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Truck stop owners feeling the high-tech heat

Bob Wollenman, managing partner of Deluxe Truck Stop in St. Joseph, Missouri, is a single-unit independent truck stop operator who has rolled with the changing needs of drivers and trucking companies since he opened his doors in 1980.

In addition to fuel, Wollenman offers services such as washing out livestock and tank trailers and a full-service tire shop. He even continues to accept personal checks from drivers who – amazingly – still operate without a debit card.

As Chairman of the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO), Wollenman is also in a good position to inform NATSO members of the need to adjust to the trends being driven by his customers, including changing truck operations, a predicted growing shortfall of drivers, platooning and autonomous vehicles.

“NATSO members are being challenged by ever-changing dynamics in the industry,” Wollenman said at the opening of the NATSO Connect conference in Orlando on February 11. “We know that transportation is struggling to keep and maintain drivers. The long-haul driver is now often being replaced by someone who is willing to do more regional runs. Diversity and ethnicity changes, women entering the driver force – all are playing a role at what happens at our various locations around the country.”

Wollenman noted that the Missouri Senate will consider legislation this year to permit platooning – multiple trucks running in sequence to reduce drag and reduce fuel, using autonomous – and eventually driverless – technology. “That’s going to play into the dynamics of our truck stops – if you have five trucks with one driver, things can change dramatically.”

Michael Sansolo, research director for the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council of North America, warned truck stop owners not to be complacent and believe that there will always be demand from the trucking industry for a traditional retail diesel fuel provider.

“Fuel itself will become more mobile,” Sansola said during his keynote address, pointing out that the U.S. Air Force has the ability to refuel planes in the air at high speeds. “So is it really that hard to believe that trucking will come up with the same kind of solution, where a truck driver, communicating through a cell phone or wristband, can be met by a truck that can refill it while it’s on a major interstate moving at 60 miles per hour? These things can be done.”

When asked by Sansola what made her the most optimistic or pessimistic for the future, NATSO President and CEO Lisa Mullings said she was mostly concerned about the potential for more government regulation, “but also I think there’s a lot of change moving from liquid fuels to [electric] vehicles – that’s a big deal, along with autonomous vehicles, which is going to change everything. There are a lot of new things coming, we just don’t know the time frame.”

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.