Tesla’s Uphill Battle in the Trucking Industry…

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There is no question that Elon Musk has changed the conversation as far as electric vehicles.  Musk, unlike his predecessors, focused on building an image of luxury and performance.

Electric powered vehicles, until the Tesla Model S arrived as an option, were boring, slow and impractical.  Now, while Musk’s cars still remain impractical for most people (both in terms of range and price) and while it remains to be seen whether or not his company could survive without corporate welfare, Tesla has at least undone some of the negative image of electric vehicles.

Tesla seems to be taking one more step in the direction of practicality with the introduction of commercial vehicle.  Semi, this latest opportunity for Musk to attract media attention, reminds me of something I would’ve drawn up in a middle school daydream: It has a sleek exterior, it is loaded up with LCD screens, it promises to perform at a level one would expect from a sports car, it is priced similar to other Class 8 trucks, and yet also makes me question if any experienced truck drivers were consulted in the design process…

Sure, middle school me would be salivating over this technological wonder.  However now, as one having had years of experience behind the wheel of a big rig, the center seating position, glare of screens, wheel fenders and charging times make it totally unappealing to me.

The ergonomic and design issues, obvious from a driver’s perspective, are covered in another former trucker’s article (click here if you want to know more about them) but there are more serious matters and practical concerns yet to be addressed.  Acceleration numbers and having the fastest truck on the road might increase coolness factor, but it might also leave all of your cargo on the road (or like the unmitigated disaster recalled unfondly from my days unloading trucks at the paint store) and distracts from questions of actual viability in the real world.

To many the promised 300-500 mile range and 30 minute recharging may seem wonderful. But, from a trucking industry standard, it is truly abysmal and completely impractical.  The range of an over-the-road diesel truck, with 250 gallons of fuel, is anywhere from 1000 to 2000 miles and it only takes fifteen minutes every other day to refill the tanks—multiple extra stops per day is intolerable given the current hours of service requirements.  

And, that’s assuming good conditions, what happens in cold weather when battery capacity is reduced by 40-50% like owners of other Telsa products have experienced?

It is no big secret that fossil fuels carry a greater amount of energy per pound than the alternatives currently available. This energy density is especially important in commercial trucking where every ounce of extra weight takes away from payload.  Batteries with the range Telsa has promised will certainly be very heavy and that will be a huge competive disadvantage.  It means you might need an additional Tesla truck to do what one diesel truck does—which wipes out any illusion of energy savings and cost effectiveness.

Then there is the question of longevity and servicing the truck.  It could very well be that the Tesla Semi will be completely reliable and go a million miles like a diesel truck.  But, even assuming that is the case, what sort of maintenance program and roadside assistance will they offer when things do inevitably go wrong?  Service infrastructure is a more significant in commercial trucking than it is in general.  Diesels are relatively easy to work on and the network is already established—those are questions that must be answered.

My own back-of-the-napkin analysis, based in what has already been said and can be reasonably assumed, is that this new Tesla offering will have the same liabilities of other battery electric vehicles except on a far larger scale.  The question of Tesla being the future of trucking (or is simply a niché vehicle for those who can afford the unavoidable range and weight disadvantages, as well as potential maintenance issues) is not answered.

Trucking companies, unlike wealthy luxury car buyers aided by government subsidies, need to be profitable and competive to survive.

What do my trucker friends think?

From Truck Driver To Truss Designer

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Trucking paid well, but being on the road all week, like a vagabond, was not ideal—especially not for someone who wants to marry and have a family someday.

So, after seven years (going on eight) I had resolved to find another job by the end of the year.  After being off for an extended period of time to rehab a torn ACL I figured that I owed my employer one more year, but after that my plan was to find something else.

However, the whole year had almost passed and nothing opened up.  Finally, after hearing of another driving opportunity and decided that a job change would be sufficient enough, I decided to change companies for what seemed like a better gig and keep on truckin’…

Well, God must be a comedian, almost immediately after signing the papers for the new driving job the right opportunity came along.  My friend, Titus Kuhns, was vacating his position as truss designer and that presented a unique opportunity for me.

