In 2007, fuel prices across North America skyrocketed with alarming speed, thanks to massive instability in the Middle East and the advent of the Great Recession. Razor-thin profit margins shattered, and many cash-poor fleets went under almost right away.
Over time, the situation both at home and abroad stabilized. Eventually, boosted by relative peace and prosperity, and new fracking technology that allowed access to crude oil trapped in shale rock, diesel prices settled back down to around $2 a gallon — a price point that at the height of the recession, many never thought they’d see again. Still, experts cautioned, fuel prices remained notoriously volatile. They would climb again one day. It was simply a matter of time.
It appears that “one day” may be here. As a good economy has shifted into overdrive over the past 18 months, the OPEC oil cartel has opted to keep production low as a way of driving up prices. That and seasonal increases in demand as summer driving ramps up has market analysts predicting $3 a gallon averages for fuel nationally. And that was before President Trump elected to pull out of the Iran Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty last month, a move many analysts fear will send prices soaring. If a full-scale war should erupt in the Middle East, there is no telling where pump prices might eventually land.
If you’ve been coasting on reasonable fuel prices for a few years, there’s no better time to refocus on fleet fuel economy.
Luckily, even as fuel prices fell to “normal” levels after the worst of the Great Recession, a culture of fuel economy had taken root among major carriers across North America. Many of these fleet managers realized that even in times of cheap diesel, fuel-efficient trucks made outstanding business sense. With fuel routinely ranking as a top operating cost for fleets, common sense dictates that every penny not spent on fuel can drop straight to the bottom line.
Whether you’re just starting to refocus on fuel economy or want to improve what you’re doing, top fuel-saving fleets we spoke with suggest these three tried-and-true ways to improve your fuel efficiency.
1. Dead bugs and dirt: Understanding aerodynamics
Nothing has transformed the ability of on-highway Class 8 tractors to get better fuel economy more than the use of aerodynamics to sculpt and guide the flow of air around the truck and trailer in order to cut through the air more efficiently. But because airflow is invisible, aerodynamics can be frustrating for many fleet managers.
“Aero is huge,” says Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, which publishes information for fleets and last fall ran a three week "Run on Less" real-world fuel economy challenge. (See page 48.) “Just by putting a cap on the roof of your truck that matches the height of the trailers you’re pulling is worth a 15% boost in fuel economy alone. But you have to remember that these aerodynamic systems can complement — or counteract — one another. And that can be frustrating.”
“I see lots of people just adding stuff on and not looking at how they interact together,” says Henry Albert, CEO of Albert Transport, Run on Less participant, and well-known Class 8 fuel economy advocate. “A lot of devices you see aren’t mounted on the trucks correctly. And what you end up with is a bunch of panels on a truck all working against each other.”
Albert runs a full suite of aerodynamic devices on his 2018 Freightliner Cascadia, including FlowBelow’s undercarriage system, wheel covers, Fleet Engineers AeroSaver Classic side skirts that cover the landing gear, Stemco TrailerTail, a nose cone, Fleet Engineers AeroFlap mudflaps, and crossmember shields. But Albert has also been known to create his own solutions, once taking a power saw to a set of mud flaps he felt were sticking too far into the slipstream around the truck. His current truck features a relocated and recessed license plate, and the rain gutter on his trailer is plated over to smooth out airflow over it.
“You have to think of aerodynamics as a comprehensive system,” Albert stresses. “One of my pet peeves is to see a brand-new, super-slick aerodynamic truck with everything going for it potentially, then it’ll have a long wheelbase to pull a reefer and a huge fifth wheel gap between the truck and trailer. And that ruins everything. Because you’ve got a massive vacuum there, creating massive drag that the engine has to strain to overcome.”
Albert’s “system approach” to aerodynamics is one that appeals to James Lamarca, founder and executive vice president of System Freight Inc., a New Jersey-based fleet specializing in dedicated freight transport. SFI outfits both trucks and trailers with application-specific aerodynamics, including aerodynamic skirts on regional haul trailers to reduce wind drag under the rear tandems of the trailer. All tractors have full air fairings and side extenders — except the inner city delivery fleet trucks, which do not have side extenders, since they tend to get damaged easily. “We also utilize AeroFlap mud flaps on tractors as standard equipment on all new orders,” he adds. “And we look to make sure that any OEM new equipment is built with a close-out flange between hood and bumper to prevent air flow under the hood, which creates drag on the tractor.”
