Trains of trucks

The modern herd that thunders across the American prairie/Craig Medred photo


OGALLALA, Neb. – Rolling west on the interstate highway system through the American Heartland, it’s hard to avoid wondering if Jeff Bezos isn’t responsible for adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than anyone since Henry Ford.

Ford brought the world the Model T widely credited with starting a revolution destined to make hydrocarbon-powered motor vehicles the everyman and everywoman form of daily transport by the end of 20th century.

Bezos, near the start of the 21st century, started selling all sorts of goods at, a website he started in 1993 to sell books with only a hunch as to how the internet might change commerce.

The boom in online business that followed in Amazon’s footsteps can now be largely tracked in the tonnage of freight moving on U.S. highways. It climbed slowly from less than 7.5 billion tons at the start of the new millennium to 8.8 billion tons by 2008, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Tonnage fell when the Great Recession began in earnest along about the same time, but then exploded after 2010 as the U.S. began to emerge from that economic catastrophe and e-commerce really took off.

Driven by wants as much or more than by needs, American consumers embraced the internet with fingers flashing across keyboards. Suddenly, you didn’t need a store to shop.

You could order almost anything by computer from the comfort of your sofa or kitchen counter or anywhere and have it shipped to your door.

Correlation is not causation, but it is hard to find any other good reason for truck tonnage to soar from 7.5 billion tons in June of 2009 to 12 billion tons in August 2019.

This 60 percent increase – unprecedented in U.S. history – is now in-your-face visible in the sheer number of trucks on the road.

Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

Buy, buy, buy

The trend caught the attention of the U.S. Federal Reserve a half-decade ago.

“A few simple observations,” the Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) blog observed in late 2016: “The United States is large. Americans buy things often. So, all kinds of goods get hauled over great distances all the time.”

The post was headlined “Cargo is cloudy for planes, ships slip and trains don’t gain, but trucks are in luck and pipelines are fine.”

A boots-on-the-ground look at the scene a half-decade later leads to the conclusion the trucking business powering across the plains and prairies of the U.S. and punching through the mountains is doing more than just fine.

The trucking business is doing so much better than fine that a goodly number of trucks sport backdoor signs advertising for more drivers.

National media have reported a “widespread shortage of truck drivers” as the demand for cross-country trucking of goods has grown.

 The driver shortage is such that an ABC News affiliate in Alabama said some lawmakers in the South are considering changing laws to allow teenagers with commercial driver’s licenses to drive trucks across state lines. 

And this comes as highway accidents involving trucks are steadily climbing. Policy Advice, an insurance consultancy, reported:

  • A 52 percent increase in truck accidents since 2009.
  • Seventy-four percent of fatal passenger vehicle accidents now involve a large truck.
  • And 68 percent of all truck fatalities are passenger vehicle occupants.

The dangers of the huge number of tractor-trailer rigs on U.S. highways have begun to attract some attention.

“…Fatal truck wrecks are growing at a clip almost three times the rate of deadly crashes overall,” the Kansas City Star reported in the fall of 2018.

“More than 4,300 people were killed in collisions with semis and other large trucks in 2016, a 28 percent increase over 2009, according to the federal government. It would be equal to a 737 airliner crashing twice a month, killing all on board.”

“Those should be eye-opening numbers,” John Lannen of the Truck Safety Coalition told the newspaper. “If air carriers or railroads reported similar numbers, there would be national outrage.”

The newspaper later editorialized for federal regulations to mandate forward collision warning systems, a theme picked up by some other mainstream media.

Carbon footprint

Carbon dioxide emissions from the growing fleet have attracted far less attention, but they have not gone wholly unnoticed.

Today’s Trucking magazine in November published a story headlined “Freight’s carbon footprint soaring,” which cited Canadian researchers warning that greenhouse gas emissions from trucks could surpass those of passenger vehicles by the end of the decade.

The problem, the magazine noted, isn’t just the long-haul, tractor-trailer rigs that years ago passed trains as the main way of moving freight across the country, but the growing number of trucks everywhere.

“As urbanization, economic activity, online shopping and the demand for same-day home delivery increases, the number of delivery trucks and vans on the streets of our cities is growing,”  according to Maddy Ewing, a transportation and urban solutions analyst at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian think tank.

