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THE GARAGE

Chrome, schrome. Truckers are all about mileage now.

May 17, 2008|Ken Bensinger | Times Staff Writer

If you think gas is expensive, be thankful you're not a trucker. Filling up their 18-wheel, 80,000-pound leviathans can cost more than $1,300 these days.

Because of short supply, the price of diesel has gone up more than twice as much as gasoline in the last year, reaching a U.S. all-time high this week of an average of $4.33 a gallon. With little hope of a near-term decline -- oil futures rose $2.17 to settle at a record $126.29 a barrel Friday -- the run-up is causing panic and prompting radical cultural and technological shifts in the struggling trucking industry.

Instead of obsessing over chrome trim or the latest cab amenities to ease life on the road, truck owners and operators who are fed up with getting 5 miles per gallon are delving into long-ignored subjects such as aerodynamics, cruising speeds and tire efficiency.

Engineers and manufacturers are furiously developing fuel-friendly technology. And commercial fleets are using high-tech software to calculate every aspect of their drivers' routes, down to where they should fill up and where they should stop for the night.

Bill Rethwisch, an independent long-haul trucker, recently traded in his Peterbilt 379 for a new Kenworth T660 rig. Although he prefers the traditional looks of the Peterbilt, with its boxy hood, flat, chromed grille and towering exhaust pipes, he knows it was aerodynamically flawed.

The $119,000 Kenworth, marketed as the company's most aerodynamic truck ever, has a streamlined wedge shape and eliminates projections such as the smokestacks. The result, Rethwisch said, is an increase from 4.5 mpg in the Peterbilt to the Kenworth's 6.5 mpg, which saves him upward of $2,000 a month at the pump.

"The Peterbilt is the classiest and coolest-looking truck around," said Rethwisch, who hauls dairy products from Wisconsin to California and goes home loaded with produce. "But cool only goes so far when fuel prices are so high."

The shift is not unlike what's happening with passenger cars -- drivers are abandoning gas-thirsty SUVs and pickups in favor of zippy subcompacts. But with U.S. trucks burning upward of 20 billion gallons of diesel a year and trucking industry bankruptcies soaring, shifting to more efficient vehicles can be a matter of business survival.

"There has long been an aversion to new technology and new approaches in heavy trucking," said Peter Nesvold, a transportation analyst at Bear Stearns. "But as costs of fuel rise higher, that's changing."

This fall, in an attempt to appease the conflicting desires of truckers for classic-looking vehicles and improved fuel economy, Navistar's International brand will start selling the LoneStar, an aerodynamic truck that slathers chrome over bumpers and grille while getting 5% to 15% better mileage than square-nosed trucks.

But Bob Weber, chief engineer for International, expects the company's new ProStar to be its bestseller. It lacks bling but offers the best mileage in the business. Weber says the truck gets as many as 7.5 miles per gallon -- practically Prius-like in the trucking world.

"Aerodynamics is huge," said Weber, who explained that wind resistance can account for more than half of a truck's fuel consumption at highway speeds.

Another factor is velocity. In general, the faster a truck goes, the more fuel it uses per mile. Although many drivers are resistant, some fleets have begun using electronic regulators that cap speed, often well below legal limits. Last week, the American Trucking Assn. proposed setting a nationwide top speed for trucks at 65 mph.

Two major trucking companies, Con-Way Inc. and Schneider National Inc., said this month they would dial back their speedometers, Con-Way to 65 mph from 70 and Schneider to 60 mph from 63.

Dennis Damman, director of engineering for Schneider, the nation's largest privately held trucking company, said that for each mile of speed reduced below 65 mph, a truck saves 1.5% in fuel consumption.

"The days of 75 miles per hour on the road are gone," he said.

Fleets, meanwhile, are also using increasingly complex computer programs that calculate the most efficient route possible and minimize the time without revenue-producing loads, said Clayton Boyce, an American Trucking Assn. spokesman. Those programs, he said, can even tell drivers where they should stop for fuel and when to rest.

Rest stops are themselves a fuel issue. Today's trucks have air conditioning, entertainment systems and even video games, all of which require electricity -- and most truckers get it by idling their hulking, 600-horsepower diesel engines. That can churn through several gallons of fuel in an hour.

Now more truckers are installing a small onboard diesel generator, called an alternate power unit, that runs in the engine's place. Truckers used to eschew APUs because they can cost as much as $10,000, but with high diesel prices, the devices can pay for themselves in little more than a year.

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