Driver fuel economy bonuses aren’t new, but they really got attention as a business tool for fleets in the early 2000s. Seemingly out of nowhere, fuel prices shot up to astronomical levels, spurred on by the Iraq War and other unrest in the Middle East. Fleets scrambled to boost their mpg numbers by any means possible.
Because nothing impacts fuel economy more than the driver of a truck, fleets began incentivizing drivers to ease off the throttle, slow down, and save fuel.
In 2018, the North American Council for Freight Efficiency looked at fuel economy during one of its Run on Less fleet performance studies and found that the seven fleets that participated in the 17-day run saved 2,877 gallons of fuel.
Those numbers would have resulted in $7,193 in savings for a seven-truck fleet, or approximately $14,000 in a month — theoretically saving $168,000 over the course of year.
Yet incentivizing drivers to save fuel isn’t as universal as one might think.
Reaping the Benefits of Fuel Bonus Programs
Nussbaum driver-trainer Clark Reed emerged as a consistent fuel economy champion when his fleet began a fuel economy bonus program and speaks regularly on both safe and fuel-efficient driving practices. Even he’s not sure how common fuel economy bonus programs are in the industry today.
“The assumption is that these programs are pretty standard,” he told me. “But when you reached out to me for this story, I asked several friends who drive for other fleets about it. And I was surprised to learn that many of them do not have fuel economy programs.
"Some fleets don’t seem to be real concerned about boosting their fuel economy — which strikes me as odd, because there’s no doubt the programs bring money straight to a fleet’s bottom line. And I firmly believe these programs help with driver retention, as well.”
The problem seems to be coming up with a program that’s fair to drivers. Simple mpg goals don’t cut it.
That’s because one week a driver could be hauling a light load across the Great Plains and hitting those mpg numbers with ease. But the next week, he or she might be loaded heavy and pulling the Rocky Mountains with no chance in hell of hitting that goal.
“Headwinds and cold weather can kill your chance at a fuel economy bonus, too,” Reed said. “That’s why it seems to me that fleets that just do a straight mpg-based bonus are selling themselves short. Once a driver realizes that he’s not going to hit his or her number, then they’re going take themselves completely out of the game and just run as hard as they can to get as many miles as they can to make up the difference on their next paycheck.”
Nussbaum, he said, is taking a more holistic approach, encompassing safety and other operational factors. This “makes bonuses more consistently obtainable for drivers while still delivering significant fuel savings for fleets."
'Fuel is Our Barometer'
Royal Jones, however, isn’t so sure about that. Jones is the founder and CEO of Mesilla Valley Transportation, known as one of the most fuel-efficient fleets in North America.
Jones once famously gave each driver with the highest mpg for the month a Harley-Davidson motorcycle — and put them in a drawing for a brand-new Corvette at the end of the year.
“It was well worth it, because we were saving so much money on fuel, we were still coming out way ahead,” Jones said. “Although I eventually realized that giving my best drivers Harleys and Corvettes wasn’t the best way of keeping them healthy and behind the steering wheel.”
Fifteen years and over 40 cars later, Mesilla Valley and Jones are still at it, with some improvement.
“We give the driver with the best fuel economy numbers over a three-month period a brand-new car,” Jones said. “Only it’s a nice family car. And they’re in the running for a $25,000 bonus at year’s end. What we’ve found is that doing it this way brings the driver’s family into the equation. That’s a lot of money, and a family car is a real benefit. So, suddenly, you have the spouse and the kids asking Mom or Dad how their fuel economy bonus is going.”
There are other criteria the drivers have to hit as well, Jones explained. They need to have zero accidents and perfect logbooks as well to be in the running.
“You can only win the car once, now,” he said. “But the $25,000 is up for grabs as many times as you can get it. We’ve got one driver that’s won the jackpot four times already. Plus, we give the jackpot winner an extra 4 cents a mile as a pay raise. So, it’s a seriously good program for our drivers.”
