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Two Technologies Promise Profitability

Alternative fuels and platooning may be the future of transportation

Produce transporters are accelerating their efforts to tap new technologies that can save big money while balancing economic and environmental benefits. Among these cost-cutting measures are the use of alternative fuels, such as natural gas, and eliminating wind reduction through the use of truck platooning.

“Fleet operators are scrambling to get better fuel economy, not only to meet government standards, but to reduce their costs,” confirms Bob Wellens, vice president of sales for the Indianapolis, IN-based Auto Research Center, a design and testing facility specializing in aerodynamics. For some, this means a substantial investment into research and new technology now, to help reduce costs and raise profitability down the road.

PART ONE: NATURAL GAS
Fuel Alternatives and Beyond
Natural gas is becoming the alternative fuel of choice and is being adopted so quickly, it may not be seen as “alternative” much longer. While diesel prices rise and fall with the vicissitudes of the international oil industry, the supply of domestic natural gas has been increasing, along with the infrastructure needed to deliver it.

There are challenges to face, such as the expense of installing fueling stations and the cost differential of natural gas vehicles over diesel, but government and utility incentives are available in many locales, offsetting these costs and bringing payback for trucks within two or three years.

“We don’t think [natural gas] is ever going to replace diesel, but we think it is going to take a significant part of the market,” commented Zach England, chief operating officer of Salt Lake City, UT-based C.R. England, Inc., which has a growing fleet of natural gas-powered trucks.

Types of Alternative Fuel
Currently, there are two types of natural gas now used for truck fleets: compressed natural gas, or CNG, which is best for delivery routes and short hauls; and liquefied natural gas, or LNG, recommended for longer distances.

Other alternative fuels include biodiesel, vegetable oil- or animal fat-based diesel fuels, ultra low-sulfur diesel fuel, propane, bi-fuel or dual-fuel vehicles that use a combination of the products, and electric and hybrid electric cars and trucks.

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Produce transporters are accelerating their efforts to tap new technologies that can save big money while balancing economic and environmental benefits. Among these cost-cutting measures are the use of alternative fuels, such as natural gas, and eliminating wind reduction through the use of truck platooning.

“Fleet operators are scrambling to get better fuel economy, not only to meet government standards, but to reduce their costs,” confirms Bob Wellens, vice president of sales for the Indianapolis, IN-based Auto Research Center, a design and testing facility specializing in aerodynamics. For some, this means a substantial investment into research and new technology now, to help reduce costs and raise profitability down the road.

PART ONE: NATURAL GAS
Fuel Alternatives and Beyond
Natural gas is becoming the alternative fuel of choice and is being adopted so quickly, it may not be seen as “alternative” much longer. While diesel prices rise and fall with the vicissitudes of the international oil industry, the supply of domestic natural gas has been increasing, along with the infrastructure needed to deliver it.

There are challenges to face, such as the expense of installing fueling stations and the cost differential of natural gas vehicles over diesel, but government and utility incentives are available in many locales, offsetting these costs and bringing payback for trucks within two or three years.

“We don’t think [natural gas] is ever going to replace diesel, but we think it is going to take a significant part of the market,” commented Zach England, chief operating officer of Salt Lake City, UT-based C.R. England, Inc., which has a growing fleet of natural gas-powered trucks.

Types of Alternative Fuel
Currently, there are two types of natural gas now used for truck fleets: compressed natural gas, or CNG, which is best for delivery routes and short hauls; and liquefied natural gas, or LNG, recommended for longer distances.

Other alternative fuels include biodiesel, vegetable oil- or animal fat-based diesel fuels, ultra low-sulfur diesel fuel, propane, bi-fuel or dual-fuel vehicles that use a combination of the products, and electric and hybrid electric cars and trucks.

Some produce companies may eventually harvest their own biological material, such as vegetable or other waste to create renewable natural gas, notes John Boesel, president and chief executive officer of Calstart, a Pasadena, CA group dedicated to ‘clean’ or more environmentallyfriendly transportation options. This type of fuel could be used in a hybrid vehicle for even greater savings, he adds.