But, I had a bit of a quandary…

Was it right to quit a job I had just taken?

The first day on my new trucking job, when things weren’t quite as anticipated, was enough to convince me to make the jump right then.  I sent a text to Titus expressing my interest in the design job and stopped in for a visit at Triple D Truss later that week—I pretty much committed on the spot.

My training would start a few months later in the beginning of April.  My old boss agreed to take me back until then (no point in me learning a new trucking job when I was already an expert at hauling commodities) and so I had my encore in the old blue Pete.

First impressions…

I’ve never worked in an office before, let alone for an Amish business, and didn’t really know what to expect.

Office hours started at 6:30am and, after a thirty-eight mile commute, I was a few minutes early.  So, figuring there was safety in numbers, I waited for Titus to arrive and then followed him in.

The office has a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.  That morning (and every morning since) my coworkers in the office all greet me with a pleasant “good morning, Joel!”  That day, not really knowing the program, I mumbled my reply and followed Titus to his desk upstairs.

John, one of the co-owners, seems to set the tone for the office.  He is upbeat, energetic, generous, and most importantly (for a fledging designer) a reassuring voice.  He sort of bounces up the stairs, often has a broad smile on his face, and hardly has anything bad to say about anyone.

The other part of the partnership, Dan, is a bit more awkward on the surface, but is also every bit as friendly and understanding as John.

Next in line is ever cool and collected Nathaniel, his charisma makes him a great dispatcher and excellent salesman—he possess youthful enthusiasm that is contagious and a curiosity that will likely take him far.

And the newbie of the group (besides yours truly) is Norman, who does some of the random office tasks (with Mary and Linda who work part time) and is only sixteen.

Oh, and did mention that everyone in the office, including the bosses) is ten years younger than me?

Yup, somehow I’m the old guy now, not sure how that happened…

Anyhow, let the training begin!

Titus seemed to be playing game of Tetris, except one that involved designing an endless variety of trusses, while juggling the phone, and doing a multitude of other small tasks—like creating their office forms.  The pile of stuff was overwhelming to my novice eyes and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up.

What would happen when Titus left in a month?

I designed trusses on my first day.  The design software, I learned, is occasionally cantankerous and will crash if you do things out of sequence or in what appeared to be random intervals to a complete rookie.  But my natural aptitudes combine with a good teacher meant that I learned quickly.

The highlight that month—besides wonderful home cooked meals with Titus, his wife Daisy and adorable baby Rowan—was the week of training in Dallas Texas.  Everything was paid, I ran around in my blaze orange Dodge Challenger rental (a free upgrade) and was taught to use the 3D layout software.  I even had time to connect with an old friend, Richard Miller, and ate some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had.

Then it was back to Mill Hall.  Titus was moving to Ohio at the end of the week and would leave me as the solo truss designer.  I had many questions about how the next few weeks would transpire and didn’t entirely share the confidence of my trainer and co-workers.

Time to sink or swim…

My hope was to start Monday with a clear desk.  I was slightly terrified by the layouts leftover from Friday and were now entirely my responsibility.

It my job to ensure that the quotes arrived to the customers and truss prints made it to the shop in a timely manner.  The designers desk is at an important crossroads in the office.  If I don’t get my work done production would grind to halt.

The first couple weeks were stressful, I was swamped, and my neck was sore because I was so tense.  My brother Kyle described my job as “speaking order into chaos” and chaos seemed inevitable in the absence of my concentrated efforts.

Fortunately Titus was only a phone call away and, if things got too out of control, the metal plate vendor (whose software I was using) has designers and engineers on staff to take the overflow.  Still, it was my job to coordinate the effort and keep chaos at bay.

After a few more weeks (and some overtime hours) I was fully in control of my work environment.  It was nice to end the day with a desk clear of work.  I had encountered the full range of what would be required of me and came out with my head still above water.

With each passing week keeping up has gotten easier and easier and more recently I have another problem.

The new problem?

Not being challenged.

