Once a fleet looking to save fuel has digested all the easily attained information from industry sources, adjusted their specs for maximum fuel efficiency, and adopted aftermarket fuel-savers such as aerodynamic devices and no-idling solutions, there’s no question their trucks will start to roll up savings. Wanting to keep that positive flow going is what drives some fleets to figure how they can further push — if not burst — their mpg envelope.
For some forward-leaning fleets, boosting fuel efficiency extends to pressing suppliers for a go at the latest technologies. Others run their own tests or turn to third parties to conduct testing to gauge whether promising specs will pan out in their corner of the real world.
While there’s no one way to get up on the cutting edge of fuel efficiency, fleets can get there without undue risk to their bottom lines. What it takes is moving swiftly, but deliberately, with a data-driven approach that can point to the best way to cut fuel spend.
With all that in mind, three experts offer their thoughts on what it means for a fleet operation to get beyond the basics to push its own mpg envelope.
The sooner the better
“We started this journey to be more green with the basics,” says John Vesey, Hirschbach Transportation’s operations support manager for fleet sustainability, fuel, and routing operations. The East Dubuque, Iowa-based carrier, founded in 1925, provides refrigerated truckload service nationwide, dedicated operations, and specialized services, including facility-to-facility high-volume moves and heavy hauls.
The privately held operation fields more than 950 trucks and 1,500 trailers. EPA SmartWay-certified since 2008, Hirschbach is a SmartWay Transport Partner and recipient of the 2016 SmartWay Excellence Award. That’s not surprising when you consider that its greenest drivers routinely average 9.5 mpg — with some in the fleet’s newest trucks topping 10 mpg.
“Back around 2004, before I was with the company, Hirschbach started looking at becoming greener and what the effect would be on the bottom line and in terms of ROI,” Vesey says. “They started with the basics — they had only 300 trucks then — letting suppliers solicit us and exploring things passively.”
Since then, the carrier has developed close relationships with truck makers and component suppliers, which have helped it to spec smartly for mpg performance and to preview advanced fuel-efficiency technology.
“In 2015, I moved over from the driver side to help bring a new approach to fuel efficiency,” explains Vesey. Charged with furthering Hirschbach’s sustainability efforts, he has expanded the mpg improvement effort by staying in touch with suppliers and by working with a third-party test engineer to evaluate new technologies.
“We’re taking advantage of our growth, too,” he says. “With our tractor cycle now at three years and trailers traded after five years, we’re even more attractive to manufacturers that want to test their equipment in the field. As we grow the fleet, we increase the return on the mpg investments we delved into ahead of time.”
A participant in the North American Council for Freight Efficiency’s Run on Less fuel-efficiency runs last fall, Hirschbach’s newest International ProStar sleepers are powered by Cummins ISX engines (450 hp at 1750 lbs-ft) mated to Eaton automated manual transmissions and spec’ed with a 2.64 rear axle ratio. They are fitted with the Bendix Wingman with adaptive cruise control, a diesel auxiliary power unit to cut idling, and a slew of wind-cheating enhancements that include aerodynamic bumper, roof fairing, side gap fairing, wheel covers and wheel gap coverings, and fuel-tank skirting.
Hirschbach recently conducted two tests of aerodynamic devices that led it to place additional aero skirts and mudflaps on its 53-foot trailers. Trailers also boast aero top and side fairings, the latest low-emissions reefer units, and wide-base single tires mounted on lighter-weight aluminum wheels. In recent years, the fleet’s lightweighting efforts have trimmed away almost 2,000 pounds from rigs.
Vesey says having close working relationships with suppliers results in tangible benefits, such as getting a retrofit calibration on engines that lets the fleet’s drivers use a “coast mode” when rolling downhill. He says the fleet “frequently works with Stemco on their TrailerTail aero products. We’re testing a new product of theirs this year. Also, recently Thermo King and eNow have approached us to test out new solar-powered reefer equipment.”
By contracting with Daryl Bear of MVT Solutions to conduct some fuel-efficiency testing directly for the fleet, Hirschbach has also “gained some good supplier contacts. For example, we found out about Wabash’s Ventix DRS segmented trailer skirt system and were able to test it on our choice of trailer.
“As far as attracting suppliers for us to be a test fleet,” Vesey continues, “it often comes down to being known for our efforts, whether that’s by getting a SmartWay award or being in an HDT article [Hirschbach was named an HDT Top Green Fleet in 2017].
“We want to make sure we have the right product by completing our due diligence,” he adds. “That’s the thinking behind conducting testing of new equipment like aero devices on our own trucks. I think because we have a ‘culture of yes,’ we get a lot of opportunities to look at things before other fleets do.”
Vesey says the fleet “wants to know when there is a product that could save us money on fuel and then get it tested as soon as possible. When we get into a test arrangement with a supplier, it requires honesty in both directions. We make sure the supplier will make their engineering support available to us during the test. And when it’s over, if the results are positive, then we decide if making the change will benefit our bottom line.”
Testing improves the breed
“When it comes to understanding fuel efficiency, there’s a real gap out there between what suppliers know and what fleets can learn,” says Daryl Bear, lead engineer and COO of MVT Solutions LLC. “We work to fill that gap.”
MVTS is a partnership formed by Bear and Mesilla Valley Transportation. It grew out of the advanced fuel-economy testing that Bear’s InnoMetric MPG firm performed over several years for the Las Cruces, New Mexico-based truckload carrier.