Ewing addressed the Smart Freight Symposium 2020 last fall where she presented an Institute graph that fingered trucks as the biggest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in a world trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

While passenger vehicle manufacturers are electrifying and ship manufacturers are turning to liquified natural gas (LNG) to reduce emissions, truck manufacturers are struggling to settle on a cleaner source of fuel.

Aside from improvements in clean-diesel technology, the trucking industry has seen little in the way of an emissions cleanup. A Tesla electric semi-truck unveiled amid much fanfare in 2017 isn’t expected to become available until this year and demand for the vehicle remains an unknown.

At this time electric, natural gas and hydrogen vehicles all appear to remain in the mix with manufacturers other than Tesla. Few of these alternative fuel vehicles are on the road. They are largely experimental.

“It’s early days on these technologies right now as far as their readiness for commercialization,” Paccar CEO Preston Feight confessed to in July. “There will be some invention; there will be some cost downs during the coming few years. Our goal is to make sure that we’re in a position to provide our customers the lowest operating cost vehicles, whenever the market is ready for them when there is infrastructure, when there is regulation and when the technology is ready.”

The manufacturer of Peterbilt and Kenworth trucks in the U.S., Paccar is a major player in the trucking business both nationally and internationally. A Fortune 500 company, it is ranked as the fourth biggest truck manufacturer in the world based on global revenues. 

The caveats loom large in Feight’s outline of Paccar’s move to low-carbon or carbon-free trucks. It would seem trucks will continue to spew a lot of carbon dioxide into the near future as they have in the near past.

Bezos can’t be blamed for all of the increase of greenhouse gases linked to truck emissions, and in Amazon’s defense, the company has promised to reach net-zero-carbon emissions businesswide by 2040 – a promise easier to make than to keep.

But Bezos was the biggest playing in setting in motion the changes that moved markets to where they are today with e-commerce tripling since 2011 and still steadily growing,  according to Census Bureau tracking.

Though brick and mortar stores have been largely holding their own, Freight Pros observed that “2017 was the worst year on record for traditional retail, a year in which stores announced more than 6,700 closures. By the end of 2017, that number came to 6,985. This is a trend that will continue through 2018 as online retailers keep chipping away at the brick and mortar storefront. As the top e-retailer, Amazon is leading the online charge that shows no signs of letting up.”

That trend of the 2010s has accelerated in the wake of the global pandemic, but some of the data on retails sales would also appear to indicate Bezos helped create something of a feedback loop, with the ease of online shopping drive an overall increase in the country’s consumer frenzy to buy, buy, buy.

There is no denying the way Amazon changed the market. It drove every major retailer from Walmart, number one in the list of the top 100, to Nieman Marcus, number 93, to up their online game.

Walmart online today looks a lot like Amazon, which has helped the former maintain sales more than twice those of Amazon, now ranked as the second-largest retailer in the country. 

Americans can thank Bezos – the Henry Ford of online retail – for making their already easy lives even easier. But as with so many other changes that did so, there come environmental and social consequences.

The Model T set the stage for the development of a nation centered on motor-vehicle transport with all the associated carbon dioxide emissions. Amazon with its online presence tied to anywhere deliveries set the stage for a boom in trucking with its increase in carbon emissions.

The trains of trucks now rumbling across the plains and into the mountains pump vastly more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the trains that once moved most American freight across the country.

A study out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded that moving freight by rail today produces about a third less carbon dioxide per ton than moving it by truck. Considering the billions of tons of freight in play, this equates to a massive increase in greenhouse gas.

Yet, as the FRED noted, trucks have become the predominant means of freight shipment.

The sheer volume of them on the interstate highways across the American Heartland these days is staggering. Along a 10-mile stretch of highway here, a random Wednesday count found the eastbound semi-trucks outnumbering passenger vehicles.

Along with boosting carbon dioxide emissions, they have changed the driving experience. But thankfully at least 99 percent of truck drivers understand the idea that highway track flows best when drivers adhere to the interstate rule to “keep right except to pass.”

