A former owner-operator and invariant tinkerer, Jones got serious about fuel economy when he bought a second truck and realized that he was in danger of losing his dream if he didn’t find a way to operate more efficiently.
“This was when fuel was $1 a gallon,” he said. “But I realized that if myself and my other team drivers could just get from 4 mpg (which was the national average at the time) to 5 mpg, I’d go from losing $1,500 each month, to pocketing $500. So that’s how it all started.”
Today, Jones explained, if he can save just 0.1 mpg (a tenth of a mile) for one truck, that’s saving the fleet 25,000 gallons of diesel per year.
“Fuel is our measurement for how we’re doing,” he said. “It’s our barometer. We don’t compensate for hills, weather, or anything like that, and I don’t feel like we need to.
"We had a driver running from El Paso through Denver to California with heavy loads win the $25,000. She told me her trick was to maintain 10 pounds of manifold pressure while climbing grades to keep her fuel burn about what it would be on a flat stretch of road.
“So, I’m convinced that if we can get the drivers to play the game, they’ll find a way to win, no matter what kind of route, or load, or weather they’re dealing with.”
A More Holistic Truck Driver Bonus Program
Some fleets are looking at bonus programs differently, beyond simple miles per gallon.
As telematics technologies have improved, more companies are starting to integrate other behavior into their bonus equations to not only save fuel, but also to enhance safety and reduce maintenance costs.
Nussbaum was among the first fleets to begin experimenting with ways to promote good driving habits beyond simply getting good fuel economy.
“The Nussbaum driver bonus program today is based on a number of different factors,” Clark explained. “Because of telematics, we can now track so many different things, like following distances, obeying the speed limit, driving smoothly to reduce shocks to the powertrain and other things.”
There can be a 35% difference between the most and least efficient drivers when it comes to fuel economy, according to a report by the American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council. And that report found that the most fuel-efficient drivers were consistently doing things that can be tracked by the telematics systems on today’s trucks:
- Maintain a high, but not maximum, average speed.
- Operate a high percent of the trip distance in top gear.
- Use cruise control when possible.
- Minimize the amount of time spent idling.
- Minimize the number of sudden decelerations (hard braking) and accelerations.
Clark said it’s also possible to factor in things that work against drivers, “such as headwind speed and even how much time the driver is actually behind the wheel. Because drivers on routes with lots of shorter hauls and stops aren’t going to be able to compete with another guy who’s locked in cruise control at 63 mph all day long.”
All of these factors are crunched into an overall performance score, which determines if the driver gets a bonus.
“It’s a holistic approach, and the buy-in with drivers is much slower than an outright fuel economy bonus,” Reed said. “But once the drivers understood the conditions and started hitting their numbers, they realized they were just as productive as they’d ever been and were making as much — or even more — money to boot. Once word got out, the buy-in among other drivers increased rapidly.”
A Different Approach to Incentivizing Drivers
Veriha Trucking, out of Marinette, Wisconsin, is taking a slightly different tack, although its ultimate goal closely mirrors Nussbaum’s, says Scott Paul, operations manager for the fleet. And, perhaps counterintuitively, they’ve done that by giving more freedom and control to their drivers.
Instead of tracking fuel mileage per gallon, drivers use the TrueFuel app to guide them to the lowest priced fuel nearby when it’s time to refuel. That is tied in with other important factors such as safety camera scores, on-time PM scheduling, speeding, throttle and engine control and other factors. Using TrueFuel at least 70% of the time when refueling is one of them.
“The drivers seem to like this approach better,” Paul said. “We’re getting more engagement from them because they feel like they have more control over getting that bonus every quarter. It takes things they can’t control, like a run down into the West Virginia mountains, out of the equation and lets them focus on things they can control. It helps them get on track and stay on track if they decide they want that bonus.”
No matter which approach you decide upon, doing something — anything — is better than nothing, Jones said.
"Just run some basic numbers and you’ll see the potential,” he said. “Because fuel is always going to be there. And the only thing better than buying fuel cheap, is not buying it at all.”