre can coordinate linking opportunities, making it possible to link two trucks virtually anywhere platooning would be allowed,” says Josh Switkes, president and founder of Peloton Technology, a company currently developing truck platooning technology. “If one of your trucks is out on the road and another one is a mile ahead of it, or a truck from another fleet is a mile ahead of it, we can identify that opportunity, they can link up for the next few hundred miles and then branch off to their respective destinations.”
But what about LCVs? Trucks pulling two 53-foot trailers are now a pretty commonplace in most of Canada, even if British Columbia limits them to specific operations. They have been in service for decades in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, where an array of overlength combinations are allowed, including turnpike doubles. Quebec has allowed them for more than 20 years now, while Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia have close to a decade of experience. Only P.E.I., Newfoundland, and Labrador ban them outright.
There are fewer restrictions and permit conditions in the west, which has fostered the growth of the overlength trailer programs, but it apparently hasn’t hampered safety. Crash statistics show turnpike doubles are the safest configurations on the highway. In any jurisdiction.
Perhaps that can be linked to strict rules for the operators. Ontario mandates a 90 km/h speed limit for LCVs, while the drivers need five years of experience. Western Canada requires two years of drivin2g experience, but regional safety records are similar.
“I believe the LCV’s excellent safety record stems from the stringent requirements to enter an LCV program,” says Susan Ewart, executive director of the Saskatchewan Truck Association. “The carriers and the drivers must have a good safety records to begin with. The driver training combined with their previous experiences ensures that only the best drivers and the best companies make it into the program.”
Fuel and labour
Fuel and labor costs are both significantly lower when running an LCV.
Sure, the fuel economy of an LCV is lower, but the fuel consumption compared to using two tractors to move two trailers is about 30-35% lower, according to four fleets that shared their competitive data on the condition of anonymity. The associated cost saving can be easily extrapolated from that, and this isn’t counting associated environmental benefits such as lower greenhouse gas emissions.
One LTL carrier that shared data with Today’s Trucking referred to a pair of LCV units that were compared to four standard tractor-trailer units over 171 trips that ran just over 1,100 kilometers each. They saved $53,865 in fuel.
Labor costs are lower, too, but the savings may not be as significant. The fleets report different pay scales, ranging from $4-per-hour premiums for LCV drivers, to turnpike double drivers who make premiums of 14 cents per mile.
Interestingly, each of the four LCV users who spoke with us said the configurations help cope with the general shortage of qualified drivers – but also noted a shortage of drivers willing to transition to LCVs.
Other extra costs include the travel time and mileage to a terminal location with highway access, where the double combinations can be assembled.
“I have to run about 25 kilometers in the wrong direction from our facility to get to the drop yard, as we do not have direct access to the highway,” lamented a private carrier who shared his statistics.
Granted, one of the fleets rents yard space to other operations which run LCVs. Even competitors.
If the issues were so easy to solve, you’d think the Windsor-to-Quebec corridor would be jammed with LCVs, but it’s not, and there’s a legitimate reason why. “We can’t always match the shippers’ schedules,” said the manager of an eastern Canadian truckload operation that shared fuel economy data. “Operations based on the truckload [just-in-time delivery] model don’t allow carriers to stack up trailers to haul down the road together. You leave when it’s loaded and deliver on time. We could do a lot better with LCVs if we had more leeway on the timing and more cooperation from shippers on delivery times.”
An LTL carrier claimed he did a little better. “The shipments are consolidated at our docks and shipped on as many trailers as we need. We move them as they are loaded, working within the time restrictions. We have to be mindful of the weight when loading trailers for LCV combinations as the rear trailer has to be lighter than the lead.”
Carriers operating in the west have better opportunities to consolidate their turnpike doubles on longer hauls between Winnipeg, Calgary, and Edmonton. They are typically relayed at some midway point and the trailers just keep moving. They don’t face the congestion or the local operating restrictions that exist in Ontario.
None of the carriers we spoke with offer discounts to their customers for LCV service, though. With the exception of the private and LTL carrier, they all said they bill at standard truckload rates.
“For this to work you need high volume, high frequency, and highly recurrent activity. Going forward, we’re going to need more engagement with the shipper. They will have to work with us and adjust schedules to make this work. They might not see any savings, but it might help them avoid some increases due to congestion or labor costs,” said one of them.
With the looming shortage of drivers and increasingly stringent and expensive emissions regulations headed our way, it’s ironic that more carriers and shippers have recognized the potential in moving two trailers with a single power unit. Public opposition to them has proven to be almost nil. They are recognized for their safety and environmental records. You’d think shippers would be all over that.
