How Trucking Companies Develop A Strong Fuel Economy Culture

Getting the most out of your miles per gallon is about more than just the trucks you buy and the accessories you slap on them. For a motor carrier to get the most out of their fuel efficiency, they must build into their operation a culture of saving fuel and driving responsibly.

The decision to boost fuel economy must be one committed to by everyone within the company – even departments that may not have anything directly to do with fuel savings. When you have trucking companies comparing numbers at industry events, it can be quite glaring when one carrier is averaging 9 mpg while others are coming in at 6 mpg.

In order to properly shift to a true fuel saving company culture, motor carriers must be willing to ditch the sacred cows. If a fleet is still operating using a long-standing (but ineffective) strategy, they are basically flushing money down the toilet. So, what might some of those practices be?

As any motor carrier knows, one of the quickest and easiest ways to improve fuel economy is to cut excess weight off of company vehicles. It is critical that trucking companies properly evaluate whether the specs they are choosing for their trucks actually include equipment they need.

How to Trim the Fat

One example of this would be block heaters, which come standard on many trucks. If a motor carrier is not operating in conditions that require block heaters, having it included on the truck merely adds unnecessary weight. The same fuel saving considerations should be made for the fuel tank.

Most fleets automatically spec a 250- to 300-gallon fuel tanks, yet if many of them took a note of fleet fuel use averages, they would see that they likely aren’t coming close to capacity. In the end, if the fleet doesn’t need the fuel, there is no real point carrying it around, adding extra weight, and decreasing overall fuel savings.

If fleets can make reasonable cuts and lighten the load their vehicles have to carry, they will inevitably come out ahead and increase their overall fleetwide fuel economy. It may also be wise to have another look at 6×2 axle configurations.

Of course, paying extra attention to fuel economy and ensuring they are making the right spec decisions for fuel saving reasons takes time and effort. But few good things are easy, especially in the beginning. It is critically important that motor carriers build these concepts into their culture and business efforts from the very beginning.

Ordering for Maximum Fuel Economy

Fleets who want to achieve maximum fuel economy potential must order equipment from the very beginning from the standpoint of achieving maximum fuel economy. Of course, the specifications must also meet the fleet’s practical requirements, but provided there is an open line of communication down the chain and employees understand the methodologies behind decisions, it shouldn’t be hard to get full fleetwide buy-in.

As positive results become known, the feedback loop becomes complete. By utilizing a systems and process improvement approach to fuel economy testing, spec’ing, and proving new technology, motor carriers can realize real and substantiated fuel savings.

It is also important to always keep one finger on the pulse of what OEMs are up to. By staying aware of the new technologies and spec’ing applications down the line, fleet managers reinforce the “fuel savings first” principle.

Take some of the new Mack semi-trucks as one example. If motor carriers aren’t paying attention, they may have missed that the new production designs are being released with a ‘wave’ piston design and turbo system that – when combined with the automated manual drivetrain – provide up to 10% more fuel savings than their predecessors in normal use.

Once a fleet makes the choice to move to a vehicle that uses an integrated drivetrain and advanced engine design, down-the-chain purchases based on optimized fuel economy come faster and easier. As the savings compound over time, a look back will reveal that adjusting purchasing decisions to focus on fuel economy is a no-brainer.

Over time, it will become easier to figure out which actions are contributing to a better fuel economy bottom line. Factors such as ambient and seasonal temperatures will become obvious as fuel efficiency fluctuates. For this reason, it is important that fleets who are testing equipment test them over quarters to account for the seasonal and ambient temperature changes. It is a slow process and may be immediately off-putting, but it will lead to big benefits in the long-run.

Finally, it is important that motor carriers don’t try to do too many things at once when either evaluating or testing a new technology. While large fleets have a lot of capital to throw at a problem, not every operator is in that position. It is critical they start with vehicle components and technologies that are within the company budget.

Global Forces and Oil Prices

Remember 2007? It was a rough year. Fuel prices across the country went through the roof with dizzying speed thanks to geopolitical issues and the oncoming of the Great Recession. Immediately following the crash, a huge number of cash-poor fleets immediately went out of business.

While the situation eventually stabilized, oil prices dropped, the economy improved, and fleets began to get back on their feet. Still, it appeared they would climb again at some point, it was only a question of how and when. We may be right now seeing the day that they once again start to rise.

With the global economy doing well, the OPEC cartel has kept production low as a way to drive up prices. Combine that with the summer driving season and market analysts had already been predicting averages climbing northward of $3 a gallon. Now that the geopolitical situation has worsened, with a scrapping of the Iran nuclear deal and tensions with North Korea, we could see that price climb even higher.

Fleets must make sure they are proactively focusing on fuel savings if for nothing else than to be prepared should the price of oil suddenly go through the roof. Fortunately, there are quick ways to get more out of fuel without having to make big capital investments or make drastic changes.

Top Three Fuel-Saving Factors

In times of plentiful, cheap fuel, the value-proposition in trucking gleams. Fuel efficiency makes business sense because every penny saved on fuel goes straight to the bottom line. The question is: What are top fleets doing to realize big fuel savings?

First, aerodynamics are hugely important. Even something as simple as not keeping a truck clean will have a negative impact on that vehicle’s fuel efficiency. The ability to guide the flow of air around a heavy-duty Class 8 commercial motor vehicle has been an industry game changer.

To put it into simple numbers, an operator can see up to 15% greater fuel efficiency just by putting a cap on the roof of the truck. Still, even this requires careful consideration. Does the cap match the height of the trailers being used?

Even more, some aerodynamic accessories counteract, rather than compliment, each other. The last thing a fleet wants to do is incorrectly mount a not-inexpensive device to their vehicle while furthering a decrease in fuel efficiency.

Some truckers even manage to find less manufactured ways of increasing fuel economy. We’ve all heard the story about the trucker who took a power saw to a set of mud flaps because they were sticking out too far and causing unnecessary drag. While this may be somewhat of a parable, it is no less true. Cutting down a set of mud flaps is not a bad solution. The point is, whatever can be done to get the most fuel savings should be done.

Fifth-Wheel Gaps and Dirt, Oh My

Other fuel saving tactics include relocated or recessed license plates and plated rain gutters. Consider the vehicle’s wheelbase. A long wheelbase pulling a reefer and leaving a huge gap between the cab and the trailer is going to create a lot of unnecessary drag.

Fifth wheel gaps are one of the most common sources of drag on heavy-duty commercial motor vehicles. Fleets who want to set a gold standard in fuel savings should aim for a 16 to 20-inch gap. One of the oft-overlooked aspects of a slim fifth-wheel gap is the reduction in dirt accumulation on the cab.

Dirt accumulation is important. Although dead bugs and dirt may seem small and inconsequential, it creates unnecessary drag on the vehicle, especially since it can easily be eliminated during pre- and post-trip inspections.

What is the most important takeaway? Fuel efficiency is an evolving process. Motor carriers must stay on top of new fuel savings trends and make educated decisions about what actions they should take. They should pay attention to everything, create a culture of fuel efficiency, challenge longstanding principles, and learn innovative new ways to achieve even greater fuel savings and a fatter bottom line.

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