With natural gas production increasing and prices staying low, the concept is gaining traction among alternative fuels. Maintenance is simpler than with diesel vehicles, the trucks perform as well, and natural gas can provide a quieter, more pleasant work environment for drivers.

“Natural gas is a cleaner product, with lower particulates, and on a total cost of ownership basis, it is cheaper,” says Boesel, adding, “it is something the produce industry ought to take a serious look at.” Diesel exhaust can include soot and aerosols such as ash particulates, metallic abrasion particles, sulfates, and silicates—all of which can contribute to air pollution levels.

Fuel particulates are a big concern at loading docks, especially with organic produce. “The emissions in loading and unloading areas will be lower, thus creating a better environment,” Boesel contends. Further, if produce is delivered in an eco-friendly truck, it is more in line with the values associated with organic and locally-grown products.

Benefits
Cleaner air, reduced greenhouse gases, and displacing foreign oil are all major benefits from using natural gas on the national level, says Rich Kolodziej, president of NGVAmerica (Natural Gas Vehicles for America), a national trade organization located in Washington DC, dedicated to the use of alternatively-fueled vehicles.

While fleet operators appreciate these attributes, it comes down to “economics, economics, economics,” according to Kolodziej. “If you’re going to pay off the incremental cost of your vehicle in less than two to three years, and then get a positive economic advantage with the fuel, that’s significant,” he notes.

For those without their own trucks that rely on brokers and logistics firms, every dollar saved can increase already thin profit margins. “These companies are in the food business; they are not in the trucking business,” Kolodziej notes. “Trucking is an expense, and if they can shave that expense, it’s going to go right to the bottom line.”

With natural gas taking center stage in the alternative fuel universe, transporters’ enthusiasm for other vehicles, such as hybrids, has waned.

Guy Rini, an electrical engineer who worked with Volvo, Mack, and Bendix’s commercial vehicle systems division, is currently president and owner of GTR Development LLC, based in Winchester, VA.

Rini says if natural gas supply and pricing continue to gain traction, upcharges for hybrid vehicles may prove too costly. “On the other hand, if all the drilling (for natural gas) across the United States becomes an environmental issue for other reasons, and we go back to recognizing that the best energy content is in diesel, ‘hybrid’ is a proven technology and fleets will start using it again.”

Deterrents
Buying a natural gas vehicle commands a substantial upcharge—from $25,000 to $50,000—due to the sophisticated design of engines and rather distinctive fueling systems. Liquefied natural gas trucks require insulated fuel tanks to hold their cryogenic fuel, while tanks for CNG must maintain very high pressure.

Most believe high costs, however, will decline as manufacturers experience economies of scale, with incentives making the return on investment increasingly attractive for buyers.

The best news is the cost of fuel: CNG costs about $2 a gallon compared to diesel at an average of $4 a gallon. A true direct comparison is not possible as natural gas vehicles use more fuel than diesel trucks, so industry sources speak of an “equivalent” price where CNG runs $1 or more per gallon less than diesel.

Yet therein lies the rub: CNG and LNG fueling stations can be hard to find in some regions. In some cases this is remedied by companies who partner up for fuel savings, as natural gas companies require a sufficient number of trucks and demand to build a station. If this threshold can be met, natural gas providers will install a station and even lock in a fuel price as part of the contract.

As Drew Cullen, vice president of fuels and environmental affairs at Penske Truck Leasing in Reading, PA, commented to Commercial Carrier Journal in May, “Fueling infrastructure improvements will continue as long as the price difference between diesel and natural gas provides enough savings to overcome the incremental costs of the vehicles—and fleets are able to realize the environmental benefits.”

Three Produce Transporters Talk Natural Gas
Testa Produce, Inc., which bought its first 10 CNG trucks in 2013, does not have enough natural gas vehicles for its own fueling station, but a nearby concrete company does, says Peter Testa, company president. The two companies worked out a deal where Testa gets the gas for a “locked-in” rate, which then helps the concrete company pay for its fueling station.

