Bottom Line
Truckstop electrification: Let’s not rush

Paul Abelson
Technical Editor

In previous issues of Land Line, you read about the wonders of truckstop electrification (TSE). By merely plugging in to a 110V outlet, the way boats and RVs do, we won’t have to idle ever again. Our batteries always will be fully charged, our engines ever warm, we’ll save thousands of gallons of fuel per truck and the thousands of dollars that the fuel costs. The industry’s total fuel savings would exceed 840 million gallons of diesel per year. The typical over-the-road truck would, according to the Department of Energy (DOE), save 4,680 gallons over three years, adding more than $7,000 to the operator’s bottom line. The Argonne National Laboratory, the DOE, truckstop operators and electric utilities are all behind this. It seems like wiring our truckstops is the ideal solution. Or is it?

I believe in anti-idling measures, but we should not make anti-idling laws until truckers have adequate, practical alternatives that will satisfy the needs that make truckers idle now.

I am against idling because it costs far more than we realize. Truckers pay a high price in fuel, maintenance, engine life and health. We’ve seen the fuel savings above and in previous issues. Even if the projections are optimistic (I believe they are conservative) it’s a lot of money. The Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC) projects that idling shortens engine life by about 20 percent, or 100,000 miles over five years. For owner-operators who buy used equipment and run it for significant periods, that could mean having to overhaul the engine or letting the next owner assume those costs.

But the most compelling reasons not to idle are the collective effects on driver health. Sleep quality must be affected when a big bore engine sets up resonant vibrations between 16 and 18 cycles per second (950 to 1100 rpm). This frequency range is close to what irritates the human nervous system. That alone would cause us to sleep poorly. Add to that the quality of air at truckstops, and it’s no wonder truckdrivers suffer from a myriad of health problems, up to and including a high rate of cancer. Truckstop air quality is among the worst in the world, due to idling trucks. It is loaded with soot, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide.

For all these reasons, I am against idling. But, is truckstop electrification the way to go? Anti-idling technologies have been around for years. There are fuel-fired heaters for engines and sleepers that burn with a continuous flame. They have no vibrations and virtually no emissions. Generators burn a fraction of the fuel big bore engines do, with a fraction of the emissions. They run at higher speeds, so vibrations are not a problem. Inverters let us run household (110V) appliances as long as our batteries hold out. With an isolated, deep-cycle battery or even two, it could be quite a while.

But, the argument goes, with truckstops wired for shore power, you won’t need heaters and generators and extra air conditioners. But, there are a number of questions about truckstop electrification. First and foremost, who will bear the cost? Power companies like the idea because they’ll sell more of their product. But I haven’t seen one willing to subsidize installations costing more than a $1,000 per parking space. Truckstop operators are calling for government subsidies or outright funding. That is unlikely, so the costs will be passed on to the truckers.

Where will the additional electricity come from? California is already facing a power crisis. The advocates of TSE believe we all will draw power only during off-peak hours. How many of us will give up driving at night just to get electricity? What will be the effects of whatever hours-of-service regulations we wind up with?

If everyone rests during off-peak hours, where will we get the additional 220,000 parking spaces we will need? That, by the way, assumes all 238,000 current spaces will be wired at the same rate trucks are fitted with shore power devices.

Currently, we rely on fossil fuels (gas, oil and coal) to generate electricity, because no one wants new nuclear power plants. “The solution,” according to Dr. Jules Routbort, Argonne National Laboratory, “is to put a nuclear reactor in every truckstop. It’s a non-polluting energy source, a constant source, it won’t drain the power grid and it doesn’t give off greenhouse gases. We just need somewhere to reprocess the spent fuel, still with 90 percent of its energy. It’s a political question, not a scientific one.” That seems like an extreme solution, but if we’re going to have electrified truckstops, it may be the only power source that makes sense.

Meanwhile, the industry soon will transition to more electrically driven accessories (starters, power steering, cooling fans, oil pumps and air conditioners) as 42-volt vehicle electrical systems phase in. These are more efficient, by a factor of 10, than are current systems requiring fan belts and gears to drive the accessories. With augmented deep-cycle power, we’ll be able to run the most efficient systems such as fuel-fired heating, 42-volt air conditioning and 110-volt TVs and refrigerators, no matter where we have to park – without having to idle.

I’d hate to see huge amounts of money spent on inefficient systems, when in a few years, technology may make those systems obsolete. Let’s learn from PNV (aka Park ’N View). They and their truckstop customers spent huge amounts buying and installing hardware that was prone to damage, and will be rendered obsolete by broadband wireless technology in the very near future.

I say, let’s not rush into truckstop electrification until we examine all the ramifications of such a decision. There are alternatives to idling now, and the future will bring only more efficient ones. That’s my opinion, not necessarily Land Line’s or OOIDA’s. Take it for what it’s worth.