Closed coops, worst roads, weathering the storm: Owner-operators count down to 2024

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Updated Jan 8, 2024

This week on the Overdrive Radio podcast, our annual toast to the year that was. We’re counting down through 14 of the most-listened-to podcasts of the year, and to start off, part of a strong current in these episodes of tactics and long-term strategies aimed at building value for the business with customers, I shared an anecdote from a past Trucker of the Year, owner-operator Henry Albert. Looking to cement your value with a direct customer? (Or any broker or your leasing carrier, for that matter ...)

"Ask them what their toughest load to cover is. Ask them what nobody in their right mind ever wants to do for them. And, you know, there's a chance that you can. And if you can, you're going to have that guy for life."

It was just a small part of No. 5 among the most-listened-to Overdrive Radio episodes of the year, our Partners in Business program roundtable moderated by Red Eye Radio’s Eric Harley at the Mid-America Trucking Show. That little piece of advice, acted upon years ago by owner-operator Albert to success, slotted into a discussion of cementing your value in a year that has been most certainly a struggle for many. 2023's sure to go down as one most can be proud simply to have survived with some profit to show for it, as my colleague Alex Lockie suggested in his own Year in Review look at some of the biggest stories of the year.

Howes logoOverdrive Radio's sponsor is Howes, longtime provider of fuel treatments like its Howes Diesel Treat anti-gel and Lifeline rescue treatment to get you ready for winter, likewise its all-weather Diesel Defender, among other products.There's well more here in the 2023 highlight reel, too.

And plenty more. Take a listen:

Find below a playlist featuring the top 10 most-listened-to episodes, as well as four honorable mentions just outside the top 10. Happy New Year! Here's wishing you a profitable 2024. And stay warm out there. ...

Transcript

Todd Dills: If you want to go after a direct customer, or you can do this with your broker as well, just ask them what their toughest load to cover is. Ask them what nobody in their right mind ever wants to do for them. There's a chance that you can and if you can, you're going to have that guy for life.

Hey everybody, here's the toast of the year that was and still is for a few more days anyway. Counting down through 14 of the most listened to podcasts of the year and what you heard up top was one of my own contributions to one of them. Our partners in Business Program Roundtable moderated by Red Eye Radio's Eric Harley at the Mid-America Trucking show. That little anecdote, it's a little piece of advice acted upon years ago during some of the early parts of past Overdrive Trucker of the Year, Henry Albert's career as an independent owner-operator slotted into a discussion of building value for direct customers, brokers and carriers too for that matter in a year that has been most certainly a struggle on that front for many. I'm Todd Dills, your host for this final 2023 podcast edition as usual. And I'll say this has been a year that will probably go down as one most can be proud to simply have survived with some profit to show for it.

As my colleague Alex Lockie suggested in his own year and review, look at some of the biggest stories of the year. Before we start today's drive through the top 10 most listened to episodes of the year though, before our delay at the shipper's dock with some honorable mentions just outside the top 10. The first provides something of an example of how one owner-operator set himself up to weather the storm of declining rates in 2023 with years, even decades of preparation with cost control, with bedrock frugality in business and life and a rig well maintained long paid off. Jay Hosty, now among our Trucker of the Year finalists, could well afford to be choosy about freight even if $2 a mile certainly hurt after getting used to four plus in the boom times of a couple years ago in his land star leased operation. Hosty's education in owner-operator business builds on 40 years of hard-won, self-taught in many cases, lessons as he told Overdrive news editor Matt Cole earlier in the year for this profile.

Jay Hosty: One of the biggest things I say is I was born with the gift of being frugal and that means that I like saving money and I just liked that as a kid. I bought my first motorcycle because my parents said, if you can save the money, we'll let you get a motorcycle, a dirt bike. And I saved, I worked and I saved. I've never had a problem saving money and so I'm kind of still like that. Well definitely still like that. And when I was about, I want to say I was about 17, I come across an Owner Operator magazine before... Well, I don't know if it's before overdrive, but I don't know if you remember that. It was a Chiltern Publishing and it was Owner Operator magazine.

Todd Dills: Overdrive was founded in 1961, so it was in fact around at the time. If my memory is correct, Randall Reilly, Overdrive's parent company, became the publisher of Owner-Operator in later years in fact.

Jay Hosty: I came across one of those and I was interested of course in trucking and being an owner operator and they had an article in there about cost per mile in this magazine. I think it was 1979, and I read the article and was just intrigued about how you break everything down by the mile, all your costs, and that stuck with me through my career. I'm real big on per mile. Some guys will ask, well, what's a load pay? Well that really don't tell me anything. I got to know what's it pay per mile. That's what tells me if it's good or not. But yeah, between that and just being frugal, it's really, I think, helped me succeed in business.

Todd Dills: Next and what might be my all time favorite opening for any edition of Overdrive Radio, not just in 2023, a little whipped cream of reality on top of the May week that this year was the road check inspection blitz with long time independent, Mustang Mike Crawford.

Mustang Mike Crawford: Ghostwriter, you know my number, but anyhow, I'm just going to call you and keep track or tabs or count or whatever of the scales that I've crossed that have been closed. Nobody there, nobody home, not inspecting, not doing nothing sign. I crossed the Missouri scale, eastbound 44 in St. Clair this morning, they were closed, locked up. I just crossed the scales on eastbound 70 in, I think it's Browns Town or Brownsville Illinois at about the 72 yard stick. They were closed, locked up, nobody home.