Testa operates 45 other trucks and hopes to change them all over to natural gas. “As trucks come off lease, we hope to get another 10 this year, and they will all be CNG. No more diesel,” he comments. The company also has 10 hybrid cars.

Cold Star Freight Systems, Inc. on Vancouver Island in British Columbia recently purchased 10 CNG class 8 Mack tractors, using an incentive from utility company FortisBC, which covered 75 percent of the cost differential, says Kelly Hawes, Cold Star’s president. The trucks get fuel at a nearby FortisBC station.

“If all goes well, we’re planning to add another 10 natural gas trucks in 2015.” Hawes believes natural gas is here to stay and trucking firms that can make it work will be much more competitive in the industry.

Cold Star has a total of 37 vehicles, but because CNG is not readily available near an outlying facility, the company will never be able to transition to solely natural gas vehicles.

C.R. England, Inc., one of the nation’s biggest transportation companies, recently signed an LNG fuel agreement with Shell and has added 10 LNG Mackday-cab tractors in Southern California.

This is an expansion from the five LNG trucks the company started with in 2011, and two CNG trucks added last year in Utah. The fueling station is part of a nearby truck stop in Ontario, CA. The new CNG trucks were purchased through a grant from Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality, while the LNG vehicles were acquired without such incentives.

“We thought it was important to be aggressive with natural gas, because we think it has a bright future,” England says. The company paid a significant upcharge for the LNG equipment, and despite payback being a question mark, England believes “the experience has been invaluable.”

There have also been challenges with fueling stations and unfamiliarity of new equipment, but the company has not been deterred from moving forward.

“We are absolutely optimistic about the future,” England confirms. “The benefits of LNG include the range, because of the weight (fuel tanks are lighter than CNG) and the time to fuel is about half as long as it takes for CNG. Advantages to CNG include the price of fuel, which is about $1 per diesel gallonequivalent less, and simplified servicing.” And diesel trucks carry mandated emissions equipment that natural gas vehicles don’t require.

Transporters also recognize the public relations benefits of running natural gas trucks. “This is a big deal for our customers,” England notes.

Cold Star’s organic customers appreciate the natural gas trucks, which have prominent markings on the trailers. “Anything we can do to help the environment is an added bonus,” Hawes says.

Some grocery chains are also taking the natural gas plunge: Kroger Company committed to using LNG trucks for store deliveries in Oregon and Washington, while Cardenas Markets will deploy CNG trucks for hauls in California and Nevada, and plans to convert all of its private fleet to natural gas in the next few years.

PART TWO: PLATOONING
A Radical Take on Fuel Savings
Produce transporters have their eye on tests of a new technology based on an old concept called “platooning.”

Cyclists and auto racers have long recognized the value of drafting, where two vehicles traveling together take advantage of the aerodynamic flow of one another. The name of a major technology company in this space, Peloton Technology, is taken from a French word for a group of bicyclists riding together in an aerodynamic pack.

Using existing safety features like vehicle- to-vehicle communications, radarbased collision mitigation equipment, and video monitoring of front and rear vehicles, trucks are able to “platoon” or follow closely together and save significant fuel.

Behind the Science
“Our trucks are equipped with DSRC (direct short range communication) devices that allow the two trucks to communicate with each other electronically, enabling a variety of control improvement,” explains Steve Boyd, vice president of external affairs for Peloton Technology. “By doing this, we can now put the trucks together and because the braking and acceleration is synchronized and the systems are automated, the drivers retain steering control, but the forward motion is semi-automated.”

If the lead truck encounters an obstacle, or otherwise slows down, it is communicated to the second truck in just one millisecond—and the second truck automatically brakes or separates from the platoon, Boyd says.

Platoons will be limited to two trucks traveling long distances on open roads, and while it is expected that trucks from the same company will be involved at first, there is the potential for other trucks with the right equipment to link up with each other, even if they are from competitors like Walmart and Target. When both save money, everybody wins.