Under the leadership of President and CEO Royal Jones, Mesilla Valley Transportation has become well known for pushing the fuel-economy envelope. A NACFE Run on Less participant, the latest mpg-boosters in the MVT fleet include aero skirts on 100% of its trailers as well as trailer boat tails, aero wheel cover/wheel gap coverings on tandems, and a very narrow (under 24 inches) tractor-trailer gap. Also, MVT rolls on low-rolling-resistance tires, taps solar power to charge electric APUs, and has worked to cut the parasitic drag on its tractors.
MVT began relying on Bear’s InnoMetric MPG operation in 2012 to carry out high-tech testing of various new fuel-efficiency solutions. The fleet had tried other available test types, but found nothing was easier or more cost-effective than the methods Bear had developed by adapting what he’d learned as a race engineer, including for the Indy Racing League.
Bear launched his racing career in 2007, a few years after earning an engineering degree from Toronto’s Ryerson University. Working with MVT led to the formation in 2016 of MVTS, which makes the trucking-oriented testing the two companies developed available to other fleets. Bear says MVT Solutions applies highly portable technology developed to measure the performance of race cars to testing fuel efficiency solutions on trucks accurately — and quickly.
“We learned trucking was limited by a lack of reliable information on fuel savings, thanks to methodologies,” he says. “To resolve this, InnoMetric developed a high-tech fuel-efficiency testing method that uses fleet vehicles and technology adopted from race engineering. Our team worked day and night creating the program, performing tests at night and data analysis and engineering during the day.”
Once the testing program was refined, it was introduced to MVT, which found that it could get reliable answers in a matter of hours. As a result, the MVT fleet was able to test more than 100 technologies and spec adjustments in just two years.
Bear says the MVT Solutions technology is a “whole new generation” of testing, especially compared to the SAE/TMC Type II in-service fuel consumption test procedures that have been used going back to the 1980s. He says the older methodology is time-consuming, requiring test and control vehicles, and did not yield accurate enough results. “With all that is at stake [with boosting mpg], in terms of accuracy, it [the SAE/TMC protocol] was like bringing a knife to a gunfight.
“Type II testing will get you in the ballpark,” he continues, “but when you are making a million-dollar decision, you need a real-world correlation. Our methodology takes the guesswork out, and the testing is easier to run,” with no fuel tanks to weigh after multiple test runs.
Bear says the ROI on the quick but accurate testing is “so fast that a fleet can make the decision to change something in a day. That is to say, you can test it in a day and save a million dollars in a year.”
The list of what can be tested under the race-bred method is “almost endless.” He notes that it runs “from automated manuals to lubricant selection to everything in the drivetrain to gear ratios. That’s one of the advantages of teaming with MVT — they have tested nearly everything that’s out there.”
He says a fleet can even kick off mpg testing not only by looking at one component or product or another, but also by telling MVT Solutions “where it wants to be, such as ‘at 9 mpg’ and then we can figure out what will work best for them.
“Honestly,” adds Bear, “the one thing fleets could do to improve fuel efficiency is to become better educated. That’s not their fault. The industry needs to do a better job of getting the word out” on what works for fuel efficiency.
Talking all the way to the bank
“I did as much testing [for fuel economy] at the smaller fleets I worked at as I did at U.S. Xpress,” says Gerry Mead. After spending 20 years in fleet management, the recent HDT Truck Fleet Innovator went over to the supplier side last year, joining Phillips Industries as executive director of innovations. His last fleet post was senior vice president of maintenance for the Chattanooga-based mega truckload carrier. Prior to U.S. Xpress, he held top executive or regional maintenance positions with such fleets as PAM Transport, Walmart, and J.B. Hunt. Before launching his trucking career, Mead served as a Marine Corps motor transport maintenance chief.
While at U.S. Xpress, Mead turned to testing to prove out new ideas that paved the way for the fleet to adopt a range of vehicle technologies to boost mpg as well as to lower operating costs and improve safety.
For example, in 2016, he tested solar power to help handle tractor “hotel loads” by installing 200- and 300-watt solar panels on the roofs of three cabs. He specifically looked at battery usage and charging, and also how much power was drawn from the panels instead of the alternator. He found that the setup not only charged the batteries, but it also dropped fuel consumption slightly thanks to the alternator not running, and cut down wear and tear on the alternator.
On Mead’s watch, in early 2017, the carrier joined Pointe-Claire, Quebec-based PIT Group, an engineering test organization that helps member fleets select technologies to reduce costs and lessen environmental impacts. U.S. Xpress signed on after PIT conducted in-service fuel consumption testing at the carrier’s Tunnel Hill, Georgia, location. That testing, done with the carrier’s own vehicles, involved a variety of 2016 and 2017 tractor and trailer combinations with equivalent loads. The rigs ran over a 52-mile test route laid out over local highways and roads that was meant to be representative of the fleet’s day-to-day operations.
“What [working with] PIT Group gave us was independent, third-party validation that our testing itself was correct,” says Mead. Indeed, he contends that moving the needle on fuel efficiency is not really all about technology. “No matter what size your fleet is,” he says, “it comes down to relationships. It’s the people who ask questions who end up pushing the envelope.”
And he has advice on how to get your questions answered. “As it is, a lot of fleet managers do not break down their specs, say down to tires and clutches. But suppliers, maybe not the big OEMs but the many component and system suppliers, are always looking for fleets with solid operating data to test products for them.
“Doing so,” he continues, “you will sign an agreement and take on an assumption of risk. That’s why you want their engineers kept at your fingertips” to handle any issues that might arise on the road.
While he encourages fleets to test new technology, he cautions that it has to be done right, whether by the fleet alone or with outside help. “There are so many variables to watch,” says Mead. “If you don’t test the right number, the data won’t be good enough to base a decision on. You can’t test too few, because some results may have to be thrown out. Don’t think the numbers are the numbers just as they are. Look at them.”
Related: Building a Culture of Fuel Economy