Todd Dills: Crawford then loaded near Chicago Wednesday morning and made his way south down 65, all the way into Kentucky with nary a hint of an inspection or a scale house open on his route too. By morning Thursday, he was staring down the possibility of inspection by Bluegrass State personnel at Elizabethtown. The run continuing south, but...

Mustang Mike Cr...: Ghostwriter, it is Mustang again, I'm the luckiest son of a gun in the world. It is 11:09 my time and I just went past the southbound Kentucky scales at Elizabethtown Kentucky. They were closed, locked up, nobody home, nobody around. So anyhow...

Todd Dills: When he got down close to the Tennessee line, the northbound scale in Franklin turned up.

Mustang Mike Cr...: And they are open. There was one truck in there, that was it.

Todd Dills: He didn't have to cross it. Of course.

Mustang Mike Cr...: So far all the south-bounds have been closed. Couple of north-bounds have been open. Talk to you later. See you guys, bye.

Todd Dills: Just a few minutes later then, crossing into Tennessee.

Mustang Mike Cr...: Tennessee, mile marker 121 or one... Yeah, 121. The scales there, southbound side are closed doing road construction. The scales are being used for construction storage. Anyhow, so far I haven't seen a southbound scale open.

Todd Dills: We picked up the next call as Mustang took Tennessee 155, Briley Parkway around the north and east sides of Nashville to connect to I-24 East toward Chattanooga to I-75. Mustang let me know he was waving at me from about three miles as the crow flies down around the upper land hotel area. Then at Manchester Tennessee on I-24.

Mustang Mike Cr...: Just went past the southbound Chicken House, I-24. I mean eastbound Chicken House, I-24, and it is just parking area now, the building's all blocked off and everything. The westbound was open and weighing people. Trees were there, I could not see if they were doing any inspections, but that makes, so far I haven't found an open scale. It's been my good luck, but I know what'll happen...

Todd Dills: Continuing on, then coming into Georgia at Ringgold on I-75.

Mustang Mike Cr...: Marker 343, I-75 southbound, nobody home. They were locked up, nobody there. Looked over to the left side, northbound side. I didn't see anybody there either. Ghost Rider, here we go with another report. Mile marker 191 southbound Interstate 75, four sides of Georgia. Southbound Chicken House locked up. Been my lucky day. So we'll see, I got one more here in Georgia and then I get to play with Florida, so anyhow.

Todd Dills: The third hour of on-duty holdup as it were, one regular podcast listener's got a taste of mid-December. Overdrive readers then earlier this week also among our most listened to episodes of the year, touring the great trucker songwriter, Tony Justice's Greatest Shifts record. That episode started with a veritable bang of course with the dance remix of Justice's, Last of the Cowboys, modern classic.

Tony Justice: (Singing).

Todd Dills: Finally, in the early summer we picked up on themes of building business, building life along the way. The podcast edition of our owner-operator work-life balance webcast with 2021 Small Fleet Champ, Jason Cohan, owner of Silver Creek Transportation and Adam Wingfield of the Innovative Logistics Group, who told his own personal story of learning the OTR work-life balance mismatch and building an operation to improve the situation long term.

Adam Wingfield: When we think about trucking as an industry and we think about the truck driver itself, I remember when I first began as a independent driver, I remember my actual coach at that time, who was my driver training. I looked at him as my coach, who was my driver training. He told me, he said, "Hey Adam, I want you to think about this. Home time is one of the things that's going to be elusive to you, so you've got to be prepared to spend more time on the road than you do at home." And then he subsequently said, "Well, to be more honest with you, you're going to visit home and you're going to live on the road." And that kind of hit me kind of hard because I was a young kid coming out of high school, really didn't understand what being away from home would look like until I got out there.

When I first started, I started as a company driver. I was working for a mega carrier and at the time I was making 23 1/2 cents a mile. When we think about driver pay and we think about all that good stuff, back then when I started, we had the eight hour breaks versus 10. There was a lot of things that were a lot different, but that initial experience as a company driver really opened my eyes up to a lot of things when it came to having control of my own time and having control of my work-life balance.

I moved on. I progressed quickly into lease ownership at the age of 23, and the reason why I wanted to do that is because I wanted to have a little bit more control over that work-life balance. What I found was almost the opposite, because at that time when I shifted into that of an owner-operator, I didn't have that fail-safe to fall back on that a company driver would. Every single bit of responsibility was my own. In order to make sure that I was able to keep the truck note going and able to keep the wheels turning and being able to keep the lights on at home I had to make sure I kept that truck running. So it's very, very challenging for me.

The balance that I sought as an independent was really one of those things, almost like a mirage or a pot gold at the end of the rainbow. The trucking industry as a whole, and when it comes to deregulation back in the 1980s and what that did to the trucking industry, it really didn't even provide us with an oversight of what to truly expect as a truck driver. Now, I love trucking, trucking was always in my blood. I always loved the smell of diesel fuel. It was nothing like coming out of your bunk and waking up, stepping out of your truck and smelling a good old smell of diesel at a TA truck stop or something like that on a Tuesday morning.

