With the federal government's new regulations setting fuel economy goals for medium- and heavy-duty trucks, there's been a lot of attention paid to current technologies
You can teach old dogs new tricks (Photo: Jim Park)
You can teach old dogs new tricks (Photo: Jim Park)
such as low-rolling-resistance tires and future developments in things like waste-heat recovery. Yet some of the most dramatic fuel economy improvements come not from the latest gadgets, but from the operator.

During a session on fuel cost mitigation at the National Private Truck Council meeting earlier this year, two private fleets talked about how focusing on driver habits has paid off.

Coach in the cab

Upstate Niagara Cooperative is a food and beverage co-op owned by about 400 dairy farmers in western New York State. They run a well-maintained fleet of 121 vehicles, with two milk plants, a cultured products plant, and four distribution centers.

Ed Porter, director of transportation, said driver behavior can make a huge difference in fuel economy.

"The big thing is drivers, we're not in the cab with them every day," he said, explaining that idle time, shifting patterns, gear selection, speeding, and cruise control are all factors. The same kind of driver behavior that wastes fuel, also creates a ripple effect in operations, with increased likelihood of breakdowns and accidents.

"Our approach has been trying to work with the drivers, coaching them while they're in the cab," Porter said. "We installed intelligent telematics technology; we're working on coaching them before they go out on their route and when they come back." They use classroom training, in-cab coaching, and target retraining of poor performers.

A big focus is getting drivers to shift more in the sweet spot. He showed a chart of data from 10 trucks from the first three months of telematics system. One truck had a good idling score, but the driver was wasting fuel by running in the 1,700-1,800 rpm range. "In 9th gear at 1,500 rpm he easily could have shifted then, and gotten better fuel economy all the way through," Porter said.

But it's not easy to change that behavior, he admitted. "The older drivers were all trained that you wind it out in every gear."

The in-cab telematics unit the co-op is using gives the driver an audio tone when he's over-revving. Other than that, the screen is blank until the truck is stopped. At that point, the screen comes on and the driver can see his shift ranges and fuel economy.

"He can see what his supervisor is seeing and have a better idea what he's going to hear when he gets back in," Porter said.

Seven out of the 10 trucks tested saw marked improvement after the first three months. "We're not where we need to be yet, but we are seeing an improvement," Porter said.

The pre-coaching average was 5.81 mpg, the post-coaching average 6.10 mpg. They've calculated the payback on the telematics system to be six to eight months.

Training, training

Aquatic Trucking Co. makes bathtubs and showers, with six manufacturing locations and fleet locations nationwide. It is seeing fuel mileage in the 6.8-7.1 mpg range in its fleet of 108 Freightliner Century Class tractors running in mostly over-the-road operations.

"The reason for that is driver training," said James Pysher, transportation equipment and compliance manager. "It doesn't matter how you spec a vehicle, it doesn't matter if you add an APU - if the drivers aren't trained correctly and you can't have their buy-in, you're not going to get anywhere."

Aquatic brings engine builders and representatives from Penske to do regular driver training. At each location, drivers also participate in a training program where they ride with a driver trainer, not only when they're hired but also throughout their employment. They do post-accident ride alongs as well. "Any time those drivers can be with a trainer, we take that opportunity."

They train on throttle use, shifting patterns (although the company has moved largely to automatic and automated transmissions), use of cruise control, idling habits, and proper use of auxiliary power units.

"Drivers are habitual by nature," Pysher said. "Most of us have drivers on the road that have been doing this a long time. If you can break the bad habits, like always wanting to put the hammer down, and create positive driving habits, we will see the benefits in fuel cost savings. They say it takes 21 days to break a habit, but if they really want to do it we've found it's faster than that."

Aquatic also publicly posts several reports for the drivers to see, such as mpg, idle time and cruise control settings for each and every driver.

"When they started seeing their buddy's information, it drives that competitive nature. They don't want their buddy to have one over on them."

It's also important to show drivers what they save by using those positive habits. If they average 80,000 miles a year, he said, every 1/4 mpg represents roughly $1,650 a year at $4 a gallon. "Drivers understand dollars."

From the September 2011 issue of HDT.
About the author
Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

Editor and Associate Publisher

Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology.

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