November 2010, TruckingInfo.com - Feature
Schneider National has been tending its fuel economy garden for more than 30 years and has long since picked the fruit within easy reach.
Schneider says its efforts over the years have led to fuel savings of almost 49 million gallons a year.
Since 1978, when it started offering drivers incentives to cut idling and save fuel with proper shifting, the giant truckload carrier has built a system that examines every conceivable technology and system to see if it can squeeze a tenth-of-a-percent gain out of each gallon.
"Fuel is our second largest cost, so it's something we definitely want to manage as closely as possible," says Fuel Purchasing Manager Bryan Gerl. "We feel like we're trying to lead the industry in sustainability."
The Schneider engineering staff intensively studies fuel-saving devices and systems. The company is approached by 30 to 50 vendors a year offering fuel economy devices. It requires the vendors to perform tests prescribed by the Society of Automotive Engineers to validate their claims, and if the device clears that hurdle then the company will do its own testing, Gerl says.
Every year between May and September, a four-person Schneider team - a mechanic, an engineer and two drivers - tests equipment and systems, and validates new technologies.
This year's effort is finding benefits in new low-rolling-resistance tires. The 2010 engines using SCR technology also are showing mpg gains.
A Systemic Approach
Gerl prefers not to talk about miles per gallon as a fleet performance statistic, because there are too many uncontrollable variables in the number - weather, the weight of the load, traffic, for example. In the Schneider system, mpg is just one measurement of fuel economy.
"When we look at mpg we try to look at input metrics such as hard braking, overspeed and idling," he explains. "These are the things the driver can control."
Automatic transmissions are an example of Schneider's systemic approach to fuel economy.
The company takes a mixed approach to automatics, which frequently are billed as a way to promote fuel-efficient driving. Gerl says Schneider uses them in some trucks and likes them as much for their safety benefits as for their fuel economy.
Gains in economy really depend on the driver, he says. An experienced driver with a standard transmission can match the fuel economy performance of an automatic transmission. But it's more complicated than just an mpg calculation. Automatics come with an extra maintenance cost because company mechanics have to get certified to work on them.
"We want to make sure we understand the technologies," is the way Gerl puts it.
A recent innovation at Schneider is covers for tractor drive wheels to reduce turbulence. After two years of testing, the company announced earlier this year that after it completes outfitting its fleet, it will reduce drag by about 1 percent and save 1.8 million gallons of fuel a year.
The company also has for the past five years been looking closely at engine-off cooling, with the aim of finding a solution that produces zero emissions. Gerl says these battery-operated systems are "fairly expensive" and Schneider is still measuring the costs and benefits.
He sees fuel-saving possibilities in trailer aerodynamics, particularly with low-rolling-resistance tires and side skirts, but the challenge of trailer utilization remains a tough nut.
"We have large customers who require trailer pools, and obviously you're not getting the benefit of aerodynamics on the trailer if the trailer's not moving down the road."
He is starting to see improvements in tractor and trailer skirts that might make these technologies more attractive. Rigid devices are susceptible to expensive damage, but he's now seeing skirts that have flexible installations that give under contact.
"I think you're going to see more of that," he says.
Schneider has lately has renewed its focus on making sure that its drivers understand how big a factor they are in the performance of the truck, Gerl says. An example: a monthly incentive program for drivers who achieve best-in-industry trip planning.
Another focus right now is getting full use of the fleet's equipment. Schneider is working on communications and decision support systems that allow quick, flexible responses to changing requirements. If a receiver calls to say that the planned delivery time won't work, the company wants to be able to put that driver on a load that can be delivered right away and have another driver ready when the original load is needed.
"Utilization of equipment and drivers is key to efficiency gains," Gerl says.
Schneider says its efforts over the years have led to fuel savings of almost 49 million gallons a year. Money in the bank.
It's also worth noting that under federal and state emissions regulations, engine manufacturers and the trucking industry have managed to cut particulates and NOx emissions by more than 80 percent since 1988.