Then there’s the potential of platooning. But is this technology a solution in search of a problem? When compared to the relative simplicity of long combination vehicles, platooning starts to look like a whole lot of effort and research money that might be better spent on other safety and productivity technologies. While many see platooning as a pathway to driverless vehicles, regulators have long lists of concerns surrounding the safety of such vehicles.
When it comes to safety, an official with a U.S. truck-safety regulatory agency recently questioned the current vehicle inspection process of certifying that a truck safe to operate in a platoon. “We are doing mark-and-measure brake inspections, but we have no way of checking the reliability of the dedicated short-range communications [DSRC] equipment on board or the adaptive cruise control systems. We are using yesterday’s technology on vehicles that we are not well prepared to inspect at roadside.”
Load management and braking/acceleration capability are also concerns. Brake performance depends heavily on both the type of brakes (disc or drum), the type of brake friction used (OEM or aftermarket), and the physical condition of the brake system. There’s talk of requiring inspections with performance-based brake testers rather than the usual mark-and-measure inspection to certify a truck as platoon-ready. Load balancing is also a concern, as brakes will perform differently when, for example, the front of a trailer is loaded heavier than the rear. It’s agreed that the heavier trucks should go in front of the platoon, but there could still be a risk for the lighter truck at the rear with poor-performing brakes.
Also on the list of concerns is driver alertness. Agencies in Canada are studying the effect of a close following distance on driver alertness in low-demand and monotonous environments. Some believe the “platooning” that falls between traditional trucks and fully autonomous models could pose more of a risk than moving immediately to driverless trucks.
“It’s counterintuitive to take drivers even partially out of the vehicle control loop, yet ask them to remain vigilant,” one researcher said.
“When you add automation like a radar- or laser-based sensor system you can dramatically reduce perception because a sensor can be much quicker than a human,” Switkes counters. “You can even more dramatically reduce reaction time because a computer is extremely fast compared to a human.”
Among other concerns is the business model. Some are questioning the wisdom of spending the research and development money on platooning when relatively few large carriers would be in a position to practically take advantage of the fuel savings. Even with formulas being developed to distribute the fuel savings among participating carriers — possibly even competitors — the savings are not much better than you’d see from a set of trailer skirts.
“In a best-case scenario, we have seen fuel savings of 13% in a two-truck platoon with a following distance of four metres,” says Brian McAuliffe, a researcher with Natural Resources Canada, specializing in aerodynamics and wind tunnel testing. “That’s obviously too close for comfort. In realistic scenarios of eight to 19 metres, we see net improvement of around 10% for the two vehicles.”
McAuliffe says his testing has found that fuel savings for LCVs average out at around 28% compared to two vehicles making the same trip.
If there’s a weak link in the chain, it’s parking. While there are numerous truck stops along most LCV designated routes, not all are accessible. Of the truck stops that can accommodate the equipment, finding designated parking for two-trailer units can be challenging. Many of the service centres located along Ontario’s highways 401 and 400 have limited designated LCV parking, but it’s often occupied by non-LCV trucks.
In New Brunswick, meanwhile, Highway 2 offers no convenient roadside pull-outs for the configurations, leaving drivers little option but to park alongside the highway at entrance and exit ramps if they need to park.
New Brunswick-based driver Peter Bond says the Department of Transportation should never have allowed LCVs on the roadways until it had developed parking solutions.
“You see [LCVs] parked at on-ramps all the time,” he says. “That’s just not safe, and the government knows that, yet they won’t enforce their own guidelines on LCVs. I understand that they have to stop somewhere, but if we can’t park them safely, they should not be out here.”
The province’s Department of Transportation officials have approached Murry’s Irving general manager Calvin Grant several times about expanding his lot in Meductic, N.B, to make room for the twin-trailer combinations. But he says it’s hard to make a business case for it.
“The LCVs can get in here, and we do accommodate them,” he says. “The problem is I don’t have room for them. I have just expanded my parking area by 50 spaces, and they, too, are full every night. I’m going to designate eight lanes for LCVs [16 parking spaces in total], but they won’t always fill up, and other drivers will park there if they see the spots empty. I won’t be able to control that.”
While Bond’s concerns are legitimate, so are Grant’s. He expects those additional parking spots to generate some revenue for his business, but LCVs, he says, don’t usually buy fuel, and the drivers don’t spend a lot of money when they stop.
In New Brunswick, it can be a long way between accessible truck stops so the Department of Transportation should be looking at providing parking, especially during winter months when road conditions can deteriorate unexpectedly, Bond says, “or at least contributing to the upkeep of some of the existing locations.”
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