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Call of the Truck Stop, The New York Times, March 8, 2007

Call of the Truck Stop: Gentlemen, Stop Your Engines

THOUGH Robert Jordan clocked three million miles in nearly 30 years hauling Wisconsin cheese around the United States, he never considered himself a typical trucker. On the road he listened to educational books on tape. He drove slower than almost everyone else, and he never saw the point of running the engine when the truck wasn’t moving.

When he started driving in the late 1980s, idling at truck stops, rest areas and loading docks was common, as truckers sought to keep their cabs and sleeper berths comfortable. ”Trucks were spending more time idling than they were moving,” he said. ”I said, this is so stupid. This is such a waste of energy.”

If idling is now a popular topic among truckers, it is because the practice is endangered. Sirius Radio’s Trucking Network is filled with talk about anti-idling legislation (30 states, counties and cities have laws limiting idling), and the market for technology to reduce idling has exploded as owners adapt to regulations and try to preserve thin profits by reducing fuel costs. Mr. Jordan is in the thick of the discussion: he was named Trucker of the Year in 2006 by Overdrive Magazine, a trade journal, for waging his own quiet war on idling.

In 1993, Mr. Jordan bought his own truck, and eventually, he figured he could save on maintenance and fuel if he didn’t idle. To keep warm without the engine running, he tried sleeping in a sleeping bag, which was inconvenient and uncomfortable. Next he hacked the truck to pump coolant from the engine to move heat into the cab, reducing the idling. After he insulated his cabin, he built a heater out of halogen lights.

At one point he cut a hole in his sleeper to install an $88 air-conditioner, which ran off batteries. A million miles or so later, he had worked out the details of an electrical relay that would charge a 100-pound bank of batteries if the cab was hooked up to a refrigerated trailer.

The device, called a reefer link, is attractive because it produces no extra emissions. At any time, only 8 percent to 12 percent of long-distance trucks are hauling refrigerated trailers, but the reefer link also allows the truck to be plugged into truck-stop outlets, called ”shore power.” And the batteries can power small heaters and air-conditioners that have already been designed for the trucks’ cabins. Each reefer-link system costs $6,000 to $7,000, and since he got a patent last December, Mr. Jordan has received enough orders to retire from driving to grow his business. (He says he doesn’t miss the road.)

Every day in the United States, almost half a million long-haul trucks are on the road, and most spend part of each day idling. Long-haul trucks idle 500 to 3,500 hours a year, burning a half gallon to one and a half gallons of diesel fuel an hour. According to the Department of Energy, this consumes up to a billion gallons of diesel fuel a year. The Environmental Protection Agency calculates that idling also spews 11 million tons of carbon dioxide, 200,000 tons of oxides of nitrogen and 5,000 tons of particulate matter into the air annually.

Trucking companies used to eat the cost of idling, including paying fines of $50 to $22,500. But rising fuel prices have taken the cost of idling to more than $3 an hour. ”It’s to the point where you can get a motel room cheaper than you can idle the truck,” Mr. Jordan said.

Now freight companies are instituting policies to limit idling, providing incentives to drivers to reduce it or installing devices to shut down an engine automatically. Wal-Mart has put idle reduction technologies in 7,000 of its trucks. Schneider National, a shipping company with 11,000 trucks, is testing two cooling systems, one a 12-volt air-conditioner and the other a coolant storage system; 9,000 trucks already have diesel-fired heaters.

A 2005 survey by the American Transportation Research Institute, involving 55,000 day and sleeper trucks, found that 36 percent used a range of idle-reduction technologies. Respondents said they had spent nearly $8.8 million on these technologies and expected to spend $56 million more.

External power sources at truck stops are another solution. These are attractive to states and cities because they help them meet air quality goals. The Department of Transportation estimates that 60 of 5,000 truck stops in 11 states allow trucks to plug into local power or have equipment in parking areas that pumps cool or hot air into the cabs. The capacity exists, however, for only 30 percent of trucks on the road.

Mr. Jordan was not the only driver who had modified his truck in search of other solutions to idling. In 1984, Rex Greer, a New Mexico driver, bolted a motorcycle engine to his truck to serve as an auxiliary power unit and later received a patent for a diesel version of his invention, which he labeled the Pony Pack. The unit runs on fuel drawn from the truck’s main tank, using about a pint an hour. Its main advantage is that truckers can use it anywhere. ”What does a trucker do if he’s shut down for three days in a blizzard?” Mr. Greer said. Since the 1990s, Pony Pack has sold 4,000 units, but this year, Mr. Greer has already received that many orders, signaling that idle reduction is a new priority for truckers.

The biggest obstacle may be drivers themselves. Linda Gaines, a scientist at Argonne Nation