Walmart eyes supercube reefer [Updated]

by Carolyn Gruske

MISSISSAUGA, Ontario—The supercube project has been a complete success.

That’s the opinion of Walmart Canada senior executives in charge of developing the 60ft 6in drop-deck trailer and the flat-nosed tractor with a cargo-carrying drome box.

“We’re obviously very pleased with the overall concept. What started with a very simple idea has turned into something very, very physical that has a presence,” said Andy Ellis, executive vice-president, supply chain and logistics.

“So far, the results it has given us are very pleasing and very beneficial to the business and beyond, to the environment.”

Officially unveiled in November 2012, four supercubes were put on Ontario’s roads for a one-year pilot project run under the auspices of the provincial Ministry of Transportation (MTO). Four permits were issued by the government with the requirement that data about the tractor trailers be collected and submitted to the MTO for evaluation.

“The data we share is very similar to the LCV (long combination vehicle) process,” said Michael Buna, senior transportation manager. “We just share our origin and destination points and the frequencies every month.”

According to Walmart, the MTO has used that data to broaden the scope of what types of longer trailers will be allowed on the province’s roads.

“The government has modified the permit conditions to allow for different types of equipment to be run,” said Buna.

“What the government has done is look at the 60ft-6in length of a trailer and looked at straight-decks, drop-decks, tri-axles, reefer units, and they’ve opened it up to allow for different types of equipment to be run. So the government has done the due diligence to prove there are many different types of equipment you can run in this model.”

Reefers being on the approved list is a change that that excites Ellis, especially since it is a signal the MTO is getting ready to issue more permits and expand the scope of the pilot program.

“We’ve met all of the criteria the government asked of us within the pilot. We are obviously working with the government to extend the pilot and put more trucks on the road and encourage other retailers or other haulers to do the same,” said Ellis.

“We have four permits at the moment, we’re talking to the government about how we can get more, and we’re looking at those changes to the regulations around the permit, around the different types of equipment,” said Ellis.

“It would be ideal if we get a reefer, because if you look at the type of business a reefer supports, it’s fresh food. It’s all about freshness and quality and being agile and getting fresher product to the stores. So the more efficient we can be in getting product to the stores, the better for the customers. Absolutely, reefers will be where we want to go.”

It’s not just reefers that interest Walmart. The company wants to add more of the non-refrigerated supercubes to its fleet.

“If we get more permits, then we can potentially put more trucks on the road. I know we certainly have enough stores where we can run these trucks profitably and reduce costs. We can run them to many, many destinations,” said Ellis.

“I’m not sure what the total allocation of permits is from the MTO. I know we’ve got some of them. We’ve probably got more than anybody else. What we’re trying to influence and work with the government on is releasing those permits to us or to other carriers so that we can get more of this kind of truck on the road and start saving freight costs.”

According to Walmart, the supercubes have resulted in both financial and environmental savings. The retailer says it has experienced a 24 percent reduction in the cost to deliver merchandise from its DC in Mississauga, Ontario to its test store in Belleville, Ontario.

Ellis said that’s due to using less fuel to deliver more goods, while making fewer trips.

He added that although they are carrying bigger, and therefore heavier loads, the fuel economy figures prove the supercubes are more efficient than standard tractor trailers.

“You would have to burn a whole lot more fuel to offset the 44 percent more freight on the back of the truck. So a heavier truck will burn more fuel, but when you’ve got 44 percent more freight on the back of it, then you’d have to go a long way before it becomes inefficient,” he explained.

“One of the reasons for doing this is we never, ever weigh-out with the type of product we carry. Our trucks are never anywhere near the weight limit of a standard tractor-trailer unit, so it’s not as though we are putting the truck under any more strain than it is designed to be used for. It’s just making optimum use of the cube on the behind it. You’re not making the truck work any harder than its capability.”

The company has also calculated it has achieved a 14 percent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Walmart has also found its delivery times reduced by five percent, although Buna admits it takes a little longer to off-load the longer trailers.

“It’s just common sense. It’s a seven-foot longer truck. It has more product on it, so it is going to take you a little longer just to get the product off. It all depends on how it’s loaded, whether it’s 15 minutes or two hours depends on whether it’s hand-balmed or palletized freight.”

