industry articles

Professional drivers never know what they might encounter on their daily routes. But this summer, it’s a safe bet you’ll come across two of the most common danger zones on the road: railroad crossings and low bridges. Both situations require heightened awareness and vigilance to navigate safely. And failing to adhere to proper safety protocols can result in severe damage to your vehicle or cargo. If you’re not careful, these two types of hazards can lead to serious — and even life-threatening — crashes.

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Trucking is a penny business, and staying ahead requires constant improvement and optimization. Benchmarking is a powerful tool that helps fleets compare their key performance indicators (KPIs) and practices against industry standards or like-sized carriers, identify performance gaps and implement strategies for improvement.

Benchmarking can help fleets:

Drive Operational Efficiency: Analyzing benchmarking data can help fleets improve fuel economy, optimize routes, minimize empty miles and reduce idle time. It can also help fleets streamline workflows and improve overall productivity.

Improve Decision Making: Benchmarking provides valuable insights into fleet performance metrics, enabling data-driven decision-making. Fleets can track key metrics such as vehicle utilization, maintenance expenses and downtime to identify opportunities to enhance overall fleet performance.

Remain Competitive: Benchmarking helps fleets stay current on industry trends, emerging technologies and best practices. By benchmarking against innovative competitors and industry leaders, fleets can identify opportunities for strategic investments, new solutions or technology that can help them future-proof against market disruptions.

Tools to Benchmark Effectively

One of the challenges with benchmarking within the trucking industry is the wide range of equipment, applications and other variables that can affect operating conditions. Fleets need to find an accurate, comparable source for benchmarking to ensure they're getting information that is useful.

Penske has created several tools to give fleets reliable performance insights they can trust. These tools include:

Catalyst AI™: Penske has tapped into AI technology to leverage advanced machine learning algorithms and the rich, diverse live collection of Penske data in its new fleet benchmarking tool Catalyst AI™. The tool allows users to compare their fleets against similar fleets, giving new insight into fleet utilization, performance, efficiency and areas for improvement. The technology not only streamlines the fleet benchmarking process but also delivers actionable data-driven insights tailored to each customer's unique needs. Users can receive an immediate diagnosis of areas where they can improve and enhance the fleet's performance and fuel efficiency.

MPG Comparative Analysis Tool: Historically, it has been a challenge for fleets to get apples-to-apples comparisons due to the multiple variables affecting fuel economy. Penske has developed a comparative analysis tool to help fleets get miles-per-gallon benchmarking figures they can use. The tool captures key data from fleets, including the model year of their equipment, the regions where they operate and other variables, then compares it with like operations to provide a reliable number that has meaning.

Learn More

Contact us at 1-844-426-4555 to take advantage of the latest tools to help you compare, analyze and optimize your fleet.

The driver shortage remains a critical industry concern, and many carriers are having a hard time finding qualified drivers to fill the seats in heavy-duty Class 8 trucks. Bob Costello, chief economist for American Trucking Associations said the shortage tends to rise and fall with economic trends. While it has eased slightly, the underlying challenges, including an aging driver population and competition from other blue-collar careers, haven't disappeared.

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Software updates are a critical component of maintenance for Class 8 tractors. As with cellphones and laptops, software updates address bugs, provide security patches and improve features. Plus, some updates, such as those related to emissions, may be mandated by regulatory agencies, including the California Air Resources Board or the Environmental Protection Agency.

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Fleets are using technology to improve truck driver safety and shape driver habits. Onboard safety technology improves safety and can increase efficiency, reduce liability and cut costs — but fleets need to gain driver acceptance of any new solutions.

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Original equipment manufacturers are constantly developing new technology, safety enhancements and comfort features, and running late-model equipment can give fleets a competitive advantage. Benefits of new OEM technology include:

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Renewable diesel — an advanced fuel option that reduces greenhouse gas emissions while meeting the same specifications as petroleum diesel — can be added to existing fuel truck systems to help lower a fleet’s carbon footprint. As a drop-in fuel that can be used in place of ultra-low-sulfur diesel (ULSD), renewable diesel is helping bridge the gap as the trucking industry moves toward zero-emission vehicles without extra equipment or infrastructure cost related to battery-electric vehicles.