As tight as Albert’s trailer gap is, Nussbaum Transportation has him beat. The Illinois-based truckload fleet uses gaps set at a mere 12 inches. It’s part of a highly aggressive aerodynamics package that includes FlowBelow wheel covers, and 29-foot side skirts on trailers rather than the more common 23-foot ones. Front and side aerodynamic flaps also extend down close to the ground, all in an effort to push air straight back past the tractor-trailer instead of underneath it. Zero-offset wheels make sure the tires aren’t protruding into the windstream, with Anderson aerodynamic mud flaps and Stemco TrailerTails completing the package.
Albert’s own fifth wheel gap is set at an incredibly tight 16 inches, which taught him a key trick for evaluating tractor-trailer aerodynamics. “A benefit of that tight trailer gap is that the back of my cab gets very little dirt on it. A low-pressure area on a truck or trailer will attract wind, dust, and spray as air rushes in to fill the vacuum.”
As a result of this bit of knowledge, Albert keeps a sharp eye out for dirt and dead bugs on truck and trailer surfaces when he’s doing walk-around inspections. When he does find a dirty, buggy section, he starts looking at the surrounding area and considering options for ways to move air around it. He will even mount a video camera in particularly tricky areas to study how the spray patterns flow.
2. Getting the most from automated transmissions
Another proven way to boost your fleet’s fuel economy is to move away from manual gearboxes and spec automated transmissions in your next truck. These are complex pieces of equipment that depend on highly sophisticated computer-controlled algorithms to deliver an optimal blend of fuel economy and performance. But, fuel economy experts caution, too many fleets assume that automated transmissions are ready to go right out of the box when a new truck arrives at your shop. And that can be a big mistake.
“I love [automated manual transmissions],” says Joel Morrow, director of research and development for Ploger Transport, a small fleet based in Ohio specializing in hauling food products to distribution points. “They’re a huge enabler when it comes to getting better fuel economy. But AMTs are not a one-size fits all solution when it comes to how they’re programmed.”
Morrow says that in his experience, most trucks arrive from a dealer with the algorithms set “right down the middle” in terms of engine horsepower and shift points. “Most of the dealers don’t understand all the eco settings on an AMT — and a lot of the time you’ll have to go out and do some research to find out how to set the unit up the way you want,” he says. For instance, if you’re running smaller-displacement engines or 6x2 drive axles as Ploger does, there are different settings that can optimize the transmission’s performance to best match those specs. “I have people reaching out to me all the time looking for correct AMT settings, because they have a difficult time getting their dealers to assist in setting the units up correctly. But just changing the AMT to the correct eco setting for your application can give you an immediate 1 mpg bump without doing anything else to the truck.”
Automated transmissions are also the standard spec at SFI, although the fleet has a mix of 10- and 12-speed units depending on the age and make of the truck. And like Morrow, Lamarca emphasizes the importance of getting unit programming right. SFI’s preference is to program proper shift points at the correct rpms to use peak torque in each gear. “This gives our drivers the power they need to get rolling, while minimizing fuel consumption and over-revving engines,” Lamarca says.
Other SFI transmission tweaks include limited pedal and cruise speed settings, designed to encourage the use of cruise control — which boosts an AMT’s fuel efficiency performance considerably at highway speeds. “There are always some [drivers] grumbling about that,” Lamarca admits. “But when you show an employee the impact boosting fuel economy by just 1/10th mpg has across the entire fleet, it’s a real eye-opener. And then, if you show them the savings you get by boosting fuel economy 1/2 mpg across the fleet, it is staggering. Those numbers surprise anyone when they see them for the first time. And there’s really no way to argue against them.”
Another common mistake fleets make with automated transmissions, Albert says, is to assume that they do not require driver training. “Do AMTs work?” he asks. ”Yes. Absolutely. But once you get the shift points set correctly, there is still a lot to be gained on the fuel economy front when the driver understands the technology and uses it correctly. An AMT is a computer. And as with any computer, if you feed junk in, you get junk out.”