But realistically, when you come back and look to it, one of the main reasons why I got into the trucking industry was, number one was my love for trucks. But number two most importantly was a personal story, it helped me get out of depression. When I got into behind the wheel of a truck, it's just you and the road. It's just you, the road and some of the things that come with it that are not so good and some of the things that come with it were good.

So then I really, really decided that as I progressed through as an independent, I realized that when I was leased onto a carrier, I realized at that point that maybe I can change and I can challenge that ideology by getting my own authority, as I continued to chase that independency. Being an owner operator and being leased to another company, I found out very quickly I still have some of those same ties as responsibility ties into a company driver. I just had the responsibility of owning a truck, so I guess I said, "You know what little self, let's go ahead and chase a different level of independency." And I went out and got my own authority at that time.

Todd Dills: And how did he make good on increasing levels of independence with authority? By building work-life balance with a mix of direct customers on both ends of preferred freight lanes out of his home area in South Carolina at the time? Wingfield's story is an inspiring one clearly, and that webcast followed his telling of it in greater detail in a session at the Mid-America Trucking Show earlier in the year. He was joined in our webcast by, as I said before, Silver Creek Transportation, small fleet owner and passed Overdrive small fleet champ, Jason Cowan, who spoke to similar concerns along the growth path for owners who eventually expand beyond just the single truck.

It's worth another listen as you look out ahead at 2024, particularly if your goals for growth beyond one truck are similar to those achieved by both Wingfield eventually, and Cowan. On the other side of a break, we'll get the green light to load and start the drive toward a countdown from number 10 and note that there's a playlist that features those 10 as well as the four honorable mentions just outside the top 10 for 2023. Find it on Overdrive Radio's SoundCloud profile via link in the show notes wherever you're listening, or in the post that houses this podcast for December twenty-ninth at the world famous overdriveonline.com/Overdrive-Radio.

Now we'll pause for a word from Overdrive Radio's sponsor. Here's a big thanks to the Howes company for their continued support. It's most certainly that time of year for the anti-gel fuel treatments for which they're famous to come into play. Just stay warm out there.

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Todd Dills: That's H-O-W-E-S, howesproducts.com. Again, big thanks to Howes for all their support.

Now number 10 in the most listened to podcast countdown here as we set off on the drive 2024 involved what was among the biggest stories of the year for independents working at spot markets for freight. The explosion of organized double brokering rings and all the mess they made of the federal authority registration system's activity there exploded during the spot market boom of 2020 and 2021. The podcast featured parts of a talk delivered at MATS in March by one, Jason Decker. A rallying cry was for a whole-of-trucking approach to the fight against double brokering, leeching money from the freight markets through fraud as it is. Rates are bad enough already, it's sure, as Decker emphasized. Fraudulent actors insert themselves into a freight transaction, disappear with a fuel advance or the entire load's payment even.

If the trucker's paid at all then it's a double payment on the part of whoever was the original broker and/or shipper on the load. Let's put one double brokering scenario though, perhaps worse than that. In Decker's, and I know many owner-operators view, legit brokers who knowingly give the load to another brokerage as Decker said, "They're double-dipping. Rates are tight enough as it is. That one hand in the pot is a one too many." Two, three, market distortion is all the worst for it. With the trucker on the short end of the stick. Decker's with Arkansas-based brokers, General transportation and carrier, ART Trucking. Three is from the podcast detailing the most damaging perhaps of the double-brokering scams. The hit-it-and-move-on type, where the scammer has no intention to ever pay the carrier who actually moves the load.

Jason Decker: Hey, I've got this load. It goes from let's say Fort Smith, Arkansas to Richmond, Virginia. Now let's say that lane should normally pay $4,000. They're going to tell you, "Oh, we're going to pay you $5,500 on that load." The reason they can quote you whatever is because they're never going to pay you to begin with. It doesn't matter to them. All they care about is getting someone to actually haul that load. Once they get it on your truck and you move that load, then what they're going to do is they're going to call that broker and say, "Hey, we've got it loaded there and everything. Can I go ahead and get a fuel advance?" That's a very common thing because even if that broker finds out later down the road, before it's even delivered, that the load was double brokered, they at least have the fuel advance money.

Next thing that's going to happen is, when you deliver that load they're going to say, "Hey, we need those bill of ladings ASAP to bill our customer. We need it right now, right now, right now." You send in the bill of ladings because you're trying to make sure you're doing what you need to do so that you're not getting fined, you're not losing out on anything. They send it to the actual broker. Broker says, "okay, got it, appreciate it." And then the scammer says, "Hey, we need quick pay." Okay, that's fine. We will do quick pay for 3%. Once again, the scammers could care less about that 3% because it's about to be a hundred percent profit for them. What they're going to do at that point is they get that quick pay less the 3%, and then they've got money in the account. But they don't do this once a day or twice a week or whatever, they'll do this 10, 15, 20 times a day. One scammer can rack up hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in false loads weekly. It happens time and time again.

Now that broker, they'll wind up ghosting you usually, they're not going to answer your calls and then by the time you figure out what's going on, they're gone. Everything's canceled out, phone numbers, everything. You're not getting a hold of them.

