What if you got your fleet's average idle time down to about a third of the national average? Would you be satisfied that you had done all you could do?
If so, you might rethink your position after meeting Dennis Damman and Mike Beauchamp, of Schneider National. In the world of idle-reduction, few fleets have made as much progress as Green Bay, WI-based Schneider, and Damman and Beauchamp are two big reasons why.
The two men are part of a team searching for what may be the holy grail of trucking: a clean, reliable, lightweight, inexpensive, engine-off sleeper air conditioning system. And, according to Damman, director of engineering for tractors, even if they find it, they may not reap significant rewards.
BEATING THE INDUSTRY
"Cab cooling is certainly going to help us incrementally, but probably not to the point where fuel alone will pay for the technology," he explains. "Different fleets run different vocations, and it's hard to benchmark our fleet against anybody else's, because they could be running less aerodynamic tractors, or different engines, or maybe they're more short-haul than we are—there's definitely a fuel economy advantage if you're running long-haul—or they could be running heavy loads, or on secondary roads, so it's really hard to say if we're doing better than anybody else."
Certainly, Schneider already does a lot: according to Damman, the company spec's the most aerodynamic tractors available, it road speed limits the tractors, and spec's the most energy-efficient tires on the market.
"We have one of the lowest idle-reduction percentages of anyone in the industry," he says. "We've been working with our drivers, and they've been very cooperative at helping to reduce idling by only idling when it's absolutely necessary. The industry average is 44 percent, and we run at about a third of that for our idle. Which is good, but it doesn't leave a lot of money to offset the cost of the cab cooling and cab heating technologies that we know we need to put on the trucks. We have less of an opportunity to pay for an idling solution because we're already fairly low on our idle percentages."
The equation is straightforward: if your idling time is already down in the neighborhood of 15 percent, you've already reaped the lion's share of the benefits, and any further reduction idle time will yield smaller returns for a relatively larger investment. Still, knowing that, Schneider is forging ahead with plans to adopt a new cab cooling system across the entire fleet by the fourth quarter of 2007.
"Fuel economy has been really challenging in the last few years, primarily because the emissions changes have taken us in the other direction," Damman says. "In 2003, 20 years of fuel economy improvements were all lost with the introduction of the EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) engine. And again in 2007, with the combination of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel (ULSD) and another emissions hurdle involving regeneration and filtration, we're probably going to take another step backwards, so just staying where we're at is extremely challenging.
"We definitely see room to improve our idling time," he says. "Furthermore, we're looking for our drivers to have a comfortable environment in which to sleep, to improve their ability to get a good night's sleep, so they're not sleeping in a truck that's either too hot or too cold, and potentially having fatigue issues because they're not getting a good night's sleep. The way we look at it, there is some opportunity to improve fuel economy, there's also an opportunity to improve our emissions footprint, and there's definitely a quality of life issue that we're trying to address for our drivers."
"We do hold our drivers to a higher standard," adds Beauchamp, manager of tractor engineering, line-haul servicing. "In 2003, we made the decision to go across the board with the fleet with Webasto cab heaters. That was a very popular decision with the drivers, and a lot of the feedback was that they were getting better sleep, they were able to get their bonuses, and the next thing out of their mouths was, ‘What are you going to do in the summertime?' So the cooling solution is largely driven by the drivers (pardon the pun), and the goal is to get that idle percentage even lower."
Schneider has, in fact, been testing cab & sleeper cooling systems for the past several years, so they know what works and what doesn't, what holds promise and what has failed to live up to its potential. Not surprisingly, the engineering team has developed standards that the final selection must meet.
First, the solution must be mobile. Although Beauchamp acknowledges that some drivers make use of shore power and truck stop electrification (TSE) services, they are in the minority.
"One of the things we found out through our evaluation of engine-off idling technologies is that better than 70 percent of our drivers park at or near our customer locations," says Damman. "They don't park at truck stops, they don't park at waysides.
"There's a very good reason for that," he continues. "The last place a driver wants to be if they're delivering into Chicago is a truck stop out on Gary, Indiana, having to wake up at five or six in the morning, having to dump themselves into rush hour traffic, and try to get into Chicago."
