The decision by Wal-Mart to conduct a pilot of a 60 foot high cube tractor-trailer in Ontario, Canada caught the transportation industry off guard. The surprise is not so much that a newer and longer piece of trucking equipment is being trialed. This was inevitable. The surprise is that the initiative was driven by a large shipper and not by a Trucking Association or trucking company in Canada or the United States.
The arguments in support of the trial are compelling and are the same arguments that were made when 53 foot trailers and every other innovation in transportation occurred. A 60 foot tractor-trailer that offers 30 percent more cubic space promises to make the North American economy more efficient. It places fewer trucks on the road, thereby reducing congestion and lessening the need to refurbish our existing highway infrastructure. It reduces the impact of a driver shortage. It would reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. It permits drivers to accomplish more under HOS restrictions. It would allow trucking companies to derive a better return on their investment.
The arguments against Wal-Mart’s pilot are the same as those made each time there is a proposed change of this nature. The most frequently mentioned reservation is that this will make our roads less safe. It will result in more highway fatalities. The prototype trailer is not in compliance with existing laws in various jurisdictions. There will be problems in backing up a tractor-trailer combo of this nature into many existing loading and unloading docks. Longer high cube equipment will contain heavier payloads that will speed up the damage to our roads and highways. It will require infrastructure changes to accommodate vehicles of this length.
While all of these comments deserve discussion, it must be pointed out that the transportation industry has dealt with all of these issues before. Laws can be amended. Loading areas can be reconfigured. Bridge crossing can be modified. Weight configurations can change. It wasn’t that long ago that Ontario ran a trial on long combination vehicles (LCVs). What makes a 60 foot tractor-trailer so different?
Perhaps the biggest issue is the impact that the widespread standardization of 60 foot equipment would have on the capital budgets of trucking companies and shippers who have their own fleets. The industry has billions of dollars invested in 53 foot equipment. With an economy that is less than robust, trying to “keep up with the Jones” by having to convert part of a fleet to 60 foot equipment is certainly not what the industry is looking for at this time. This issue alone explains why longer tractor-trailer lengths have not been driven by the trucking industry. A change of this nature would cost enormous amounts of money. The cost alone creates a certain amount of inertia and resistance.
The bottom line is that change is inevitable. The lengths of road trailers and rail cars have evolved over the years. The railways have been extending the geographic availability of double stack trains. They supply rail cars that go up to 86 feet in length. The trucking industry cannot afford to be left behind.
The current economic challenges we face in Canada and the United States suggest that we have to be open to opportunities to increase efficiencies. In a global economy, we need to evaluate every change, whether fracking, the Keystone Pipeline and/or longer tractor-trailer lengths, that will give us an edge in these difficult times. Hats off to Wal-Mart for taking this initiative.