Max Untitled 1Following the Money

Some of us at Overdrive were talking with drivers at a truck stop recently to hear about their interests. The conversation drifted to our columnist and trucking radio host Kevin Rutherford.

One owner-operator said he’d tried some of Rutherford’s tips to cut fuel costs, but they didn’t work. Perhaps that’s because, as Rutherford has explained in our pages, it’s a tedious effort to eliminate variables (weather, load, terrain, etc.) and accurately test any strategy or piece of equipment.

Schneider’s spending on extra aerodynamic features for new Cascadias indicates expectations of a good return on investment.Schneider’s spending on extra aerodynamic features for new Cascadias indicates expectations of a good return on investment.

It’s easy to doubt one guy on a soapbox. It’s a little harder to argue with a company that looks at a ton of data from a virtual laboratory – its own large fleet – and then chooses to invest millions of dollars it doesn’t have to spend.

Schneider National, one of the nation’s largest truckload companies, recently made that sort of decision. It’s replacing a third of its fleet with 3,000 new trucks by January.

The trucks are equipped with Meritor Wabco’s OnGuard collision mitigation system, which helps drivers avoid rear-end collisions. The trucks also have aerodynamic features such as wheel covers and, in most cases, redesigned fairings. Most of the trucks, Freightliner Cascadias, are equipped with the company’s RunSmart Predictive Cruise control. The system uses topographical data from a mile in front of the truck to manage average cruise speed and improve mileage.

Schneider estimated the trucks will save almost 2 million gallons of fuel annually over the models they’re replacing. Presumably OnGuard is expected to reduce damage losses and insurance costs enough to pay for itself.

Granted, the company drivers running these trucks will care less about fuel efficiency than owner-operators. With less average driving experience, they’re likely to be higher accident risks, too. But that doesn’t mean an owner-operator couldn’t likewise find a good return on investment with these or other technologies.

Perhaps you’ve doubted the value of aero features or an advanced cruise system. Running your own trial is the best research, but watching where the big guys place their bets is a good hint at where you might focus your efforts.

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As for fuel economy, the advance of aero styling, auxiliary power units and other approaches has been obvious for years. As for accident prevention, a report last month from the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan says the safety systems market for Class 4-8 trucks “is poised for a steep growth trajectory over the next five to seven years.”

This was backed up last month when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed requiring electronic stability control systems on large commercial trucks and buses. Research shows this could prevent up to 56 percent of rollover crashes and another 14 percent of loss-of-control crashes.

Every owner-operator business is unique, from the individual behind the wheel to equipment specs and demands of the application. Know yourself and know your operation, but don’t neglect knowing what others are learning and doing, too.