Lately I’ve found myself facing a clean desk and blank screen.  This partly the result of things slowing down from the spring rush, but also because I am getting better at knowing where to start and also when a truss is basically as good as it will get and, more importantly, how to avoid the time consuming pitfalls of the software.

“An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them.” (Werner Heisenberg)

I might not be a truss design expert yet, but I’ve made good progress and have gained plenty of confidence in my abilities.

It is great finally getting paid to do something that I’m especially gifted to do.  I love when I’m described as “the engineer” (my work is backed up by someone certified) and especially enjoy walking through the yard seeing completed projects knowing my part in the process.  

It is even more rewarding when your trusses end up installed in your uncle’s new truck shop.

Being on top of things has afforded me the opportunity to work beside the guys on the truss shop floor, which is fun.  It is also fun being the only non-Amish employee (other than the truck drivers) and especially that I share a last name with three in the office including one of the owners.

Overall the transition from gear jamming to desk jockey has been a smooth one.

The End of the Run

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It is my last day on the job with Northern Tier Transportation and, appropriately enough, I’m stuck at Mt Pocono waiting on a load.  This week has been a proper end to eight years of hauling commodities.  It ended where it began.

For the first few months driving I had been making a regular run of ‘midds’ (wheat middlings) down from a flour mill in Mt Pocono to Cooperative Milling in Gettysburg.  

That regular trek up and down the foggy interstate 81 through Harrisburg, sometimes stopping at Cracker Barrel or Perkins, abruptly stopped.  It had been steady work for months and then circumstances forced a change.  

That has been the pattern.  We establish a regular ritual, rates change, and it is on to something else.  Nothing lasts forever in the trucking industry.

But the past couple weeks I’ve been to Gettysburg again for the first time in years.

This week I had two runs to Gettysburg.

A trip down memory lane.

The quirky guy with a mustache who once unloaded me has since retired.  However, there are some things that have remained unchanged, like the driver ahead of me and his complaints about the lack of urgency.  Hourly mill workers and truck drivers have a different time perspective.  We need to get unloaded or else we might get stuck waiting overnight if delayed.  They clock out go home at the end of their day regardless.

I also said goodbye to Brenda.  I will miss my hour long chats with her while getting loaded with poultry meal in Moorefield West Virginia—I have been been there twice a week with consistency over the past year.  She took over (after the prior load out guy left his wife and ran off with a female truck driver) and knew how to get things done.  I was impressed by her management compared to her predecessor.  I hardly ever had to wait.  We quickly became good friends and her encouragement has meant so much for my confidence.

Anyhow, last night I had anticipated this.  Mt Pocono is unpredictable and there was inclement weather on the way.  However, it was already late when I unloaded, I was out of hours, and so I left for my last load into the snow early this morning instead.

It was not too bad on the road besides other drivers.  I was impatient because a minute too long could mean getting to the mill after rather than before another truck and add an extra hour or two added to my work day.

It is Mt Pocono where I learned “hurry up and wait” or a phrase truckers use to describe the contradictions too common to the industry.  In other words, the times when your dispatcher tells you to be there yesterday and then (after moving heaven and earth to get there) you arrive ahead of schedule only to end up waiting hours.  I call it “Camp Pocono” because I’ve spent many hours here waiting on product.

The wait also means that I will need to find a way to clear my tarp (at a place that prohibits any reasonable way of accomplishing that task) and that is not something that I’m looking forward to.  Had there not been a line, with hours to wait as they make feed, I would not have to imperil myself by crawling across the canvas with a broom.  I will not miss that.

Overall my experience has been good.  I appreciate my boss, Ernie, for his putting up with my high expectations.  I respect him for what he has built over the time I’ve been driving for him.  He went from one truck and trailer when I started to a decent sized company today.  I am glad to have contributed to his success and appreciate all he has done for me.

Well, I’m probably going to be here until 5:00pm.  There’s a restaurant at the top of the hill and I’m a frequent customer.  It is good exercise.  I don’t get to choose where I am and would rather be home (a little over an hour away) than here, but I plan to make the most of my time.  It is time for some lunch.  Into the snow I go.

God bless!