Instead, Damman explains, the drivers will try to reach their destination the evening before, and take their break as close to their delivery point as possible. "In many cases, they'll back right up to the dock on the customer's lot, just so they can avoid that rush hour traffic in the morning," he says. "Also, if you're in there early, you're not burning your hours getting in to that location in the morning. You wake up and you're starting fresh after your break. So things like truck stop electrification and air delivery systems don't work very well when they only address 30 percent of your problem."
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
Schneider's second requirement is that the technology must offer some cost/benefit payback. "We've looked at a number of mobile solutions that are closest to hitting that criterion," Damman says, "and I don't believe we're going to find a cooling solution that's going to have a complete payback; there's going to be a cost to it. But we've found that the battery and storage solutions have the best view to a payback, and are the most likely solutions for our fleet. So, we've been concentrating on solutions that involve either battery or storage."
Finally, the added weight of a cooling solution is also a factor, but on that point Damman is resigned to accepting a penalty: "There's going to be a weight penalty no matter what cooling technology you use, whether you use an APU or a battery solution or a storage solution," he explains. "It looks like they'll all have about a 400 to 500 pound weight penalty."
That wouldn't be such an issue if the proposed 400 pound weight exemption proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had any chance of becoming a reality, but Damman isn't holding his breath on that one.
"The EPA did recommend that the states adopt that, but, unless all 48 lower states adopt it, you might as well not have it," he says. "So there, that's the issue with that 400 pound exemption right now: it's not a national exemption. Even if half of the states, or three-quarters, or ninety percent of them adopt this weight exemption, you still can't use it effectively. When you're running 48 states, you have to have a national weight exemption, not a state-by-state weight exemption."
Over the past few years, Schneider has had a dozen or so test units in the field at any given time, but by the time you read this, the company plans to have approximately 200 trucks on the road, testing engine-off cooling systems throughout the spring and summer. It's a mammoth test for the company, so big that when Fleet Maintenance visited company headquarters, a corporate video was in production, to educate the drivers and dispatch employees on the scope and status of the cooling project. "This is the biggest engineering program Schneider has undertaken for the entire fleet since we adopted Qualcomm wireless in the 80's," Damman says.
Beauchamp agrees that this is the "hot topic" of the day for the company. He is supervising the installation of the different test technologies the company has chosen as its "finalists."
The nominees are:
Webasto BlueCool—a storage solution that uses cold air from the engine air conditioner while the truck is in motion to "pre-cool" a chemical solution. Once the solution is cooled and the driver goes to sleep at night, it is passed through a heat exchanger, very much like an evaporator coil. The exchanger dehumidifies the warm cab air and blows cool air into the bunk area. www.webasto.us/am/en/am_trucks_aircon.html
Bergstrom NITE System—a battery solution that combines an Espar direct-fired cab heater with a 12 V air conditioning system that is installed under the sleeper bunk. The cooling component runs off a battery pack that can run up to 10 hours between recharges. www.bergstrominc.com
DC Airco—a cooling-only battery solution that uses a 12 V air conditioning unit mounted on the outside back wall of the sleeper. This system can run off the truck's starting batteries, or an independent battery pack. www.dcairco.com
Caterpillar MorElectric—combines an auxiliary power unit (APU), or genset, with shorepower capabilities. Still in testing—Caterpillar has not announced a production date. http://www.cat.com/cda/components/fullArticle?m=37647&x=7&id=293838
PROS AND CONS
"The strength of the APU is that it has a lot of capacity and can provide as much cooling as is called for in the tractor, day or night," Damman says. But he also points out two key weaknesses: cost and required maintenance.
"Even if you're idling at 40 percent or 50 percent, it's very difficult to come up with a payback for that technology," he says, "because realistically you need the air conditioning system from the middle of May to the middle of September in about 80 percent of the country. So you have a technology that costs a lot, and provides four months' worth of benefits, but there's a risk for the other eight months, if the driver runs that genset to power cab electrical needs, all your payback is used up the months that you don't need it."
In addition, Damman says, the maintenance needs of the APU can upset regular maintenance schedules. Schneider has found that in some cases the APU's engine needs service twice as often as the truck engine.