Todd Dills: Search double brokering at overdriveonline.com for more on how carriers can recognize and combat these kinds of schemes. There was quite a lot of reporting around the subject in 2023, in past years for that matter too. Now on to number nine, another in our series of Trucker of the Month profile podcasts toward our Trucker of the Year award for 2023. This one in particular featured one truck independent car hauler, Crystal Rives, hauling out of Cleveland, Texas, making a solid living in a pristine 2006 379 and open car haul trailer from the intra-state loads.

Crystal Rives: Once you drive a truck and it's in your blood, you can't wash it out. Yes, I started my business in 2016 or '17, but I hauled cars for other people and it's just being a woman in the industry. It's like I was the only girl and they didn't want to hire me because I was a girl and said it was too hard, I couldn't do it. I'm like, you're talking to somebody that grew up in a truck, so say it's too hard and I can't do it. Like my grandpa always said, "Just show them you can do it and do it better than them." So that has been my kind of motto, saying that I've lived by, if somebody ever tells you you can't, just show them you can and show them you can do it better than them.

It was always one of those things.

Todd Dills: What was your grandfather's name?

Crystal Rives: It was Paul Piekoff Senior. He started a gravel business back whenever he was younger. They owned a farm, so farming and trucking kind of goes hand in hand. My grandpa, he passed away in 2003 and left the business to my dad, and my dad is in his sixties now, so he's retired. He's got a hernia, he's got a bad back from driving, but he don't drive trucks anymore. My grandpa passed away and my dad, he can't do it no more. I remember bouncing around in the back of the truck with a little tiny black and white TV in my dad's 1983 359 with a 400A model. It had that 15 speed little bitty sleeper back there and he'd be like, "Watch something," and we'd have this little bitty five inch black and white TV back there plugged in. But then we'd stop at the cafe and get some chicken or something.

But old school trucking, that's just kind of one of those things. You just don't see a lot of people that were taught by the old school generation like my grandpa, that drove no trucks with air ride. People don't even know what a five and four transmission is. They look at you like you're crazy. But we have two dump trucks too. We have a 73 Kenworth with a five and four. It has a nice big old 400 big cam Cummins in it. We have a 94 Peterbilt dump truck. That's just like my side hustle, but car hauling is definitely where I've made all my money.

Todd Dills: Number eight in the countdown, the sounds and insights of oil services hauler, Edward Jackson, top operator for 2022 small fleet champ, John McGee Trucking. I got the opportunity early in the year to see McGee's production, water hauling operation firsthand. Edward Jackson provided a great guide through the Northern Louisiana lease roads and well sites here. Here he is getting to, eventually, the story of how harrowing it can be sometimes getting to and from particularly remote well sites.

Todd Dills: It's almost like you're walking around the woods over here. Not really though.

Edward Jackson: You got one man called the Hayes [inaudible 00:23:55] and it's like I know at least five to seven miles back in the woods. You the only one back though.

Todd Dills: It takes a long time to get back?

Edward Jackson: A long time. Yeah. I told Mr. John, I said, "Before I go back there again," there was a lot of rain and I said, "Before I go back again, they need to replace the road." Because when I went in there I was kind of skeptical about getting back out. So I'm in that load and here come a worker with a rig truck. He done made it worse because you know his truck even heavier and I can't back out. I got out that first part, that second part I was like, man. Said I ain't going to panic, so I had to drop the airbag down, put all the weight up there on the front. When I mashed it I said, "I ain't going to get off." She just climbed out slowly the shoulder and I was like, "I ain't coming back." Cause I told her, not like that.

Todd Dills: So back up a little bit on that. So you are going down a one lane road and you got another truck coming right at you?

Edward Jackson: No. I'm on location.

It's a one lane road but I'm on location getting loaded. See, I'm thinking if nobody else coming back in here, you know what I'm saying? I'll be all right 'cause I'm coming back out-

Todd Dills: Because here it goes, now you've got no space for-

Edward Jackson: You know, maybe different tracks, everything. You don't like to got stuck, slip and slide. Now I got to go back out going in his rut. I made out of one spot, but I tell you, the other spot, I'm like, man. Only thing I can think about is I've been in this predicament before.

So I'm way back here. I ain't got no service and that, so I don't know if he got out.

Todd Dills: Number seven in the countdown then, shifting gears and powertrains as it were to the American Transportation Research Institute's work around throwing a little reality into the national push to electrify freight transportation with battery and other electric drive trucks. Overdrive news editor Matt Cole's conversation with Ettry's Dan Murray early in the year turned heads and bended ears with a focus on a variety of aspects of that critical report. None more so than the parking disaster easily imaginable with a wholesale turn to trucks that can take several hours worth of parked charging to refuel.

Dan Murray: A third challenge lies with long haul truck charging. As you know, there's already a huge problem in the US with the truck parking shortage. It is perennially identified by drivers as a top concern through our annual top industry issue survey. So finding a truck parking space is often difficult. Finding a truck parking space with a charger is going to be is an entirely different ball game.

Matt Cole: How do the hours of service and the truck parking issues specifically relate to the charging issues?

