bobtailing truck

What Is Bobtailing in Trucking? Definition, Information, & Tips

Semi-trucks are among the most versatile freight vehicles in the trucking industry, being able to hook up various types of trailers through a fifth wheel, enabling them to haul thousands of pounds of cargo in a single trip.

Occasionally, truckers perform deliveries or pick-ups that require them to travel to or back from a location without any assigned loads – this can occur with cargo loads or semi-trailers.

Bobtailing is when a semi-truck is traveling without an attached trailer. This can occur when a semi-truck is in the process of picking up a trailer (and has no trailer to deliver) or is returning from delivery (and has no trailer to pick up).

This article aims to explain in detail why bobtailing occurs and the risks involved during a trailer-less transit. Moreover, we will also highlight the cost implications for truckers and strategies they can use to minimize bobtailing their semi-trucks. 

Why Does Bobtailing Occur?

Bobtailing is a generally undesired practice in the trucking industry. Most drivers, owner-operators, and carrier companies avoid operating bobtail trucks whenever they can for reasons we’ll explore later. First, you need to understand the two main circumstances in which a semi-truck is driven without a trailer. 

The first circumstance is when a semi-truck picks up a trailer from the shipper’s location. In many cases, drivers have no trailers that need to be delivered to the shipper’s location. Therefore, they have to arrive at the pick-up spot without any trailer attached to their fifth wheel. 

Conversely, following a shipment delivery, drivers may have to leave the trailer holding the cargo and bobtail back if there are no trailers to be hauled to another destination. In both scenarios, one leg is traveled without a trailer. 

Difference Between Bobtail Versus Deadhead

The terms “bobtail” and “deadhead” are often used interchangeably in the trucking industry since they both involve driving a semi-truck without cargo. However, they have one distinct and a few minor differences that separate them. 

In essence, bobtailing involves driving a semi-truck with the trailer detached from it. In contrast, driving a deadhead semi-truck involves hauling an empty trailer. The second differentiator is their safety levels.

Bobtailing is far riskier due to the uneven weight distribution, higher center of gravity, and high levels of drag that can make the semi-truck difficult to steer and control. In contrast, deadheading lowers the overall center of gravity, due to the attached semi-trailer and makes it much easier for drivers to control the truck on the road. 

However, since a bobtail truck is much lighter due to relatively little load on the rear axle, it’s much easier to maneuver. It’s considerably more fuel-efficient due to the reduced strain on the engine.

The downside is the reduced braking power, as the majority of the weight now shifts to the front of the vehicle. 

Risks of Bobtailing

There are various reasons trucking companies in the United States and around the world avoid bobtailing. The three core reasons are safety, loss of revenue, and inefficiency, which we’ll be taking a closer took at below.

a bobtail semi truck
A Bobtail Semi-Truck © MobiusDaXter

Safety

The primary safety concern with bobtail trucks is their longer braking distance, which makes them more dangerous compared to deadhead or loaded trucks. In other words, trucks are designed to carry trailers and heavy loads as their primary purpose.

However, when they don’t carry a trailer, they lose most of their rear axle’s braking power due to the lack of weight and a lack of brakes (trailers are typically equipped with air brakes).

The front wheels are designed primarily for steering, and bobtailing inherently distributes the vehicle’s weight and force to them, which makes the truck skid or turn uncontrollably, especially at high speeds or downward slopes. 

Due to their sheer size, bobtail trucks are responsible for some of the deadliest traffic accidents, especially in windy, wet, and snowy conditions. 

Loss of Revenue

When truckers drive one leg of a trip without a trailer (and without cargo), they are not generating any revenue. They continue to bear the essential trucking expenses, such as fuel and maintenance, with nothing to offset them. Due to these expenses, bobtailing impacts owner-operators and carriers negatively.

Inefficiency

Driving a bobtail semi-truck prompts truckers to be much more vigilant and cautious when operating their trucks without a trailer, which can force them to slow down. This ultimately affects their productivity. 

It affects the overall operational efficiency since a percentage of the trips made during a shift do not utilize a truck for its core function – to haul cargo through the use of a trailer.

To put this into perspective, if a trucker usually completes 10 round trips (20 single trips in total) a week hauling cargo with a trailer, just one bobtailing trip can drop the efficiency by 5%. 

Cost Implications

As mentioned above, bobtailing impacts shippers, receivers, trucking companies, and owner-operators negatively by failing to generate revenue while incurring both regular expenses as well as additional fees, such as:

  • Bobtail Fees – Owner-operators and truckers charge a bobtail fee to offset some of the cost of not carrying any trailer in one leg of the trip. The fee is typically charged after a driver drops off a trailer at a location for loading and unloading and would need to return later to collect it. The fee is also used to encourage shippers to practice live loading and unloading or drop-and-hook to minimize the need for storing containers or trailers. 
  • Operating Costs – The most common expenses truckers have to bear without generating revenue due to bobtailing include fuel, tolls, wear & tear, provisions (meals, accommodation, etc.), and other running costs such as professional services for bookkeeping and customer service, to name a few. 

How to Avoid Bobtailing

As mentioned earlier, bobtailing is a disadvantageous practice in the industry. As a result, most truckers look to avoid it as much as possible. Below, we’ve listed some of the best ways to do so.

Digital Freight Matching (DFM) Platforms

A digital freight matching (DFM) platform is an artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML)-powered trucking solution that connects shippers and carriers.

With a DFM platform, truckers can avoid bobtailing by proactively looking for shippers looking to move their cargo on the same route during either leg of their trip. Some DFM companies also provide trailers on demand which they can use to eliminate the need to procure one from other sources. 

Drop Yards

A drop yard is a facility where trucking companies can store multiple trailers and use them as a relay terminal in different locations around the country. Truckers often have loads they can haul following delivery but no trailer to attach to their fifth wheel.

As a result, they have no choice but to bobtail and procure another if they want to make the haul. In essence, drop yards offer an excellent solution for truckers looking to minimize bobtailing.

The large space allows drivers to haul two or even three trailers to a drop yard and uncouple the additional ones for future deliveries close to their original pickup or delivery sites. While this practice doesn’t necessarily eliminate bobtailing completely, it helps to minimize the number of miles and hours spent bobtailing. 

Drop-and-Hook

A drop-and-hook is a process that remains one of the best ways to avoid bobtailing. It involves dropping one trailer at a facility and hooking another one from the same location. These trailers can be either empty or full, depending on the leg. 

Most large carriers employ this practice and leverage DFM platforms to ensure they always have loads to carry. However, following a drop-and-hook model requires more frequent coupling and uncoupling, which can be extremely time-consuming, depending on the driver’s experience. 

Trailer Interchange Agreements

Trailer interchange agreements are written contracts between two carriers that allow them to share trailers to meet each other’s shipping needs and take on larger load volumes for mutual network expansion. 

It also offers a cost-effective solution to minimize or avoid bobtailing by providing truckers with trailers to haul cargo while on their way to or from their initial pickup and delivery location.

Needless to say, each party is responsible for ensuring they return the other party’s trailers on time and damage-free. 

Live Loading & Unloading

Live loading and unloading is the simplest and most common way to avoid bobtailing. It involves loading or unloading cargo at a pickup or delivery location, while the semi remains attached to the trailer.

This also means that the driver will have to wait until all loading or unloading activities are completed. While this avoids bobtailing, it can be less productive than the other methods since drivers would have to wait.

Live loading could incur other accessories expenses, such as truck detention, idling, and layover fees, which can affect their overall profitability. 

Therefore, owner-operators and carriers must do their due diligence and ensure the live loading and unloading processes are well coordinated with the shipper or receiver.