The battery and storage systems offer a very different cost/benefit dynamic, according to Damman. Compared to an APU, these systems cost less and are easier to maintain. "In fact, unless there's a breakdown, there is no maintenance," he says. "Some of our evaluation units are three years old, and they're still on their original batteries. That's fairly positive. They're also quiet; you don't have another motor running, so there's no vibration."
There is one negative, however, and that is that battery and storage systems don't have as much capacity as either the tractor air conditioning system, or the APU. "You have to use them more wisely," Damman explains. "But we've found that the drivers have been able to make them work, and are satisfied with the output and the performance, and in fact prefer them over the gensets that we've evaluated, because there's less noise, less vibration, and in total they're easier to use."
To enhance the performance of all the systems, Schneider gives drivers the option of using an insulated bunk curtain that keeps the cool air in the bunk while allowing the driver to watch TV from bed. This simple accessory holds the cooled air in the sleeping area, effectively maximizing the system's cooling capacity.
Of course, it's not enough that a system makes Damman and Beauchamp happy. If the drivers aren't pleased enough to want to use the technology, then all that effort and expense will have been wasted.
"Total value is what will drive the final decision, but there are positives and negatives to each technology," Beauchamp explains. "BTU output will be a big thing to the drivers, and if they can get a full ten hours out of one of the technologies, that will be a plus. Webasto has changed its approach enough that we're not totally familiar with what it's going to do. Previous iterations didn't provide what we wanted, but the new one looks like it might. The battery-powered ones are simple enough that it looks like, with proper management by the driver, they will accomplish that as well, and possibly have a higher BTU output."
"Any of the battery and storage solutions are getting fairly strong support from the drivers," Damman says. "Again, it has to be mobile; they have to be able to use it whenever they want. It has to be quiet, so it's not disturbing their sleep. And they want it to have the capacity they need to get a good night's sleep in a comfortable environment. Right now the battery and storage solutions are the leading preference of the drivers."
"There are always the drivers who will complain, because it takes up too much space, or it doesn't keep him cool enough," Beauchamp says, "but then I remind them what the alternative is, which is nothing."
The opinions of the maintenance team must also be taken into consideration when the final selection is made, but testing has been so trouble-free so far there is virtually no maintenance history to analyze. As Damman has pointed out, the battery systems that have been under evaluation for three years are still running strong on their original batteries, so the outlook is positive. Still, any time you're dealing with power supplies, control systems, and air conditioning compressors, components can fail. With 200 units running from now until next September, there is still a chance that reliability issues will arise, and sway the outcome of the test. Only time will tell.
ASKING TOO MUCH?
Although Damman's hope is to find a simple cooling solution, even the simplest will add another layer of complexity to Schneider's fleet. When do we reach a point where we're simply asking too much of the truck?
"We are asking a lot," Damman admits. "You take a look at the complexity of what's going on with the engines in 2007, the filtration and regeneration, and dosing, and having two ECMs instead of one ECM now on the truck, and most of the OEMs are now heading towards multiplexing. Hopefully, some of these things are going to be big improvements to the trucks, and to diagnostics, but they're new right now, and anything new is scary at first, because you don't have a good feel for what the reliability is going to be.
"Cab cooling certainly has that status," he continues. "We really don't know how these systems will perform two or three years down the line, or what their reliability will be, or what will be the ‘weak links' in the system. What I can say is that we're pretty happy with the first couple of years of testing we've done, in that we've had fairly few reliability issues. But until we get through this next summer, we probably won't have a very good grasp on how well these systems are going to perform."
One thing is certain: at this time next year, Schneider will be committed to a single engine-off cab cooling solution for its entire fleet, and the fleet will most likely be achieving impressive new goals in idle-reduction.
Oh, and there's one other certainty: at this time next year, Mike Beauchamp will still be keeping his options open.
"I keep thinking there's still something out there that hasn't turned up yet," he says. "There's some technology or some idea that hasn't been explored yet that will be cheap, easy, won't take up much space, but we just haven't seen it yet.
"We had originally committed to make this decision last year, and we could have even made it the year before," he admits, "but I keep putting it off because I think there's something out there that could still come up. So we'll leave our options open.
Even after we make a decision next fall, we won't be married to the technology if something better comes along. We'll always be looking. I really think there's something else out there; I just haven't found it yet."