Dan Murray: They're completely intertwined. When you find yourself behind the wheel of an electric truck, you realize it's now essential to find a truck parking space that has access to charging. There's no longer the option of parking on an off-ramp or an unauthorized location if a truck parking location is at capacity. So once the driver finds the space to take his or her hours of service and charge and gain hours of service, they have to stay there. The driver is still going to have to get consecutive rest time. So let's say it takes three, four hours of charging, they're still going to have to stay there for the rest period, so they're not going to be moving the truck so that someone else can access it. This ultimately exacerbates the truck parking process. There's no way around it.

Based on the research it's clear that each of the 313,000 truck parking locations in the US will need a charger. The problem is there's currently not enough parking and putting chargers at all of those locations won't even be enough charge. Ultimately, we will need more parking and more parking that has electricity access. More than the 313... And not to mention the fact that you cannot have a commercial enterprise charging, for instance, at a public rest area. We mentioned that in the report and go into those details. Currently you're not allowed to do that, so that's at least 40,000 truck parking spaces that have a regulatory barrier to getting a charger at them.

Todd Dills: Later in the year, as regular readers will be aware, we dug into these and other issues around electric truck technology via an in-depth series that looked forward and found, at least in drayage out west, real-world implementation of electric trucks and lessons learned and various experienced. It's really early days on the prohibitively expensive technology. Owner operators remain justifiably wary given plenty of questions that remained unanswered. Find that series via the equipment section on overdriveonline.com. It kicked off in late October with Alex Lochhead's distillation of our readership survey around attitudes around and move to adoption of electric trucks.

Okay, number six. It was the final piece of our mid-year Trucking State Of Surveillance series and the podcast featured my long talk with transportation attorney, Hank Seaton, about another projected reality. The notion that some day, perhaps sooner than you think, we could be subject to entirely automated roadside inspections, putting enforcement judgment, to some degree, in the hands of machines. Title of the podcast perhaps said it all, "FMCSA offering kinder, gentler version of the CSA safety measurement system? Not if automated inspections go live." Here's how I recapped part of Seaton's preceding outline to get to that notion in conversation.

We've got well-established longstanding problems in the data queue system, in the SMS and we're making these incremental steps to the agency trying to address some of the issues that were made. And one thing that stuck out to me in that comment that your groups filed on the Crash Preventability Program was the notion of, I think it is the level 8 inspection, the CVSA inspection standard. That's an electronic inspection that the Volpe group, [inaudible 00:30:50] FMCSA, which is a technology development group and advisor.

Hank Seaton: They're in Massachusetts and they have been the agency's vendor of choice for all things technology. The algorithms which mystified us in 2010 was a Volpe creation and they are the data-meisters that the agency relies upon. What came as kind of a shock to us that are trying to puzzle together where the agency is going is that soon after the two proposals we talked about, the kinder gentler reboot and broadening the exemptions, we got the opinion, "Well gee, what's it all about? Thanks for making it easier, but if ultimately it's not going to issue safety ratings, and you admit that there's not sufficient data, what's it all about?" Well, maybe crystal ball got a little clearer with a notice that came out that the FMCSA was going to change its roadside inspection program and that Volpe was working on programs. And we haven't seen...

Todd Dills: Our readers who've tuned into our Trucking’s State of Surveillance series of special reports will no doubt recognize what Seaton's referencing there. And here I explained to him the reporting I'd done about moves towards standing up a test of the level 8 automated electronic inspection. Essentially a driver inspection that can occur when the truck is simply rolling by a scale or mobile inspection point and communicating electronically with enforcement. The FMCSA's Volpe Center is not necessarily leading the effort toward making that a reality, yet supporting it with FMCSA itself in the lead and the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance in a big organizational role itself.

After I'd shared what I had found about the various moves made toward the level 8 inspection standard, still rather slow going with Seaton. I noted that his coalition had referenced Volpe's late May press release, which suggested level 8 inspections had the potential to collect 10 times more inspection in violation data than is currently found. His first reaction to the sheer complexity of it all was this.

Hank Seaton: Well, I mean I guess the question is that little bit of information may indicate there's not going to be any new safety fitness determination before my career is over, because to think how slowly we have come in the past 13 years, the idea of a rolling inspection and somehow being assured that good inspections were going to be kept is a sincere issue. The problems that we see obviously is, 10 times the amount of data, if that is true, would take what they have said earlier about accountability under SMS and change it? So when they say the reason for a kinder, gentler inspection system is most of you guys are not going to be measured, to now saying, "Well gee, we're feeding 10 times the data into it." 10 times the data, it's just kind of overwhelming to figure out how they would manage it. It's also kind of overwhelming to figure out how you record all that stuff with a truck...

Todd Dills: Search Trucking's State Of Surveillance at overdriveonline.com to find all the parts of that particular package of nine different features covering a variety of technology's impact on the business, trucking's owner operators and on over-the-road culture too. Next, for all the talk of new technology in 2023, the old diesel standard bearer for freight movement was the subject number five in the podcast countdown with three experienced operators detailing moves that had brought them to 10 miles per gallon and beyond in collaboration with truck OEMs. Here's one of them, Joel Morrow, detailing the impact of engine down-speeding and other efforts to reduce mechanical drag on fuel economy and their role in the road to 10 plus MPG.