25 replies »

  1. I like the idea of cleaner greener, who wouldn’t want that, however the cleaner greener idea of today doesn’t really get us any cleaner or greener. It just shifts the face of it to make it look cleaner and greener to the unknowing people, and stuffs money into the pockets of the deceivers of all this. Another “Feel good” mandate.

    Starting with the overly ill-engineered tall white over built ugly wind mills, with all the annoying night time flashing lights in the skies. The emissions that go into making them, hauling them, maintaining them, and storing the waste from them. How could something supposedly so green be so ugly and invasive. A real engineer would have designed them to be natural coloured, way lower, caged, and a side squirrel box profile, or a lower triple bladed caged design, using less material.

    Then you have the electric vehicles with the depleted toxic battery waste, and remote generation power points. Out here in the interior they purchased an electric school bus that gets plugged in every night into an outlet that is powered by a diesel power plant.

    With obamas order to clean up power plants, millions of tons of mined soda ash was hauled out to all the power plants across this country. With the regen system on certain vehicles of using DEF, DEF takes a great amount of water to produce, and boxed DEF in the stores creates a lot of plastic waste. You cannot have, at the pump DEF in colder climates because it will freeze up like water.

    Then there are some that want to go nuclear, however these plants sit on our major waterways, and we saw what happened in Japan, and what’s still being covered up about the Japan meltdown. The barrels of leaking waste sitting underground next to the Columbia River and other places. The Hanford site mess, and Nevada storing other countries nuclear waste.

    These are just a few examples of how todays greener plans aren’t really any greener, just more of a cost and emissions shift. I would be all for cleaner if they could show me it actually was. I know we have smarter minded people out there to design and think better than this, but to run with half wit green plans to only shift monies into different pockets doesn’t save us or our planet.

  2. The Isuzu Trooper was a partnership between Mitsubishi and General Motors. The GM transmission is the smoothest one ever – designed in the 90’s. 4L30-E Model. The false Consumer Reports analysis of supposed rollover CG caused sales to plummet. I believe Isuzu won their lawsuit on the facts but were not awarded anything in damages. it was called “a slap in the face” verdict. I paid $29,000 for my first one in 1995. Then paid $4000 each for my next two (2000) with about 100,000 miles on them. I think 2002 was the last year they were sold. Honda sold the Trooper re-badged too. Now Honda has no real SUV in their lineup. The Honda Odyssey looks more like a minivan. I was surprised that Honda only has one truck model. Didn’t know that.

  3. My latest order from rockauto is shipped from Springfield Gardens, NY through the NY City Gateway en route by air to Anchorage as we speak. $26 shipping on a $100 order of 2 high performance shocks for one of my 3 Isuzu Troopers (the best 4wd ever made). Gotta love the internet – unless you are a brick and mortar retailer.

  4. If, and when, the electrification of automobiles occurs there will be a massive shift in emissions from vehicles to power generation and manufacturing. Politicians and greenies are all pushing this massive shift, but they do not understand what it means…at all. This is similar to the offshoring of jobs we once had in this country including mining, smelting, refining, and general producing. We sent our jobs overseas because we set up environmental standards that cost too much, but we don’t care what happens in those third world shitholes…and we will need to get all of our resources from third world shitholes that do not have the environmental standards we have here. Some people live by the old saying that ignorance is bliss. The rest of us pay for this ignorance.

    • The question of carbon emission efficiency is a good one. Electric vehicles seem to not save anything on a pure fuel BTU end consumption efficiency. And then the cost of producing the materials to manufacture batteries and other sophisticated strategic minerals for the electronic computer systems would seem to blow the whole myth out of the water.
      The attraction of not personally spewing out the emissions yourself with your carbon footprint gives one a plausible disconnection to the reality.

      • Keep telling yourself that Dave. Labor, even expensive union labor in the good old USA is a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of environmental regulations. In recent years we’ve brought back a multitude of various production lines and labor cost have very little if nothing to do with it. Cheap labor gives us walmartshit, good labor gives us made in America goods. Do not discount the cost of good labor, and do not oversell the cost of dirt poor labor either. Labor costs did not drive the offshoring of American goods.

