Nussbaum Transportation's very company motto signals its approach to innovation: "Setting new ideas in motion."
Phil Braker
Phil Braker
Phil Braker, vice president of operations, has taken that motto to heart, working with others at the company to develop a truck and trailer spec he believes will get close to 9 mpg.

Braker learned to drive trucks growing up on a farm in southwest Missouri and started working at Normal, Ill.-based Nussbaum in 2000. When they shut down their LTL division and started buying equipment for the truckload division, which previously had been entirely owner-operators, Braker was involved in the equipment purchasing. As the company grew, he worked his way up to vice president. Today, Nussbaum owns nearly 200 over-the-road trucks and has about 30 owner-operators.

Braker and others at the company were inspired after attending a conference about what other fleets were doing to improve fuel economy, especially New Mexico-based Mesilla Valley Transportation, a fuel economy pioneer.

"Every company thinks they're watching fuel economy and wants better fuel economy, but until you really buckle down and decide that's going to be a core focus and really go crazy with it, it's hard to get anywhere," Braker says.

When Braker's team went to the dealer with the specs they wanted, including a 6x2 single-drive axle configuration, the dealer said they were crazy. How did they expect to sell those trucks later on?

"It was a gamble, for sure," Braker admits. "But if it works the way it's supposed to, we'll sell that truck with a sticker on the windshield saying it gets 8 mpg."

They found a dealer who would work with them and bought 10 Freightliner Cascadias with the new spec to test.

"We've definitely made some adjustments along the way, but it worked," he says. Through the summer, trucks were running in the high-7- to high-8-mpg range, and they expect new trailer aerodynamics to add another 1 mpg. Nussbaum now has 75 of the new-spec trucks, and by mid-year expects to have about 150. In addition to the Cascadias, they've also been testing some Volvos with 6x2s.

The 6x2, which saved about 500 pounds along with reducing parasitic friction, is probably the most radical part of the spec. It also includes:

- Direct-drive transmission ("There is no overdrive; that just produces friction," Braker says.)
- A fast rear end with a 2.50 rear axle ratio
- Detroit DD15 engines with predictive cruise control
- Eaton UltraShift Plus transmissions
- Shortened wheelbase to limit the amount of air that can swirl between tractor and trailer
- Freightliner's ParkSmart electric auxiliary power system
- Eliminated one of the spot mirrors from the hood
- No sun visor or quarter fenders
- Wide-base single tires on aluminum wheels (both tractor and trailer)

On the trailers, Nussbaum is retrofitting its trailer fleet with TrailerTails (an aerodynamic collapsible boat-tail on the back of the trailer) and side skirts from ATDynamics. Other trailer specs include:

- Fuel-saving/low-spray EcoFlap mudflaps on tractor and trailer
- Repositioned license plate so it doesn't interrupt air flow
- Added flashing on the top of the trailer to make air flow over where the rain gutter normally sticks up at the back

Of course, specs are only part of the equation. "Drivers are a key part of this," Braker says. The company developed a driver scorecard that takes into account not only fuel efficiency, but also safety items such as sudden stops, productivity items such as late deliveries and compliance items such as logbooks.

"We wrote our own fuel optimizer program telling them where to buy the cheapest fuel, and we grade them on compliance. That's black and white - you either bought where we told you or you didn't."

The scores translate into bronze, silver and gold levels, and the higher drivers go on the scale, the more those points translate into higher earnings.

Some drivers, Braker acknowledges, are satisfied with what they're earning. "But others really go after it, and pretty soon that gets infectious. It takes a lot of work from the driver manager to help encourage their drivers along, but there's a huge gain there. There's a lot of fuel economy attached to the driver's right foot."

The company will bring an underperforming driver into the office and put him into a truck with a driver trainer who focuses on fuel economy. The driver will take the truck around a set loop, then the trainer will drive the same loop to demonstrate how fuel-efficient techniques can up the mpg numbers.

"We had one a couple of weeks ago where the trainer beat the driver by a mile per gallon, and that really opened the eyes of the driver," Braker says.

Freightliner's predictive cruise control helps, Braker says, but "it takes a little bit of driver training or acceptance." Recently they also added Meritor's OnGuard system to the spec, not only for the safety benefits, "but also we felt like it complemented the predictive cruise," he explains. "One of the things predictive cruise does is, as it sees a hill or mountain, it speeds up a little. But drivers would complain that it didn't know there was a car in front of them. With OnGuard, it makes sure you keep a safe following distance."

Braker says he "had a blast" working on the new fuel-efficient spec.

Fuel efficiency isn't the only area where Braker's done some innovative things. The company recently worked with Wabash National to design an extra-strong van trailer that does the work of a flatbed and a regular dry van.

The vans take in steel coils and bring out major appliances, a low-density cargo. Wabash has introduced it as the DuraPlate XD-35, meaning extreme duty and 35,000 pounds, the van's concentrated load rating.

"That's the kind of thing that just makes this company fun, to be able to try new things and spend the time to be creative and go to the manufacturer," he says.

But Braker emphasizes that all these innovations are a team effort. "I want to be clear; it's not about me," he says. "We've got a great team, and there are a lot of people involved," including the president of the company; the IT staff that helped write optimization programs; the HR people who hire the right drivers; the driver managers who work with the drivers; and the maintenance staff that's willing to put up with testing new products and installing new things.

"We, as managers, looked at it, and it really came down to 'There's gotta be a better way.' It just kind of becomes a culture that has to be changed."

From the March 2012 issue of HDT.