Joel Morrow: Just like we have exponential increases in fuel usage when we don't have aerodynamics, the same thing happens with mechanical drag in the engine and we refer to this as piston speed. We want to slow the piston speed down versus our road speed so we have less piston strokes per mile travel, that's less drag, it's better fuel efficiency. What we're also finding out in addition to the fuel efficiency is that that lower piston speed really helps us to hold heat in the combustion process and in the emission system and a lot of the down-sped trucks that I work with, with some of the fleets that I consult with, it has really helped to reduce emission system problems almost to the point where it's almost outweighing the actual fuel efficiency benefit of it. I mean the fuel efficiency is pretty stellar, but the reduction in maintenance costs to go along with it really makes the new down-sped powertrains kind of a no-brainer for overall efficiency.

I've been working with some new gearing in the Volvo I-Torque spec that we are looking at having two and even three gears available at highway speeds, meaning we have direct drive... Well, we have overdrive direct drive and under-drive available at speeds from 65 to 85 mile an hour, and this allows us to adapt that engine piston speed to the loads that we're hauling, to the terrain that we're driving on. And it really has an impact on the fuel efficiency and it makes for a better driving experience. You have performance when you need it, when you're pulling hard and power demand's high, a little extra RPM doesn't necessarily hurt you because you have that extra heat going on in the system.

When you're very light, maybe you've got a 10,000 pound load on and you're, I don't know, running across Northern Indiana relatively flat, then we can really lay the RPM down. In the case of the trucks that I'm running, it's sub a thousand. We're running somewhere between 910 and 990 RPM on overdrive at 65 mile an hour in that speed range, and getting exceptional fuel efficiency and really, really pushing back on the emissions problems that were so common just a few years ago.

Todd Dills: Another bedrock owner operator business concern among many featured in Overdrive Radio's number four podcast of the year at a big round-table with Red Eye Radio's host, Eric Harley, myself, ATBS Vice President Mike Hosted and our own Gary Buchs, long-time owner operator and Overdrive contributor. Conducted at MATS in March the round-table followed on our Partners In Business Program Seminar there and release of the updated 2023 Partners in Business book. Owner operator business start to finish effectively, that book and available for download at overdriveonline.com/PIB. A good bit of the talk focused on freight availability concerns in lean times. For Gary Buchs, as you'll hear, a lot of the strategy he routinely shares with owner operators he works with individually goes right back to business basics.

Gary Buchs: It begins with best practices on customer service. We are in the customer service business, we're not in the driving business, we're not in the driving fast business, we are in it to make a profit, a return for our families. And so when we go into a customer, don't be the problem, be the solution to their problem. Help them recognize that. When they have other truckers there that are causing trouble, when you get a chance to check in, say, "Look, it looks like you're having a rough day. Let me know how I can help you."

Eric Harley: That's a great way to start right there. A great phrase to use. How can I help you?

Gary Buchs: Here's another thing, never ever mention to a customer, "Hey, can you hurry up? I got to get to another customer." They will slow down on you. They aren't worried about your next customer, they want you to be worried about them. You never mention your next load. I'd be in the waiting room and they'll go grumbling about waiting and the clerk could hear us and I'd say, "Well, I'm not really worried. I'm getting a hundred dollars an hour to sit here." The clerk would go like that, 15 minutes later they'd have me in the door, out of there because they didn't want me to get a hundred dollars an hour. Now whether I got a hundred or not, they didn't know, but I knew how to work the system.

But I often did get a hundred dollars an hour being an owner. I negotiated that ahead of time. That's the thing, all these things factor in. You price your whole day on the load. You don't just price the mile because you don't know what's going to happen after that. You may have to sit the rest of the day, you've got to pay for the whole day. But we come back to some of those basics of when you're looking for a load, put your name, print your name and put your cell phone number on your bills of lading, point it out to the customer and say, "Hey, if I pull out of the dock and there's a problem or a question, you call me directly."

I've been in the parking lot, had them call and say, "We forgot a pallet, where are you?" Said, well, "I'm right outside." Oh my gosh, it was maybe 30 minutes, but I was still getting ready to go. If we wouldn't have still been there. If they wouldn't have had my number, they would've had to get an expedite. It would've cost them thousands of dollars to complete that load. I mean, those little things, they remember.

Todd Dills: Number 3, 2023 was certainly a rough one on the highways all around the nation and nowhere was that more literal than along I-40 in Arizona. This owner-operator's mid-year called out the absolutely worst stretch of interstate in the country. Getting the conversation started around Arizona I-40 was owner-operator, Joey Slaughter out of Danville, Virginia and pulling a step deck is an independent along a lane for a regular customer that takes him to California and back.

Joey Slaughter: Yeah, It hasn't been any major repairs in all that time. There's even time periods where they'll close lanes of the interstate, not because of road work but because it's just almost undrivable and that's just not... They don't have a good plan to fix it. New Mexico is regularly closing long sections of interstate and working on it and Arizona's got in such... The road is so deteriorated is what I'm trying to say, they can't even close a lane to fix one because everything is bad. I mean it's no decent road to use anymore in certain sections of 40, especially between Flagstaff and Kingman.

Todd Dills: And that's a pretty long section of road there, right?

