I had the opportunity to interview Covenant Transport’s Vice President of Sustainability and Innovation, Matt McLelland. I was able to ask him some questions on what the future holds for his company, and trucking in general.
Among the topics we discussed were truck electrification, hydrogen fuel systems, autonomous driving, and Covenant’s plans for the restart of the global supply chain with China “Opening Soon™” as it (hopefully) comes out of lockdowns.
After the obligatory “James Bond” joke, we started off talking about Covenant’s partnership with Nikola. Dooner and The Dude from “WHAT THE TRUCK?!?” were out at Covenant’s headquarters in Chattanooga last month “test-riding” in one of the company’s Nikola electric trucks. McLelland made it perfectly clear:
“Yeah. Well, let me correct you. One thing we didn’t let Dooner drive that truck. We wouldn’t hand him the keys. He was in the passenger seat. He tried to talk his way into driving the truck, even around the parking lot. We’re like, ‘sorry, man. We gotta make sure we keep you alive for the next podcast.”
Nikola is a big time name in Electric Trucking
McLelland gave me some details on the Nikola project.
“We did this deal with Nikola, a non-committal pre-order like a lot of companies did because in order for Covenant to invest in a truck that costs $350,000, we have to have customers that we know are gonna be using it. So yeah, we just can’t go out and buy these things and sit on them without really knowing how they’re gonna be used for a significant chunk of time. We did get this truck, the one that Dooner and the Dude rode in.”
“It’s a 90-day trial for a customer that we have down in Atlanta. It’s been in operation for almost four weeks now and it’s doing great. There’s been no downtime. The efficiency of the truck has been better than we expected. The driver took a couple of days to get used to it cause he kept getting heavy on the pedal because he was so used to a diesel-powered truck. He was just enjoying that part. He has told us often, ‘You know what? My fatigue is lower at the end of the day. I enjoy driving it.’ Of course he also enjoys people looking at him and taking pictures while he is driving down I-85 and I-75 on his daily routes. I think it looks like something straight out of a Transformers movie.”
Sysco placed a big bet on the future of trucking
Daimler just made big news with a contract with Sysco Food Service for 800 trucks. McLelland serves on Daimler’s Electric Vehicle Council and will be visiting the plant where the trucks will be built.
“You know, I’m going out to Portland next month for a Daimler Council meeting, which means we get access to what’s coming down the pike and they’re gonna take us for a tour of that new manufacturing facility. I think we’re gonna see Sysco slapped on the side of a whole bunch of trucks while we’re there. And kudos to Sysco for making that commitment and then spending that money. I’m all about decarbonization when it makes sense. And Sysco is certainly doing that.”
Alan Adler, FreightWaves’ Detroit Senior Editor, covered this story in the link here.
Next we shifted to talking about truck automation. I gave a warning that I’m no fan of putting drivers out of work. McLelland made it very clear –
“I get the question a lot and it’s not just me, it’s our buddies across town at U.S. Xpress. They’re doing a lot of really cool work with this autonomous program. Warner, Schneider, all of them are experimenting as well. We are all getting involved on some level.”
“To your point, we are in a partnership with Aurora. We’re also in a partnership with Torc, which is 75% owned by Daimler. We decided to partner with those two. We looked at all of them. We picked those two. But to answer your question, what we tell people is if you are a young driver at Covenant today and you want to retire from Covenant at age 60 or 65, you can do that as a driver.”
Deregulation or Re-regulation; speed limiters are a hot topic
I asked McLelland about his thoughts on the proposed speed limiter mandate. On one hand, there’s a big fuel mileage increase if trucks are limited to 63-65 miles per hour. On the other hand, the safety issues of herds of trucks moving at a reduced speed is an issue to consider.
“First of all, you have to have a conversation with your shippers. If the limiters slow the trucks down, you’ll need longer lead times. But that would be true for everybody. It wouldn’t be unique to Covenant. It’s a good question. I think that you’re probably going to make a lot of moms and dads driving the minivan on the interstate to the beach in the summertime angry.”
“You’re going to upset them because there are a bunch of trucks going significantly slower than the rest of traffic. Assuming that the speed limit is 70 miles an hour but trucks are moving at 63-65 mph. I also think that there will be better fuel efficiency from those trucks. That’s the whole idea; that’s the argument I think that they’re really using.”
“So I think it’s probably a good thing. I think it’s also going to cause some congestion. I’d probably be a fan of not making it the law, because you can keep tabs on speeding with the telematics products in the trucks. You can run reports and find out who’s being bad and who’s being good.”
I covered the opening of the comment period in the link here.
We joked around about the recent meme stock market moves. From the Costco Hot Dog fiasco that dropped their stock price to Craig Fuller, founder and CEO of FreightWaves, calling the top of the trucking cycle and everyone realizing he wasn’t kidding. Wall Street is in a very fragile state right now, in my opinion.
The restart of China is on everyone’s agenda
I also asked McLelland about the restart of the Chinese supply cycle. There’s that “Opening Soon™” we see in the news, and Covenant is ready to play its part. The company is geared more toward the dedicated customer service space. It will have its fleet standing by for what its customers ask to be hauled.
Lastly, I asked McLelland the infamous “10 years down the road” question. He has his eyes on a nice beach somewhere, but would like to continue his role in helping with sustainability and innovating the trucking industry.
I want to thank Matt McLelland for his time and hope that I can talk to him again soon. There are exciting things going on at Covenant Transport that we all need to watch out for.