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Will this be the year trucks put on weight?

To answer the question posed above, maybe not. But there is no question that the federal government is beginning to consider raising the gross weight for big rigs on the interstates from the current 80,000 lb. gross combination weight to the proposed 97,000 lb. And the reason comes down to a word near and dear to the heart of everybody in the trucking industry--productivity.

Looking at it a different way, if federal highways can take on an additional 17,000 lb. gross weight as a new interstate standard, such an increase will help those portions of trucking that today are limited by weight rather than cube. Such is the case with most tanker operations, many flatbed haulers and some van trailers.

This subject is making headlines as a result of publicity generated by a speaker at last month's annual meeting of the National Private Truck Council (NPTC) in Nashville, Tenn. One speaker, John Woodroofe, head of transportation safety analysis at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) said that tractor-trailers use about 30 billion gallons of diesel fuel annually based on industry estimates. His analysis found that an increase in gross combined weight offered a potential annual savings of approximately 3 billion gallons and also could lead to a 32.6 million ton drop in greenhouse gas emissions from big rigs.

Results from the study are expected to be some of the ammunition for the political debate in Washington, D.C., as whether to increase federal limits on vehicle size and weights.

The American Trucking Associations (ATA) is expected to lobby heavily for bigger and heavier vehicles. America's highways are grossly overcrowded in many metropolitan areas and there's a growing political consensus that this Congress needs to address and take action on the issue.

Another speaker at the NPTC conference, John Runyan, senior manager of federal government relations for International Paper Corp. said it's imperative that action be taken to get changes started. He is co-chairman of the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, a trade group representing primarily shippers of food and agriculture products.

Raising the weight limit to 97,000 lb. will require an additional trailer axle. Today's 80,000 lb., five-axle dg is based on 34,000 lb. tandem axles on the trailer and a tractor tandem, plus 12,000 lb. front axle loading. An additional trailer axle with a single tire would carry 17,000 lb. The presumption is the third axle would be forward of the trailer tandem.

Much of the political hype is being driven by the need for new and/or upgraded bridges, many of which are in marginal condition to carry today's weights. Readers will no doubt recall the collapse of a major bridge in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., metro area. This disaster led to a more thorough analysis of bridge foundations, which further calls attention to the highway mess.

If the U.S. goes to 97,000 lb. gross (which is the same weight as trucks in the U.K. since 2001), it's a logical assumption we will see a demand for higher-horsepower tractors. Many fleets today are satisfied with 450 to 475 hp for over-the-road trucking depending on routes/grades. Many owner-operators who seem to think they need more power are already in the 500 to 550 hp range with some even going for 600 hp, which are top ratings from today's engines.

We can speculate as to what the truck and engine manufacturers might do as a result of higher truck weights. A preview may have come eadier this year from Volvo, which unveiled an FH16 truck with a 700 hp engine in Europe. Volvo gets that power from its 16 L engine, but the question remains as to whether we'll see such things as bigger displacement engines, compound turbocharging and higher torque rise--perhaps 50% or more. Of course, any and all changes must still accommodate the EPA's strict emissions limits.

Then there's fuel economy and whether the U.S. industry can get it much better. Ultimately, it's the operator behind the wheel who can make the real difference by not being lead-footed and running the engine in its most economical fuel consumption range. Drivers do make a real difference, along with their attitudes.

I took a memorable trip some time ago with Henny Myers, who drove an 18-wheeler for Fleur de Lait Foods, New Holland, Pa. He had just completed 40 years and 4 million miles without an accident or ticket. My day took me from New Holland (near Lancaster) to warehouses in Newark and Ft. Lee, N.J. During that entire trip, only once did he brake other than for stops. He planned his driving that well. Myers was entirely self-taught--starting as a farm boy and moving from horses and farm tractors to tractor-trailers. He's still going strong at 90, although no more trucking!

Many states have their own weight limits, which apply to state highways and may be grandfathered into the interstates. Those of you in the Midwest are familiar with the Michigan Specials (also known as Michigan Trains). These are 11-axles with two trailers, mostly dumps for construction work and flatbeds for moving steel, much of it for the auto industry. Gross weights are as high as 140,000 lb. This is big engine country too.

So will we see bigger trucks on the highways? My hunch is yes--but probably not anytime real soon.

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Title Annotation:STREET SMARTS
Author:Winsor, Jim
Publication:Diesel Progress North American Edition
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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