Joey Slaughter: Yeah, it's about 150-

Todd Dills: About 150 miles, that is. The audio recording cut out on us there for unclear reasons. Gremlins likely.

Joey Slaughter: And it's really nothing through there. It's a couple of small towns, and I mean real small. And that's the problem, there's no residents using that road every day. It's mostly just trucks going in and out of California and I'm sure if Arizona has to play favorites, that's probably one of their least worried about road, least priority is what I'm trying to think of to say because. But we're all taxpayers too, all the people driving these trucks, so that's why I feel like I have a say in it and I've tried to voice my concern.

I started with Twitter and just letting the Arizona DOT Twitter know about it because they're pretty interactive with us and with bad weather and taking note of road conditions, and the person operating the Twitter account took note of it. This was a year ago I think, and told me to voice my concerns on their website, and I did. It was a page for concerns and opinions to be expressed concerning how to spend the upcoming money for the roads and I gave my opinion based as a trucker that pays taxes in Arizona, so I figured I do have a voice that needs to be heard, but nothing has been done since then.

Todd Dills: So we're getting to the end of our run here with hour's counting down to just two left with this edition from the summer featuring the latest inductee into Overdrive Radio sponsor, Howe's Hall of Fame, and owner-operator, Kate Whiting and her pristine restoration of a 1973 Kenworth A model W900 nicknamed Cherry Pie, a rig that's been turning owner-operator's heads since we saw it in 2022 at MATS and profiled it in the Custom Rigs video series that year. The podcast focused on Whiting's story. It's one of catching the good old trucking bug as she worked as a health coach to OTR drivers then attended her first truck show, then her second and third and became fascinated, not just with the driving life but show trucks, truck restoration and the business itself. Here she is telling part of the story of how she came to get her CDL and buy the 1973 KW from a retired owner right there in her own backyard more or less.

Kate Whiting: I started noticing that I was picking out one certain kind of truck that was really my thing. I was just like, "Man, I really like that truck." And he'd be like, "Well, you like the A's." And every time I go to another show I'd be like, "Oh my gosh, those are just awesome trucks." He's like, "You really like As."

Todd Dills: The classic A-Model Kenworth W-900, she means.

Kate Whiting: And so all it took then was a couple months after South Dakota there, I was just driving a road I go down all the time back home and lo and behold it's like, "Oh, brakes. Hit the brakes, hit the brakes. There's one of those trucks." And you don't notice white cars until you own a white car kind of thing. So it was one of those, like this truck-

It was just about 10 miles down the road from my home. Yep, right in the driveway, in the front yard. Had been sitting there. I stopped right then and there and went and I was taking pictures of it and all this. I didn't worry about where the owner was or what the story was, I just had to jump out and take a look at this truck and then got to talking to Mike, the owner of the truck, an older gentleman.

Todd Dills: That would be former owner, Mike Orton, then retired.

Kate Whiting: The truck had been parked there for quite some time at that point, so I definitely had been driving past it, but it's just, again, I just never noticed it. Really just fell in love with the truck and decided to talk to him about buying it and get him thinking about all that, and it took about a year to convince him to sell the truck, but in the meantime then I really had motivation now to get my CDL.

Todd Dills: Finally, the number one most listened to Overdrive radio edition of the year featured two separate stories. The first detailed how Landstar leased owner-operator, Andy Freeman, came to locate a solution to a central problem in his often curfewed heavy and oversized hauling operation, namely...

Andy Freeman: ...And I've been in platform for 23 years and a lot of times you just want to take a shower just to take a rinse.

Todd Dills: With time at a premium, particularly in the short daylight days of the winter months like those we're in now, parking in close proximity to shower facilities isn't always [inaudible 00:48:17] proposition. Freeman, among other things in the podcast, detailed the mostly off-the-shelf option he found from the Evershower company to turn part of his fairly standard-sized 70 inch sleeper into a shower-capable unit.

Andy Freeman: And a lot of times you just want to take a shower.

Todd Dills: The other part of the podcast, perhaps the reason it garnered so much attention when it did in February this year, featured our own long-haul, Paul Marhofer's narrative of his experience out on I-80 in Wyoming during one of the shutdowns of the road with blizzard conditions that were so very frequent earlier in the year. The saga of that road in 2023 was no doubt one of the biggest stories around the time and Marhofer truly brought us all right into the maddening nature of the experience.

Recording: From exit 6 Evanston to exit 83 Barge Road as of 6:57 PM, February 20 2023, the estimated opening time is unknown.

Todd Dills: To take us into 2024, finally, here's his rendition of the tale supplemented by that automated voice, as it were. Happy New Year everybody. With any luck the coming months go better across the High Plains

Recording: As of 6:57 PM, February 28 2023, the estimated opening time is unknown.

Paul Marhoefer: Packing to leave on Sunday is the worst. You'd think I'd be used to it by now after 4 million miles, but I'm not. In fact, for some reason it's getting harder. While the folks around us readied themselves for Sunday mass, I commenced to disgorge the dining room table of an unruly mound of clean laundry, rolling up bib overalls and stuffing them into my red and black Stoops Freightliner duffel bag, a door prize from a 2017 company safety picnic held well before the pandemic sent such events the way of the dinosaur. Then there was the hanging of the shirts, the stowing of socks and undies into their respective compartments.

