No silver bullet

"Fuel economy is one of our top priorities,"
says Chad England, president of C.R. England.

C.R. England's fuel economy strategies are broadly divided into two categories: behavior and equipment. Behavior comes first. The man behind the wheel has an enormous impact on fuel economy, upwards of 30 percent.

England says the big behavioral issues at his company are over-revving and idling, both of which can be attacked from several directions. Training is number one, and C.R. England is working with independent contractors to help address this problem. Technology is another method. England's fleet is equipped with auto shut-off for idling (five minutes), and speed limiters (62 mph).

Carrots are the third method. C.R. Enlgand is currently promoting fule-efficient driving behavior by giving away a Harley Davidson. The bike will be raffled off among the top fuel-savings drivers.

When it comes to equipment, the fleet doesn't take third-parties' word for it, staging its own independent tests. "This has been a huge key to our success," England said. "Over the past few years, our fuel economy has gone up every month."

Most fleets can't afford to run an empty truck for hundreds of miles through the desert just to see if an aerodynamic add-on lives up to its brochure. However, England says smaller fleets can simply run new equipment on some trucks and not others and compare notes. It's less scientific, but it gets the job done, and in the end, it's really abou the bag of tricks and not the finale.

"There is not silver bullet," England says. "There is a multitude of things you need to work on."

Under every rock

"Managing fuel is really a proxy for how well you manage your overall business," says Vin McLoughlin, chairman of Cardinal Logistics. "But it's not that easy."

Numerous factors affect a truck's fuel performance: weather, geography, load size and type, urban streets vs. interstate highway. These are all difficult to track, and it's even harder in operations with slip seating like Cardinal's.

In McLoughlin's world, effectively managing fleet fuel consumption means knowing what every driver is doing and how every truck is performing every step of the way. Cardinal is installing information collection systems that use Bluetooth and a driver's handheld device to collect data from drivers and truckers throughout a given day. This can help address problems with tracking mpg in slip seating.

Another large part of that micromanagement is making sure trucks get to the cheapest refueling stations. Cardinal Logistics uses Appian truck routing software to manage every driver individually, and to make sure trucks pass near optimum refueling points.

"It's all about execution at the local level," McLoughlin reiterates. "When prices are $4 a gallon, you have to look under every single rock."

Low- and high-tech

AAA Cooper puts a premium on fuel-saving technologies, says Terry Clouser, director of maintenance. The company is experimenting with fuel-saving devices ranging from side skirts on trailers to after-market computer devices.

AAA Cooper opted to take the operator out of the equation as much as possible. It uses automatic transmissions, limits tractor speed 65 mph and has an idle shut-off time of three minutes.

Aerodynamics is high on the priority list. All tractors are equipped with full aerodynamic packages, but Clouser is looking beyond that. AAA Cooper is considering the benefits of a new type of fifth wheel. The fifth wheel automatically moves toward the trailer as the truck increases speed, closing the gap between the tractor and trailer, thereby reducing drag. The trailer falls back to its normal position as speed goes back down.

Such advanced solutions aren't cheap. But Clouser maintains the simple things, too, can make a world of difference in fuel economy.

"We spend a lot of time on pre- and post-trip inspections, making sure tires are pumped up," Clouser said. An under-inflated tire can make an enormous downside difference in mileage.

From the June 2011 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.

Read more about HDT's 2011 Truck Fleet Innovators.