3. Getting drivers on board
Albert’s thoughts on drivers have broader implications as well. Regardless of all the technology on a truck today, the driver remains the number one variable with the greatest potential to boost fuel economy. That is because every aspect of vehicle management — from idle times, to acceleration, to lane changes, to acceleration and cruising speeds — fall under the drivers’ responsibilities. Perhaps no single aspect of getting a profitable fuel management program up and running is as important as securing buy-in from your drivers.
When Nussbaum Transportation made the commitment to emphasize fuel economy, 11-year veteran Cory Adams quickly emerged as the fleet’s top gun. Today he is Nussbuam’s driver performance coach, tasked with teaching newly hired drivers how to put up the kind of mpg numbers Nussbaum is looking for, and working with veteran drivers to stay focused if their mpg numbers start to slide.
“What Cory does is valuable for us as a business and for drivers as employees,” says CEO Brent Nussbaum. All drivers are scored and given bonuses based on a points scale that factors in performance on a number of operational factors, including fuel economy, safety, and vehicle maintenance. “When we have Cory show them how to drive his way, we also show them the positive impact good fuel economy has on their paychecks,” Nussbaum says. “And we drive the point home that if they continue to follow Cory’s steps, and improve their performance each month, they will make more money.”
Nussbaum gives a sly little chuckle. “We post our top performers in our company newsletter each month, too,” he adds. “And we also show the bonus money the top performers are getting. And we send that newsletter to the home of all of our employees. So — it may not be totally fair — but it adds a bit of pressure from the home front as well if you have someone at the house asking your drivers, ‘Hey — how come you’re leaving all this money on the table?”’
Adams preaches smooth and consistent behavior when out on the road, telling Nussbaum drivers to act like they’re driving on icy winter roads all year round. “Drivers have to respect gravity,” he says. “I tell them not to fight gravity and try to speed up when they’re going up a hill or an overpass. Be consistent and let a little speed bleed off. Because once you top that hill, gravity becomes your ally, and will give you that speed — and more — when you’re going back down again.”
In keeping with his “winter roads” philosophy, Adams coaches drivers to look farther ahead to see what traffic lights and other vehicles are doing so they can slow down earlier if a light changes. “The goal here — just like avoiding braking on an icy road — is not to stop unless you have to. Because if you don’t stop, you don’t have to burn a whole bunch of fuel in order to get going again.”
The same concept applies to lane changes and to tire and brake wear. “My dad was an owner-operator,” Adams says. “So I was taught to drive in ways that will make tires and brakes last as long as possible. That means smooth, easy lane changes and slowing and stopping. Because it turns out that if you’re driving in a way that lets your tires and brakes have as long of a service life as possible, you’re also saving fuel by default.”
Albert, who is already incredibly disciplined as a driver, says he’s been “playing around” with the LinkeDrive Pedal Coach lately. But his friendly rival, Morrow, is sold on the driver coaching tool, an in-cab app that constantly calculates the optimal fuel rate during every trip, giving the driver a moving mpg target that doesn’t penalize him or her for a heavy load or an old truck.
Morrow says an in-cab coaching tool like this feeds a driver’s competitive nature and turns fuel economy numbers into a game of sorts. “We tried a fuel economy bonus,” he says. “But the drivers kind of look on that as a gimmick. And then, if something happens that’s beyond their control, then suddenly they’re pissed and they don’t care about fuel economy. And that’s not good.”
Morrow says Ploger eventually decided to raise base pay for all drivers and award bonuses for outstanding fuel economy performance — which is where Pedal Coach comes in. “We can see who’s doing what in real time and know what the standings are,” he says. “Which makes it fun and encourages everyone to focus on fuel economy. And it’s really worked well for us.”
The main thing to keep in mind about fuel economy numbers in Class 8 trucks is that the process never ends. Even a fuel spec guru like Henry Albert is pleasantly surprised when he participates in an event like Run on Less and learns something new. The lesson, he says: Pay attention to everything, challenge yourself and your employees, and then see where you can take the numbers.