And as I packed, my other half, Jumper, was transfixed upon her phone watching the weather out west. "Have you seen the weather in Wyoming Dear?" She said. "Nope, and I'm not looking at it."

"Okay." One of those okays that bore the imprimatur, let's say, of a long-suffering trucker's wife, elongated O followed by a sing-songy K, a portent of imminent doom followed by a kind of resignation. "Look, I drive the mile that's in front of me and if they shut me down, they shut me down," I said. That's how I do it. I don't look at the weather. I never look at the weather. I've got food, water and a blanket, got everything I need. What am I going to do, call off the load?

Recording: The estimated opening time is unknown.

Paul Marhoefer: Okay. Then came the loading of food, shaving kit, hung shirts, guitar, and that red and black Stoops Freightliner duffel bag into the old F150 until the last darkening of the door and the hug goodbye. But this time, Jumper broke down sobbing. She's really not much of a crier, so just what was that all about? Too late, got to go. Been 41 years with that woman and I still really don't know how to read her most of the time. You think I'm afraid of a little snow. Nothing clears the head like a reefer load to Salt Lake City. You go to a small town in Ohio, drop, hook, and there's two and a half days of nothing but pure driving. When it comes to trucking, at least where I work, Salt Lake City, man, it's the best of the best. If the load shakes loose late or if you simply sandbag it out of the house, all you got to do is get yourself to the Iowa 80 truck stop, declare victory, go to bed and let the white noise of I-80 sing you to sleep.

On better days, you can make Brooklyn, maybe even Stuart before you shut down for the night. Then there's nothing you have to do but get up the next morning, go about your morning rituals, pre-trip your truck and drive. It's old man's freight, really easy peasy. On the second day you'd declare a victory at Ogallala or points west and have yet another nice relaxing sleep. Get up the next morning, go about your pre-trip morning ritual and drive. On the third day you deliver.

Yes, it's simply the best run they've got, except for weeks like this one when you're laid up in a fetal position in Laramie with I-80 shut down, calling the 511 line over and over again for the automated male voice to tell you over and over, the estimated opening time is unknown.

Recording: The estimated opening time is... Estimated opening time is unknown. The estimated opening time is...

Paul Marhoefer: So you walk into the Petro, there's nothing left to do now, but order the hamburger steak and put yourself in a food coma. The ecosystem of a truck stop changes when the road shuts down. People were lingering, having long conversations. I hadn't seen so many customers in there since before the pandemic. I got my belly full then sauntered into the TV room to see if I could catch a little conversation before nap time. A disheveled man of about 30 was holding forth, telling his troubles to whoever would listen. "I've been shut down five times this winter, last week for four days," he said. It was Tuesday afternoon, there was something wrong with his voice and demeanor, as if all these shut downs were on the verge of shutting him down. He spoke like a man who couldn't quit shivering, "I've been here this time since Sunday."

He was probably some mega fleet rookie, psyched out by a hand-holding dispatcher, I thought. That's what you tell yourself when you've got a job to do and people around you are melting down. I had to get out of that room. The food coma was beginning to make itself known just as a desperation was coming over me. I walked outside. I thought of my wife asking if I'd looked at the weather. Maybe I should have given it a look-see, at least in Ogallala. I called her and told her as much then went to sleep. I came out of the food coma around dusk. The wind was still howling, the automated male voice broke the bad news.

Recording: The estimated opening time is unknown.

Paul Marhoefer:               8 PM, same.

Recording: The estimated opening time is unknown.

Paul Marhoefer:               Around nine, I slammed a quart of whole milk and some Oreos and induced my second coma. I was slept out by one and called one more time. We were open. This was different than previous road closure situations I'd been in years past. In pre-ELD days, you could tell the road was open by a mass exodus of trucks. It was like people leaving a concert. Now, just two or three were trickling out. Somehow I relished the change though, surprisingly few rigs were on the road now and almost all of them were driving like real pros.

The hardest thing in recent months has been the sheer volume of trucks going insanely fast in icy conditions. I've seen it. You're barely holding it together at 35 or 40 miles per hour, and they scorch past you doing 60, maybe 70 in the lane that hasn't even been cleared of snow. And they all look so young to me, California, Illinois from wherever they're from. Maybe it's my own perception bias, I'll admit, but you just know they're going to wreck. Sometimes they do. Many times you see those same trucks jackknifed in the median. At least for now, those guys weren't on this road as if a higher force was out there somewhere saying, "No worries Hand, I got this."

It's been a winter from hell here. The Wyoming business report noticed fatalities went up from six in 2022 to 20 in 2023 as of February 17th. A spike north of 300%. After some time, conditions cleared and we were at road speed westbound and heading for Elk Mountain. Maybe next time I'll catch the weather ahead of time and go the southern route through Denver. Thanks for listening. This is Paul Marhofer, have a safe trip.

Todd Dills: Big thanks, Paul. See You next year.

The Business Manual for Owner-Operators
Overdrive editors and ATBS present the industry’s best manual for prospective and committed owner-operators. You’ll find exceptional depth on many issues in the 2022 edition of Partners in Business.
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