      • Steve-O,

        Most of the big Cat castings are from where?
        Certainly not Illinois.
        The largest independent steel manufacturer on the continent(Nucor)can afford to manufacture steel products under the same enviro rules as Cat,than why doesn’t Cat pour heavy castings primarily in US?
        ,Auto parts dont get made in Mexico because of enviro regs
        AMGEN doesn’t have manufacturing plants overseas because of enviro regulation.

        Most cheap commodity silicone chips are made overseas not because of enviro reasons, but cheaper affordable labor (with good work ethics)and modernized wafer fab investment.

        We could go on and on….US subsidiaries and subcontractors didn’t go overseas primarily because of enviro reasons.They went over because of cheap labor and favorable exchange rates.Because thats what was expected by there shareholders, and board holders.
        Im a union employee by the way, who works with my face fairly close to all those labels that you see on heavy equipment equipment products.
        Ive probably got thousands of dollars worth of synthetic outdoor gear 99% of it milled/produced overseas.I HAVE old Carhart ,woolrich stuff with made in USA labels, good luck finding those.
        Redwing,many Danners,Baffins,Merrils,Rossignal,made in China.Super heavy Columbia brand wool overcoat, great for rabbit hunting, made in India.
        Blue Point tools primarily from china, but some from Tiawan,Id buy Tiawan steel all day long if I had the opportunity.
        Because of environmental reasons? Really?

      • Dave,

        I just saw your response, and yes it’s because of environmental costs. Taxes, safety, labor cost, everything adds to the bottom dollar. But the environmental cost is built into all those other costs. Just about every company now needs an environmental specialist or specialists, and environmental lawyer or lawyers, and environmental contractor or contractors to deal with the environmental regulations…that’s not necessarily a bad thing but it is a fact. Environmental safety is a cost of doing business in the US, not so much in other countries. The cost of labor in the US carries an environmental cost. I am also a union employee and that has nothing to do with the fact that the environmental standards and taxes we’ve put upon ourselves is responsible for sending jobs, including formerly union jobs oversees.

        When it comes down to it stupid Americans would rather have an open pit mine in a country they will never visit than to have an environmentally responsible and heavily regulated one in any of the 50 states they will never visit. All of the items you listed are cheaper to produce overseas because the overseas environmental regulations are less, if not non-existent.

  5. There’s no driver shortages. The shortage is of drivers who will drive for the monster fleet bottom sucking companies out there for poor pay, treatment, and rolling road blocks with invasive driving facing cameras. Those monster companies need bodies to brainlessly hold their steering wheels, and be happy with the conditions they want to implement, so they proclaim there’s a driver shortage.

    Did they also let you know that Non-commercial traffic is at an all time high, and that well over 87% of those semi involved accidents and fatalities are caused by the out of control Non-commercial drivers in their suvs, pickups, motor homes and cars.

    Rick you should of also counted the number of Non-commercial vehicles out there driving 20 plus mph over the speed limit, while displaying unsafe driving habits. The Speed limit out there ranges in between 75-80 mph and that still isn’t fast enough for the Non-commercial people. I know this for a fact, because I would set my big truck cruise control at 75mph and all the 4-wheelers (pickups, suvs, and cars) would pass me as if I was having some kind of a picnic on the side of the road.

    Some think railroad would be great, however there isn’t a railroad track behind every store, and they would never be able to handle all the volume of freight. There’s a lot of trucks that run railroad failure freight because the railroad couldn’t get it done. Like Chris said time sensitive and railroad don’t go hand in hand. Produce and such doesn’t need to sit, and manufacturers need their bulk materials to not have the plant shutdown.

    • The biggest reason for all of this is, because there’s a Way overwhelming amount of over population going on down there, and with that, more goods have to be moved to those people. And it’s only going to get worse. But if it makes everyone feel better to blame it on a truck, go right ahead. It wouldn’t be the first time, won’t be the last. Just for a side note: My 2018 Peterbilt put less emissions out than half your little vehicles driving aimlessly everywhere.

      • Let’s not forget about the millions of illegals that are being welcomed by the current admin…..going to need a lot of baby formula moved throughout the country.