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Reducing emissions is a top priority among federal and state lawmakers, and the U.S. Department of Transportation has announced a new deadline — Feb. 1 — for state departments of transportation to establish transportation-related emission-reduction goals.

The federal government has also announced more than $27 billion in federal funding to help states reach their targets, including $5 billion to build out an electric vehicle charging network, $2.5 billion to deploy electric vehicle charging and hydrogen, propane and natural gas fueling infrastructure, and $400 million to reduce truck idling and emissions at ports.

The new requirements and funding are among several regulatory initiatives designed to improve sustainability, which is also taking on greater importance as customer, consumer and investor interest in companies’ environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals increases.

Fleets can reduce emissions in several ways, including turning to late-model equipment, deploying electric vehicles and using renewable diesel fuel.

Late-Model Equipment: Late-model equipment with significant fuel economy improvements, reducing emissions. The North American Council for Freight Efficiency’s 2022 Annual Fleet Fuel Study found that fuel efficiency for all heavy-duty Class 8 combination vehicles went from 5.97 to 6.24 mpg during the last three years.

Vehicle Selection: Spec’ing the right vehicle for the application improves efficiency and fuel economy while also reducing operating costs and the risk of mechanical failures. Different fleets have different needs, and a cross-country vehicle, for example, is spec’ed very differently than a tractor used in regional applications.

Aerodynamic Devices: Installing EPA-verified aerodynamic devices on tractors and trailers can save fuel by minimizing aerodynamic drag and maintaining smoother airflow. Technologies include side skirts (a pair of panels affixed to the lower side edges of a trailer) and trailer tails, both of which reduce drag.

Auxiliary Power Units: Auxiliary power units (APUs) reduce the need for idling, allowing fleets to reduce fuel costs, increase engine life and improve driver comfort. Fleets can choose either an electric APU that runs on batteries or a diesel-powered APU that runs on a small diesel engine that burns a small amount of fuel per hour. APUs could range from $8,500 to $12,500, but that cost is recouped in fuel savings over about two and a half years.

Preventive Maintenance: Preventive maintenance helps keep the tractor operating at peak performance, which has a direct impact on fuel economy. The North American Council for Freight Efficiency reported that fleets can achieve fuel savings between 5% and 10% through preventive maintenance.

Electric Vehicle Solutions: Penske has built and operates North America’s first heavy-duty EV charging network, and there are multiple paths to EV adoption. These include Class 8 trucks and light- and medium-duty equipment. Penske Truck Leasing offerings include the Freightliner eCascadia (class 8), Freightliner eM2 (class 6 and 7), Volvo VNR electric tractor (class 8), International® eMV™ (class 6 and 7), Ford E-Transit (Class 2), Orange EV e-Triever electric terminal truck (class 8 yard tractor), Freightliner Custom Chassis MT50e walk-in (class 5 and 6), and XOS walk-in (class 6).

Renewable Diesel Fuel: Renewable diesel fuel is a cleaner option that performs identically to ultra low sulfur diesel (ULSD) but has a well-to-wheel differential of 60% to 90%+ in greenhouse gas. Renewable diesel reduces particulate matter by more than 40%, carbon monoxide by more than 25%, total hydrocarbons by more than 20%, NOx by 10%, and lifecycle GHG emissions by up to 90%. Penske offers renewable diesel fuel at several locations on the West Coast.

Fleets are increasingly expected to be able to quantify their emission reduction efforts. Penske Truck Leasing has solutions, including an emissions calculator, to help fleets calculate savings and track results. Associates will also work with fleets to find the ideal equipment for their needs and test new technologies.

In trucking, uptime is critical, and no one wants to experience unscheduled maintenance, especially if it occurs while a driver is on the road. Unfortunately, mechanical failures happen, and when they do, keeping drivers and maintenance technicians providing emergency roadside services safe is the top priority.