Testing Maneuvers
In one test, reported by the North American Council for Fleet Efficiency (NACFE), platooning trucks traveled at a following distance of 36 feet at 64 miles per hour, with the lead truck saving 4.5 percent in fuel, and the second truck saving 10 percent.

Much closer following distances are possible, along with increased fuel savings, and the equipment will bring greater safety to the road. “The calculations show [the trucks] can get down to almost 20 feet (in following distance),” says Mike Roeth, executive director of NACFE, who believes collision avoidance technology is truly ready to be employed in this type of transporting interaction.

“The closer the tractor-trailers are to one another, the higher the benefit, and they are extremely safe operating this way. With platooning, the concept is to take readily available safety equipment and use it to link the trucks together, and benefit from the drafting and improved aero-dynamics,” adds Roeth.

“When you bring the trucks closer together at following distances under 100 feet, you begin to get fuel efficiency into the double digits for both trucks,” notes Peloton Technology’s Boyd, “because the rear truck is drafting off the front, and the front truck benefits from the rear truck smoothing out the vortex at the back of the truck, which creates a suction holding the truck back.”

Further, Boyd asserts, fleets using platooning technology will be “safer and have lower fuel costs. They will have less of a problem with fuel price spikes, and be better providers for shippers to use.”

Expenses & Payback
The expense for platooning is relatively small—about $2,000, Boyd reports—and the savings is split initially between the fleets and the technology company. Even so, payback is expected within a year, and possibly in three to four months.

Despite the relatively low cost, fleets have not deployed the technology because they do not see the benefit from the safety improvements alone, which do not seem to warrant full commitment. Yet the savings of $5,000 to $7,000 in fuel per year, per truck from platooning, Roeth believes, should change such a viewpoint.

One rough spot to work out is a concern about tailgating laws, but the industry is working with authorities to enable the platooning practice. “They have to change some of the laws on the books to allow this to happen,” notes Tim Jennings, a development specialist at the Auto Research Center.

Although the system is still in an early test phase—C.R. England has been a major participant—Boyd says the company is “working now on plans to move into fleet pilot activity later this year.” By next year, 2015, he believes deployment of active systems will begin.

At the Auto Research Center, Angus Lock, head of aerodynamics, reports: “Our primary interest is in reducing the aerodynamic drag. Depending on how close you run the vehicles together, you can see drag reductions of up to 50 percent— though this involves trucks or cars literally within feet of each other.”

Further, he explains, most studies were conducted with vehicles running from 18 to 20 feet apart, though Lock says “you can see fuel improvement from the aerodynamic drag reduction of 10 to 20 percent. There’s a big potential for fleets, or for individual owner-operators, to reduce fuel costs if this technology becomes viable.”

Lock says the technology can also address another trucking industry challenge, the lack of highly trained drivers. With platooning, the better trained driver operates the lead vehicle and drivers with beginning skills or less experience can operate the following trucks, thus saving fleet operators on training costs.

“If you have a platoon of vehicles, you only need to have one highly trained driver at the head of the platoon. It potentially leads to safer road conditions, and less accidents for fleets,” Lock adds.

Other Ways to Increase Efficiency
Roeth at NACFE reports on other technologies to improve transportation efficiencies. For example, he cites tire pressure systems that can ensure the appropriate pressure in all tires at all times. “There is a benefit to fuel economy, tire wear, and breakdowns caused by damaged tires.” Inflation systems use the truck’s air system to inflate tires automatically, he says.

There are also about twenty different technologies or practices to limit or eliminate engine idling while a driver rests, and uses air conditioning, televisions, or refrigerators. One promising advance is auxiliary power units that allow the driver to turn off the big engine and use a smaller one to maintain various systems.

Whether through alternative fuels like natural gas, or new technologies like platooning, produce transporters are looking at a more efficient and automated future. These technologies have the ability to provide a number of advantages from boosting margins and improving public image, to staying competitive in both the short and long term.

Photos courtesy of Testa Produce, Inc.; Cold Star Freight Systems, Inc.; and C.R. England, Inc.