    • Zip,I hear you, but only way things are going to change is if they change.Longer trailers, doubles,triples,we’ve pretty much maxed that horse out.Our 1950’s engineered infrastructure has pretty much hit the wall.
      The next generational leap will be super expensive, probably cost more overall than our fairly recent long running nation building exercises.But thats how hindsight works.
      As far as your Pete goes, come on, you know tier 4 engines have to burn more fuel in regen to make the emissions # game work.But they generally dont smell as bad as older C-10’s or C-13’s,or older Cummins N-13’s ill give you that.

  6. At today’s 400 parts per million, CO2 has achieved over 98% of the greenhouse effect of which the physics indicates it is capable. Even doubling CO2 to 800 parts per million would only change that effect to around 99%. The difference that would make in nighttime low temperatures (which is where most of the daily increase in the average temperature occurs) would only be a degree or two Celsius warmer and would be barely noticeable. The green house effect has a much smaller effect on daytime temperatures.
    So there are many people who aren’t overly concerned about adding a few more parts per million of CO2 to the atmosphere. Even the IPCC says that we won’t come close to 600 parts per million by the year 2100 in their worst-case economic scenario.

    The hypothesis the computer models use predicts that the small CO2 warming will add water vapor to the atmosphere which will boost the greenhouse effect a few more degrees.
    That hypothesis has been disproven by 40 years of temperature data increasing by far less than the hypothesis predicts in the models.

    “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong”. – Richard P. Feynman
    That also applies to matching real world observed data.

    Because of their low rolling resistance, trains require less energy to move stuff than trucks do, but the stuff has to be moved to the train’s departure point and then must be moved from the train to the final destination. The energy required for those vehicles is rarely accounted for when this comparison is made. Trucks can go directly between almost all places.

  7. As a former contractor, I can tell you that a lot of freight is time critical and trucking it is 10x faster than rail. Additionally, the Interstate Highway System (begun in the Eisenhower Administration I believe) is an incredibly efficient network for moving goods. It is one of our country’s competitive advantages. At great expense of course over the years – but very popular with travelers, trucking companies, and construction industry/workers alike. The Ying and Yang of Capitalism.

    BTW we could really reduce our carbon output if the aliens would just let us in on their source of energy for the flying tic-tacs. One of them buzzed the Spacex launch today!

    • Everything I ever get on Amazon comes by air. But a lot of stuff is obviously trucked from manufacturers to Amazon distribution Centers. I just had a part (2 shocks) I ordered from go from California to Cincinnati, held for one day and then loaded for another air shipment to Anchorage. Got it the following day. Total of 4 days and shipping charge to me was $22.

    • Chris,seems to me the whole trans intercontinental freight issue including rail could use some interruption by way of blockchain coordinated manifests and some sort of rapid turnaround loading/unloading technology.
      As far as clean(er)last mile solutions,thats just a very few years away.
      Long haul trucking probably has a way to go.
      You can easily see how trans continental trucking could conceivably be done driverless(or near so).
      Beyond the obvious software issues holding it back,all they need are a dedicated lane.
      Ive brought this very same topic up during other tangential “we dont want change” rants by others

  8. I was traveling eastbound on 80 a couple of years ago and I started counting semi’s heading west at the Wyoming Nebraska state line. In approximately 110 miles I counted 587 trucks heading westbound

  9. The Association of American Railroads estimates that on average, a freight train can move 1 ton of freight about 484 miles on just one gallon of fuel.


    Railways consume up to 9x less energy per tonne kilometer traveled than trucks
    On average, trains are 4x more fuel efficient
    Can carry more freight at the same time
    Cheaper for long distance
    Emit 75% fewer GHG emissions

    • Marlin,im sure somewhere theres a study,cant understand why R.R doesnt move more.
      Im thinkin its the yard turnaround to “last mile delivery”.
      Basically the yards aren’t equipped and modernised to deal with 21st century traffic.
      The same way ports handle HUGE volumes,and yes they get backed up,but it goes straight to trucks(as far as this country mouse knows).

  10. These mother truckers deserve what they get. They kill thousands of innocent drivers, refuse to have underride protectors, doctor their log books and drive like animals!

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