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Snow, ice and freezing temperatures can increase the risk of downtime for all diesel vehicles if the equipment and fuel that power them aren’t properly maintained. Breakdowns can result in delayed drivers, missed deliveries and poor customer service.

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New regulations affecting fleet operations are increasing, and carriers must comply with existing requirements while keeping up with the latest changes. The federal government and some states are creating stricter emissions requirements. California often takes the lead at the state level, and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has adopted several measures that are being introduced or implemented in other states.

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Inspectors often focus on wheel ends, which include the wheels, rims, hubs and tires on a commercial motor vehicle. Wheel-end components support the heavy loads carried by commercial motor vehicles (CMVs), maintain stability and control, and are critical for braking.

Violations involving wheel-end components historically account for about one quarter of the vehicle out-of-service violations discovered during inspection blitzes, such as the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance’s International Roadcheck.

“Wheel ends contain numerous moving parts, whether it is the brake system, the bearings or the hubs, that can leak, wear or seize due to lack of preventive maintenance. Wheel end systems require routine daily pre- and post-trip inspections, and a sound maintenance program is key to reducing breakdowns,” said Chris Hough, vice president of maintenance design and engineering for Penske Truck Leasing.

Wheel-end failures may lead to a catastrophic crash. “When a wheel end component fails and you have a wheel run-off situation, major damage could result,” Hough said, adding that wheel-end fires often result from brake system air leaks that prevent the brakes from completely releasing.

Completing pre- and post-trip inspections is one of the best things drivers can do to help prevent issues. “Check the wheel-end brake system for air leaks, lubricant leaks, proper adjustment, etc., and when defects are discovered, write them up and have them addressed by a qualified technician before you dispatch the unit,” Hough said.

Wheel seals, lube levels, lug nuts and brake components are among items that should be inspected daily, Hough said. Drivers’ observations during the inspection are the first step in detecting a wheel-end problem.

CVSA has said that drivers may also find abnormal or uneven tire wear, see or smell smoking or extremely hot hubcaps (too hot to touch), notice smoke from a wheel end, or feel wheel vibration, wobble or noise. Increased stopping distance or decreased braking power, abnormal side pull when braking, wheel lock-up and skidding are all signs that wheel ends may need maintenance or replacement.

During the inspection of wheel ends on a commercial motor vehicle, inspectors will:

  • Check for cracks or unseated locking rings, studs or clamps
  • Check for bent, cracked or broken rims on the inside and outside wheel rims
  • Check for loose, broken, missing or damaged wheel fasteners and elongated stud holes
  • Check spoke wheels for cracks across spokes and in the web area or slippage in the clamp areas
  • Check the hub for lubricant leaks, missing caps or plugs
  • Check the inner wheel seal for leaks
  • Check the tire and valve stem for leaks
  • Check for improper inflation, cuts and bulges on all tires, including the inside tire on a dual set
  • Check for regrooved tires on steering axle
  • Check tread wear and measure major tread groove depth
  • Inspect the sidewall for improper repairs, such as tire plugs
  • Check for exposed fabric or cord
  • Check for tire contact with any part of the vehicle or another tire
  • Check for markings on the tire that would exclude its use on a steering axle
  • Check for debris between the tires
  • Check for tires touching one another or any part

Hough added that drivers and technicians also need to be careful not to over-torque lug nuts; over-torquing will stretch the studs. “Once a wheel stud is stretched, the stud will never maintain the correct torque,” he said.

The residual damage from over-torquing a lug nut could take months to develop, but eventually will cause problems. “A bolt/stud acts as a tension/clamping device when torqued properly. If over-torqued, it loses the ability to maintain the correct clamping force,” Hough said.

Wheel-end components are essential to safety, and properly maintaining and inspecting wheel ends, which include the wheels, rims, hubs and tires on a commercial motor vehicle, is essential for over-the-road performance.

