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February 6, 2012

Free tires and 11 mpg

Just recently, I stopped in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where I spent one of the finest days I can remember touring Mesilla Valley Transportation with Jimmy Ray, the co-founder and equipment guru of this dry freight carrier. Mesilla Valley, or MVT as they call it, is a stand-out fleet, one of the largest in New Mexico and West Texas. It’s just a stone’s throw away from historic Old Mesilla, a particularly noteworthy monument to the pioneering west.

MVT itself is a pioneer in many ways. It probably has the best fleet fuel mileage of any trucking operation in North America.

You may have seen their bright blue International Prostars on the highway. They’re very distinctive with wide single tires on tractor and trailer, full trailer skirts and aerodynamic wheel covers and, most recently, boat-tail extensions to the rear of the trailers. What you don’t see is that these tractors have a 6x2 drive configuration and tall, tall 2.50 gearing in the Meritor drive axle.

A 6x2 is not popular with the mainstream and I asked Jimmy Ray if it was hard to sell the trucks used. “Not round here,” he said. These trucks will get 8 mpg for any driver so there’s a line of buyers waiting for them.”

MVT is a thoughtfully run fleet that likely has a fleet average fuel economy into the 9s. (They are very guarded as to the actual number as it is part of their competitive advantage.) And their Driver of the Year for 2011 scored better than 11 mpg for the year.

One extremely interesting nugget came out of the conversation with Jimmy (can’t call him by his last name as he is as “Aw shucks” as you can get) is that the carrier has two Ventech Pneuscan tire pressure monitors, one at each of its two terminals.

This is an interesting technology I first saw introduced at the MidAmerica Trucking show two years ago. Basically, it’s a scanner that looks at the footprint of every tire as it rolls across an in-pavement strip. From the profile of the footprint, the Pneuscan gives a very accurate assessment of the tire pressure. Jimmy says in the first year, they scanned 600,000 tires. Of course, MVT trucks and trailers run on ultra-low profile singles, but the technology works equally well on duals.

As an extra bonus, Pneuscan also looks at tread depth and will flag tires that are ready for recaps. It’s very smart.

And it’s worth noting that MVT also uses Tire Lyna to protect against puncture flats. Jimmy says with these technologies his tires are free compared with fleets that have to deal with road calls and other tire issues. Let me reiterate. Jimmy says MVT tires are free when all the costs are taken into account: lack of road calls, no tire-related delivery service failures and the fuel savings that the super-wide tires give them. Their rubber is effectively free. And given that tires are the number one equipment maintenance cost, it’s not just remarkable, it’s an insight into how well this fleet is run.

I’m not surprised. It’s par for the course for MVT.

In the case of the pressure-monitoring Pneuscan, the system detects the tire pressure and displays it for the driver of the vehicle, it can also recognizes the vehicle by reading the license plate and then export the values to a fleet’s tire management software as an Excel flat file.

I thought it pretty brilliant when I first saw it, but to hear the success MVT is having with it makes me even more excited. (Take a look at www.ventechusa.com for more info.) The device reads tire pressure and tread depth as a vehicle rolls over the scan strip at speeds to 16 mph. Using the in-ground sensor strip, a fleet can keep track of tire pressures and no longer require drivers or technicians to get out the gauge and stick the tires one at a time.

The Pneuscan system has been available in North America for about three years now and has been at MVT for a little more than a year.

According to Ventech sales manager Ed Santorella, fleets with vehicles that can cross the sensor every few days have the most to gain as the system can spot slow leaking tires before they become a problem. Already a number of bus companies are using the Pneuscan system with great results, he says. And Ventech is making inroads with an increasing number of trucking fleets.

The strip in the road surface comprises a series of load sensors. As the tires roll across the sensor strip, the Pneuscan measures the weight on each tire and the area of each tire contact patch. From the data, it calculates the pressure in the tire. For the two wheels on a dual pair, it calculates the individual tire pressures and can differentiate when one tire may be at a low pressure and the weight is transferred over to the fully inflated tire.

The information is displayed locally on a display board for the driver. Flashing lights indicate the status of the readings and a red light means a problem. The driver can then take the vehicle to the appropriate lane to have pressures verified, have the tire aired up or have it replaced.

But while this is an excellent way to detect tire problems, it is the management side of things that attracts me. To have the data posted to the vehicle means a maintenance manager has almost daily reports on tires that are underinflated and can act in real time to address the problem. Since the device also measures tread depth, the system can flag tires that are ready for removal and retread. And the maintenance manager can be confident the casing of the tire is in good condition because it has always been correctly inflated.

The system is not inexpensive, as you may imagine. But even $80,000 should see a swift payback given the cost of roadside service and the overwhelming frequency of tire problems over any other that causes a vehicle to sit stranded by the side of the road. MVT’s found the investment has paid for itself over and over in just a year.

Pneuscan is best installed in a shop, says Santorella, or at least under a cover to protect it from overheating in direct sunlight. He thinks the systems would be ideal installed in truckstops so drivers could pass over in much the same way they do with scales. The truckstop could develop a revenue stream by reporting back to fleets or diverting trucks for tire repairs in its own shop.

The system might also be a boon to heavy-haul operators with trucks and trailers running on multiple axles. The device has no limit to the number of axles on a single vehicle that it can measure and display. If more than six axles cross the strip, the system knows to wait until all axles have crossed before sending information to the display.

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