CEO Moyes says it appears to be good in theory, but in reality, there will be no fuel savings and safety will be compromised

Swift Transportation CEO/chairman Jerry Moyes said he opposes legislation that would raise the commercial truck weight limit to 97,000 lb.

Under HR 1799 — the “Safe and Efficient Transportation Act of 2009,” introduced by Rep Michael Michaud (D-ME) and Rep Jean Schmidt (R-OH) on March 30 — individual states would be able to increase allowable weight on a single trailer up to 97,000 lb on their Interstate highways. The vehicles would be required to add a sixth axle to the tractor-trailer for better braking and handling.

Moyes, in his “Perspective: 2009 & Beyond” presentation, said the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) believes that while more weight results in more fuel consumed, increased weight, in theory, would reduce the number of trucks in use and therefore reduce the ton-per mile fuel consumption.

He also said the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) believes that allowing heavier vehicles would decrease truck vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 11%, therefore using less total fuel, and that VMT reductions would also result from increased use of longer combination vehicles (LCV).

Moyes said his real-world experiences tell him that the theories are wrong.

“Swift may be the largest operator of LCVs, so we probably have more statistics on heavy haul than all other truck companies put together,” he said. “They're saying that for every load on highway, if we're going from 45,000 lb to 97,000 lb, we can all of a sudden increase by 33%. I can tell you that in the dry van business, we only have 15-20% of our loads today at 80,000. Most of them are closer to 70,000. It's not going to do a lot of good to increase the weights.

“In the truckload industry, trailers max out on cube space before exceeding load limit. Beer loads are one of the heaviest loads. Because of the axle bridge law, you can only have a 48-foot trailer. You can only put about 55,000 lb in a 48-foot trailer, so by our experience all the way to ‘97, the math is just not where they think it's going to be. I think this industry has to pick the battles we can win. We think there's no way we're going to get this through.”

Moyes gave additional reasons for opposition:

  • Many states will restrict routes, resulting in more miles operated.

  • Stopping distance is greater. “Safety should be a #1 priority for the driving public. Even though we have axles and braking capacity on this heavy-haul equipment, our actions are dramatically higher and more severe. As you're putting more weight on, you're going higher. They make these trailers a lot more top-heavy.”

  • Fuel savings. “I can tell you that from our statistics on our amount of fuel per ton-mile we're hauling, we burn more fuel per ton with heavy hauls. You're not going to save any fuel. Adding the sixth axle will add extra weight.”

Government regulations

Moyes said the government's stopping-distance regulations mean fleets will “probably have to go to at least some type of disc brake,” and he challenged manufacturers to offer reasonably priced options.

He said the regulations will mean increased braking performance and result in acquisition-cost implications, potential maintenance-cost reductions, and increased weight on steer and drive axles. He said Swift supports ABS systems.

Moyes also said Swift has worked extensively with a law firm on Critical Event Reporting (CER).

“We can report when a driver has a stopping event or almost turns over,” he said. “When we first got this, we had a pretty high frequency. We started calling the driver immediately. Within a month, we saw these events dramatically decline. These drivers are taking it to heart.”

He said Swift has developed an action plan to deal with the California Air Resources Board's (CARB) Transport Refrigeration Units (TRU) regulation, which goes into effect July 17. CARB has pushed forward since receiving a federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) waiver in January, allowing it to regulate refrigeration units.

TRUs manufactured in 2001 or before are banned from California without a retrofit motor. Those manufactured after that must have certification on the motor. Inspections will occur on the road, customer DC, or at a Swift terminal.

“What happens in California usually ends up in other states,” he said. “We'll treat the TRU as though it is domiciled in California, register with CARB, and apply a unique CARB decal to the outside of each TRU to demonstrate compliance. Swift understands the value of clean air quality.”

Decline in fuel price

On the subject of fuel, he said the price decline late in 2008 has allowed many fleets to continue operating.

“In the first quarter of 2008, things went up so fast,” he said. “It cost Swift $17 million just to spread between what we were able to collect on the fuel surcharge and what the actual cost was. If fuel would not have dropped as dramatically as it has, there would have been a number of carriers that would not have made it through this cycle, in addition to the ones that dropped out. Although revenue miles have declined, the fuel price per-gallon decrease is greater.”

Moyes said Swift endorses the EPA's SmartWay program as a means in which to learn how to help the environment and save money. Swift is among 373 motor carriers, 12 shippers/carriers, and 47 shippers that have qualified for the program.

“We utilize most of the commercially available fuel-savings strategies. We've got to 62 mph with most of the fleets, 60 mph for some of the dedicated fleets,” he said. “We've worked closely to get idle time down to 20% and when I came in today, it was single digits. And we're doing it without the use of devices.

“We have experimented with skirts. They do have a positive effect. The problem is, we can't figure out how to keep them on and keep them from being damaged. How do we come up with a better strap? We have to do what we can to come up with a better product than we have today.”

Moyes had some bad news for trailer manufacturers: The combination of the recession's effects on freight movement and the increased durability of trailers means that Swift and many other companies will be scaling back purchases well into 2010.

“Everybody says that this recession hit in January of 2007, but this industry saw it six months ahead of everybody else,” he said. “In August 2008, freight dropped considerably. We're now in 2009 and not seeing any turnabout.

“We believe we will see this thing firm up in the third and fourth quarters. Swift's top customers have done pretty good — the Wal-Marts, Costcos, and Targets of the world have kept volumes up. The negative with those types of customers is that due to their packaging, we're shipping 20% fewer truckloads today. We're shipping iPods instead of boom boxes, flat screens instead of big TVs.

“I hate to be the pessimist, but we don't see a lot of trailer purchases going forward. A lot of trailers are parked and the used-truck market is horrible and the used-trailer market is horrible. A lot of carriers such as ourselves, even though we bought trailers in 2008, didn't trade in a lot of trailers. One of the problems trailer manufacturers have is they are doing too good of a job. We used to have a 6- or 7-year trade cycle on our trailers. Today, with better flooring and lighting and brakes, these are at least 10-year trailers. We've brought in some we believe will be 15-year trailers. Plus, when you look at the cost of new trailers, should we refurbish?”

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