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Under the Department of Transportation's Compliance Safety Accountability (CSA) program, the Safety Measurement System quantifies the on-road safety performance of carriers and drivers to identify candidates for interventions. The system relies heavily on data from roadside inspections, so every vehicle and driver violation counts. Fortunately, proper maintenance and driver training can prevent nearly all of the most frequent violations private fleets receive.

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The strategic utilization of trailers provides a scalable solution that helps fleets meet shifting transportation capacity or storage needs without the long-term commitment and expenses associated with adding trucks or leasing warehouse space.

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Maintenance of Class 8 vehicles is central to ensuring reliable, safe equipment, but maintaining, diagnosing and repairing equipment is a complex process. Ongoing training is essential for maintenance technicians to stay current on changes in equipment technology, increase their skills and grow their careers.

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Driver shortage issues have diminished as capacity has fluctuated. However, the fundamentals behind the driver shortage have not disappeared, and it remains a top industry concern. The right equipment and technology can appeal to drivers and give fleets a competitive advantage when building and retaining their pool of drivers.

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Thorough pre- and post-trip inspections help drivers and carriers meet federal safety standards and improve safety — and the results of roadside inspections can hurt or help carriers' safety scores depending on what law enforcement finds.

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Operational costs within trucking can vary significantly from year to year and even region to region. The American Transportation Research Institute’s (ATRI) 2023 Analysis of the Operational Costs of Trucking found that costs climbed to a new high in 2022 for the second year in a row, increasing by 21.3% over 2021 to $2.251 per mile. Costs surpassed $2 per mile for the first time since ATRI launched the report.

According to the report, “2022 broke the 2021 record for the costliest year to operate in the trucking industry – whether calculated with or without fuel.” The analysis is based on financial data from motor carriers of all sectors and fleet sizes. Carriers can use ATRI’s report as a benchmarking tool and glean insight into how to manage expenses.

The leading contributor to this increase again this year was fuel, which was 53.7% higher than in 2021. However, other line items also rose by double digits. Driver wages increased by 15.5% to $0.724 per mile, reflecting the ongoing industry effort to attract and retain drivers. Parts shortages and rising technician labor rates pushed repair and maintenance costs up 12% to $0.196 per mile. ATRI said atypical market conditions posed unique challenges for acquiring and maintaining equipment in 2022, so truck and trailer payments increased by 18.6%.

Even when fuel costs are removed, the marginal costs of trucking increased by 12%.

Costs per mile varied dramatically from region to region, with the highest coming out of the Southeast, where the marginal cost per mile was $2.303. It led all other regions in driver wages and benefits costs. In the Southwest, costs averaged $2.238, followed by the Northeast at $2.207. The cost per mile in the Midwest averaged $2.195, and the West’s average was $2.157.

Insurance costs were highest in the Southeast, where they were almost one cent per mile higher than the national average. Several of the most litigious states in the country are in the Southeast. The West had the highest fuel costs, and carriers in the Midwest spent the most per mile on truck and trailer payments as well as repair and maintenance. ATRI reported that insurance costs were highest in the Northeast, which contains both high crash rates and litigious states.

Driver wages and benefits costs both increased in 2022. Combined driver wages and benefits reached 93 cents per mile in 2022 for large carriers, up from 81 cents. For small carriers, driver wages and benefits costs averaged 81 cents per mile in 2022, up from 74 cents.

Also, many carriers offered bonuses to drivers in 2022. The average amount for safety bonuses decreased to $1,698 from $1,943 in 2021. However, starting bonuses averaged $2,373, up from $1,974, and retention bonuses increased to $1,272 from $1,055 in the last report.

ATRI also found that fleets continue to work to fill backhaul or deadhead miles to increase operational efficiency. In 2022, 15.4% of non-tanker carriers’ mileage was deadhead, on average, which is a slight increase from 2021’s 14.7% but better than 2020’s 17.2%.

Leases are one way for fleets to help control and manage expenses. Leases provide fixed, predictable monthly costs that fleets can use to plan in advance. Penske’s experts can work with potential customers on a cost-benefit analysis to identify the real ROI of a lease based on the fleet’s specific needs.