Commentary: The average truck

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At some point in nearly every cost/benefit discussion of technology for trucking the term “average truck” will get thrown on the table. Throw “average” in front of anything and it somehow gains credibility and meaning, right?

Rick Mihelic is the director of Future Technology Studies for the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE)Rick Mihelic is the director of Future Technology Studies for the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE)

Alternative phrases are “average miles per gallon,” “average vehicle miles traveled,” “average freight efficiency,” “average duty cycle,” “average return on investment,” “average payback period,” “average fleet,” “average driver,” and on and on.

Sorry to burst your bubble but there is no such thing as an average truck. Want proof? Go try to buy the “average truck” — new or used – off the lot at your local dealership. Try to order one. Ask the dealer to find all the highest use options ordered by all customers for trucks and put them all on one truck.

In some cases that’s not even technically possible, as many of the options are incompatible with each other. In other cases, the market has different priorities. For example, a bulk hauler may invest in lightweighting to maximize payload, so they want wide base tires, lightweight aluminum or other materials that typically carry a cost premium.

Others are looking for greater durability and lower cost, are less sensitive to weight and prefer dual tires and steel components. Turns out there are millions of possible combinations of option content for trucks. Complexity rules when defining trucking.

Several times in my career I have had to define a current baseline vehicle to serve as the comparison point for a new truck design. It’s tough.

The use of “average” requires context for it to be relevant. Take average payload as an example, using just one fleet to keep it simple. A fleet in NACFE’s Run On Less Regional demonstration hauled light snacks from a factory to a distribution center on the outbound run, then found a heavy commercial load to backhaul. After dropping the backhaul, the return trip back to the depot was empty. The average weight is only marginally useful in this case and certainly is not useful for designing a vehicle that can do it all.

Another example is a bulk hauler on a dedicated route. The outbound route is at maximum weight, the return is empty. That means that 50% of the time the truck is deadheading. Average weight useful? Probably not.

Knowing context matters. NACFE’s Annual Fleet Fuel Study shows in 2018 an average of 7.27 mpg for 21 leading edge fleets that invest in technology to improve fuel efficiency. The group represents roughly 100,000 tractors in North America. The Run On Less event in 2017 showed seven long haul examples that averaged 10.1 mpg.

Run On Less Regional in 2019 showed nine diesels and one CNG powered vehicles, where the diesels averaged 8.7 mpg. Meanwhile, the DOT Bureau of Transportation Statistics for Combination Truck Fuel Consumption and Travel shows the 2018 average as 6.1 mpg.

As I said before, averages require context to be useful.

As battery-electric and fuel cell-electric truck manufacturers start ramping up marketing campaigns, they will want to proclaim the superiority of their new technology over diesel. NACFE has shown in its series of four electric vehicle Guidance Reports that electric truck technology is promising.

Marketers and advocates will use comparisons to “average diesels.” Which averages will they use?  My hope is that they realize their customers are pretty experienced with their own trucks, drivers and operations. Credibility can win over customers.

Choosing the right baselines for comparison will be important. Choosing inappropriate baselines ultimately leads to discrediting future claims from that manufacturer, and indirectly leads to discrediting the entire industry.

The truck market is self-policing. Once the products are in the field, fleets know first-hand whether or not they live up to the advertising hype. Fleets tend to trust their own testing rather than accept marketing claims based on controlled tests, averages or supposedly typical conditions.

Those looking for long term growth, whether fleets or manufacturers, need to keep it real. Put the right new technologies in the right uses, and put the marketing claims in context of those real world uses.

Rick Mihelic is NACFE’s Director of Emerging Technology Studies. He has authored Guidance Reports on electric medium- and heavy-duty trucks, thought leadership papers on regional haul and defining production and Confidence Reports on determining efficiency, tractor aerodynamics, trailer aerodynamics, two truck platooning. President of Mihelic Vehicle Consulting LLC, he has 38 years’ experience in aerospace engineering and the trucking industry including 20 years in commercial vehicle development for Peterbilt. He was involved in the development of aerodynamic vehicles and groundbreaking systems including the Peterbilt/Cummins DOE SuperTruck. He was awarded the prestigious SAE L. Ray Buckendale Award in 2016.