Those figures were calculated from the data collected during the first phase of Walmart’s pilot project, which involved 100 trips with the average distance per trip of 200km, and the supercube filled to capacity.

Besides wanting to put more trucks on the road in Ontario, Walmart is hoping to get the supercubes on the highways in other provinces.

“From this stage onwards we need to be very proactive with other governments and try to get them on board with allowing us to run these trucks in provinces elsewhere. Wherever we can use these trucks we will use them but we are tied with regulation at the moment,” said Ellis.

Head office in the US has been watching the supercube project closely, but at this point, there seems to be no way to use the trucks south of the border.

“As I understand it, there is no permit in the US that allows you to run a 60ft trailer anywhere. So until they get a permit, they’re not allowed to put them on the road,” said Ellis.

Although Ellis is happy with the supercube, and in particular with how quickly the project went from an idea on the drawing board to a truck on the road—about nine months—he said the design, research and development work is far from over.

“We know when we built this first batch of trucks, we put some engineering in there that we can probably remove at this stage,” he said.

“We could take out some of the cost of building the original trailers because they were new. They were first of a kind. They were very much experimental, so we built some cost into it we could possibly remove. So we’re looking into that.

“We’ll look at how do you take weight out of the trailer? Because obviously the weight of the trailer reduces the payload on the back of it. One of the things I’m pushing the team to do is look at how we can lighten the trailer so we can put more weight on the back of it. Because when you start going long distances you may get to the point when weight becomes a factor in what you can put on the back of a trailer. We want to optimize that as well.”

Innovative Trailer Design in Mississauga, Ontario built the trailer and has been Walmart’s partner in the project, Ellis mentioned that now other manufacturers have taken an interest in the supercube concept.

“We have multiple trailer providers that are submitting proposals to build 60ft 6in trailers, where in the past it was limited. As industry starts coming on board, it’s going to drive down the cost of these big units.”

As for the tractor portion of the unit, Ellis said he is looking at all the options available to acquire flat-nosed trucks, including buying them used, importing them from Europe and encouraging manufacturers to start producing that style again for the North American market.

“The availability of the flat-nosed tractor units is limited as well. It’s not as though you can just magic these units out of the air,” he said.

“From my point of view the flat-nose is an efficient way of putting trucks on the road. They’re as safe as any truck on the road and they’re just as powerful.”

While the original design has a cargo box on the back of the truck, Ellis says that isn’t the only configuration possible.

“We have the ability to use the unit with a sleeper cab on it. We do have stores with longer distances where we can utilize that.”

Ellis said the trucks have become a huge hit with the general public, thanks in part to media attention. And they usually get noticed and draw a reaction.

“It’s got quite a reputation which is great because that’s what we wanted. We wanted to change the industry with it. That’s all positive,” he said.


MM&D asked the Ontario Ministry of Transportation to provide an update on the permit situation.

According to Bob Nichols, a spokesperson for the MTO, “On September 2013, MTO expanded the trial to include the use of a dock height semi-trailer in addition to the previously accepted drop deck semi-trailer.”

He added that “the Trial Conditions set-out that after a period of 18 months from the commencement of operations, MTO will evaluate the performance of the extended semi-trailers, compare their operation to the current 16.20m (53ft) trailers in use, and evaluate their potential impact on the trucking industry. The evaluation will also consider the potential impact of the extended semi-trailer on Ontario’s trucking industry, including market and operational issues related to the new technology. The evaluation will include, but would not be limited by the following parameters:

  • Analysis of collisions, including a comparison with other tractor semi-trailers using the same routes used by the extended semi-trailer during the trial operations.
  • Detailed analysis of the type and characteristics of the collisions involving the extended semi-trailers.
  • Analysis of the comments/reactions received from other road users, the general public and municipalities.
  • Analysis of the potential reduction in truck trips, fuel savings and environmental impact.
  • Analysis of the potential impact of the extended semi-trailer to the trucking industry, in general, and to particular market segments of the industry, including competitive issues.
  • Impact and easiness of using the current loading/unloading facilities at shippers’ facilities.

“Finally, MTO will consult with participating carriers and other industry stakeholders in undertaking the evaluation. Based on the results of the evaluation, MTO will determine whether to and how to proceed with a further measured roll out of extended semi-trailer operations, which could include an increase in number of permits and/or number of carriers.”