Reefer Carriers Warm Up to Smart Trailer Tech for Cold Chain Logistics

Business Accelerants CEO Paul Menig, shown at the Technology & Maintence Council Annual Meeting in March, has more than 40 years of engineering experience in truck manufacturing. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)

[Find the latest in equipment & maintenance: Explore this quarter's issue of Calibrate]

Paying attention to the details in cold chain logistics can save customers and carriers cold hard cash — especially for those companies that are investing in the latest technological advancements. That’s why American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council is turning its sights to the study of refrigerated trailer operations.

This month, TMC is making available a new information report titled “North American Refrigerated Trailer Survey Report: Next Generation Trailer Expectations.” Developed in cooperation with eSMART, a collaboration between Business Accelerants and WillGo Transportation Consulting, the information report benchmarks the operations of 33 fleets representing an estimated 20% of all refrigerated trailers and domestic containers produced during the last seven years in North America, and about 12% of all refeer units in North American operation overall.

The safety of food and pharmaceutical distribution is paramount. Technology already is providing detailed tracking from the field to the home in this important segment of the trucking industry. Both the federal government and nationwide retailers are driving innovation to ensure deliveries are completed successfully while overcoming challenges associated with equipment maintenance, shipping issues, traffic conditions, weather and driver availability.



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The latest report builds on the success of the collaboration’s first effort, in June 2021, which explored the use and adoption of intelligence products and services across the industry with an examination of adoption of the trailer rental and lease fleet sector. The previous report, “TMC IR-2021-1: North American Trailer Rental/Lease Company Survey Report — Next Generation Trailer Expectations,” an analysis of smart trailer technologies currently employed by North American trailer rental/lease companies, is available by contacting TMC.

TMC’s June 2021 study identified refrigerated carriers as early adopters of technology driven by the need to track temperatures and the high cost of failures. This new study provides extensive data on typical trailer configurations, refrigerated trailer life, transportation refrigeration unit expectations, challenges for technology, return on investment decision criteria and more.

The initial study showed that refrigerated fleets were more likely than other carrier types to adopt new electronics technology on the trailer. For instance, where as the data at that time suggested less than 25% of trailers had trailer-tracking electronics, 65% of refrigerated trailers had the same technology and some with more for controlling the transportation refrigeration unit.

“In short, it’s because we expect as much change in technology for the trailer in the next 30 years as we’ve seen in the tractor in the last 30 years,” said co-principal investigator Paul Menig, CEO of Business Accelerants. “The effort started in early 2019 with a panel discussion at one of our many industry trade association meetings. This led to the formation of two task forces at TMC to look at the electrical architecture needed in the future on the trailer and how the connection to the tractor will need to change.

“Twenty-five years ago, I was involved in discussions for the trailer connection as the trailer ABS regulation came into effect in 2001. So, to start this effort, we did a short survey to find out where fleets are today with using one and two connectors. As expected, the percentage of trailers with more than a single connector has grown considerably.”

Menig has more than 40 years’ engineering experience in truck manufacturing during his tenures at Eaton Transmission and Daimler Truck North America.

From this emerged the rationale to launch an analysis of smart trailer technologies currently employed by North American trailer rental/lease companies. Placing a laser-focus on the refrigerated trailer sector has proved useful at learning important insights on the early adoption of smart trailer technology.

What drives the refrigerated carriers to invest in technology?

“It’s probably not a surprise that it is regulations,” said Menig. “The key regulations are food safety rules, specifically the Food Safety and Modernization Act. Already this year, the FDA has issued 44 recalls. The second most-­important rule is the California Air Resource Board rules for transportation refrigeration units. Sixty-nine percent of the trailers covered by the survey are already CARB-­compliant. Given the life of a trailer, the carriers wanted to get a head start on this regulation.”

This latest TMC report provides a wealth of information for fleets and suppliers to help them benchmark specifications and practices over a wide range of areas.

“I believe the value they will gain from benchmarking best practices and specifications will be worth the initial cost of the report and time invested in studying it,” said co-­principal investigator Charles Willmott of WillGo Transportation Consulting. Willmott has extensive experience in the trailer business with leadership positions at the Strick Cos., Xtra Corp. and Solomon Tri-Modal.

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The report reveals valuable lessons with respect to carrier perceptions of smart trailer technology benefits, challenges, opportunities and disappointments. For example, survey data indicates carriers hold a high expectation of receiving tangible improvement from smart products in numerous areas of operational efficiency. However, their views on the life cycle and maintenance of smart products or the proper integration of smart data with the carrier TMS is more reserved. Some of the biggest disappointments identified with smart technology include equipment failures, battery life and issues with replacement parts.

The report dives into a number of important topics including how smart trailer data is used, what influences smart technology investment, how fleets establish return-on-­investment metrics and carriers’ plans for smart trailer technology.

TMC thanks several companies that helped create the survey, reach out to fleets and get information out to industry. Level 1 Outreach Sponsors — Clarience Technologies and Wabash — recognized early on the importance of the survey and helped with reviewing the questions. Level 2 Outreach Sponsors — Peterson Manufacturing, Cal/Amp and Orbcomm — helped get the word out to the industry through our April 27 webinar during which the report was released.

A recording of the April 27 webinar is available through TMC – for more information, visit http://tmcconnect.trucking.org (select TMC Webinars tab). To purchase the full version of the information report, call TMC at (703) 838-1763 or email tmc@trucking.org.

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