Start somewhere and see where it takes you... maybe that will be beyond 10 mpg.

Start somewhere and see where it takes you... maybe that will be beyond 10 mpg.

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There are more than a few ways to cut fuel costs, be that by burning less of it or spending less to buy it. But there’s no one way to save that works the same for every fleet, even for those in the same trucking niche. On the other hand, there are many fuel-saving technologies and tactics that work well across many fleets, at least to one degree or another.

So what’s a manager to do? Buy this? Buy that? Which to buy first? Which not to buy at all? Working through this conundrum might be easier if you keep in mind six basic steps on how to trim a fleet’s fuel spend: Research. Target. Measure. Monitor. Adjust. Repeat.

As with any journey, you have to start somewhere. In this case, it’s figuring out what impact your fleet’s fuel spend has on your bottom line – and where it hits it the hardest. From that research, you can determine your key pain points. For example, are you not savvy about where you buy fuel? Are you running outdated, less fuel-efficient vehicle specs? Or maybe you have drivers who just won’t work with you on increasing mpg?

Once that analysis is complete, it’s time to deep-dive into promising options. Get educated on what other fleets have tried. Sources can include media outlets such as HDT, industry associations like the American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council, and government resources like EPA’s SmartWay program. And consider what truck makers, component suppliers, technology providers, and aftermarket vendors are pitching that might help.

Target and tackle

Once you’ve done that analysis, target at least one goal to tackle and have at it. Maybe that will be lowering rolling resistance on existing trucks by trying out a few sets of tires or smoothing airflow by adding skirting to a few trailers. Perhaps it will mean promoting your best driver to act at least part-time as an mpg-boosting coach for your poorest performers.

Of course, you have to carefully measure the results you get vs. the baseline mpg level for each given spec change or other solution. And you want to measure more than dollars or fuel saved. You need to factor in any added costs — for acquisition, maintenance, depreciation, etc. — to get your true return on investment.

Now, you’re going places. But you are still in the first go-round. Next, you have to start monitoring the ongoing impact of the new spec, product, or business practice to see how it pans out over time. You’ll be looking to gauge your progress or lack thereof, and to see if a positive uptick is merely a blip or a bankable result.

Not everything works out for every fleet. Monitoring naturally leads to rejecting anything that’s not doing the trick. But it also indicates where adjusting solutions or techniques will further increase efficiency, including by reducing ancillary costs. To help ensure all the proper adjustments are made, make sure to deputize your drivers and maintenance techs to deliver invaluable in-the-field feedback on anything they would do differently as well as any hidden pitfalls or unintended consequences of changes.

Of course, as with anything equipment-related, monitoring and adjusting never really ends. As for the last step, that’s repeating. Yes, you want to start the whole process over for the next efficiency target on your list. But the sixth step also means going back periodically to see if there is yet a more efficient method or product or solution to replace or enhance whatever you have already run through the first five steps.

“The bottom line to scorecarding is that drivers used to get frustrated over trying to hit mpg...

“The bottom line to scorecarding is that drivers used to get frustrated over trying to hit mpg targets,” says Brent Nussbaum. “But habits-based scoring takes that away.”

Photo: Nussbaum Transportation

Expert talk

In short, the efficiency chase never ends. To put some expert opinion to work on all this, HDT consulted with fleet executives and consultants versed in improving efficiency for their thoughts and real-world tips on how best to save fuel.

“When it comes to fuel economy, all parties involved in a truck’s lifecycle and operation play a role in getting the most out of the fuel tank. Drivers, maintenance and fleet operators included,” says Jim Griffin, chief operating officer and chief technology officer of Fleet Advantage, which provides business analytics, equipment financing, and lifecycle-cost management services.

UPS is well-known for its global commitment to shrinking its carbon footprint, so Bill Brentar, vice president of maintenance and engineering and a 2019 HDT Truck Fleet Innovator, keeps upping the number of alternative-fueled tractors in its over-the-road fleet of over 20,000 power units. Even so, the giant package carrier is not turning its nose up on the further greening of diesel power.

“We work with OEMs so we can put in for a lot of changes” as specs are developed, he points out. And while the alternative-fuel “rolling laboratory” fleet builds UPS’ green credentials, the fuel-saving specs are more likely to benefit the bottom line.

The UPS long-haul fleet is collaborating with Kenworth on the $8 million Super Truck II fuel-efficiency demonstration program that’s funded by the Department of Energy. Brentar says UPS will provide guidance on its duty cycles to help determine performance levels for SuperTruck II, as well as lend advice on the commercial feasibility and driver acceptance of technologies developed under the program.

“SuperTruck II will let us study cutting-edge technologies, and it will support the UPS commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from global ground operations 12% by 2025,” Brentar says. “With this project, we’ll probably see a lot of powertrain management systems [developed]. Like with anything else, we do not want it to be far-fetched, but practical and usable.”

Even fleets much smaller than UPS are increasingly spec’ing all sorts of mpg-boosters. Consider B&B Trucking, a postal hauler out of Kalamazoo, that runs 212 tractors on dedicated routes that crisscross the eastern U.S.

Joshua Porter, executive vice president and another 2019 HDT Truck Fleet Innovator, ticks off a long list of fuel-saving specs on B&B’s Volvo tractors: automated manual transmissions, low-rolling-resistance tires, anti-idling devices, synthetic lubricants, automatic tire inflation systems on tractors, adaptive loading axles on tractors and trailers, full tractor aerodynamic packages, aerodynamic skirting on trailers, and trailer-tire pressure inflation systems, among others.

At Old Dominion Freight Lines (left), conducting preventive maintenance properly is considered a...

At Old Dominion Freight Lines (left), conducting preventive maintenance properly is considered a key way “to address anything that can impact fuel economy as quickly as possible,” says Chris Harrell.

Photo: Old Dominion Freight Lines

Test fleet

“We were a test fleet for Eaton’s automated manual transmission back in the ‘90s, so we saw the potential early on,” Porter says. His current spec calls for the Volvo I-Shift, which B&B has ben ordering since 2014.

“Our drivers didn’t want automated manuals at first,” he recalls. “Their view was, ‘If you can’t shift, you shouldn’t be a driver.’ But then six months went by and even our seasoned drivers did not want us taking them back.” Porter says the mpg gain from automated transmissions will depend on where you operate. “We run all over the eastern half of the country and we see from a 3% to 5% improvement in fuel efficiency.”

He says that “cold winters notwithstanding, overall we are seeing our fuel efficiency rise year by year thanks to our specs. It’s not just transmissions. It’s everything from low-roll tires to skirts on all trailers to using synthetic oil. We’re also moving to downsped drivetrains. We buy a mix of new and old trucks and, if necessary, we will replace components as needed on used ones to end up with a downsped drivetrain.”

Newer is greener

While retrofitting trucks with fuel-saving specs can be a game-changer, going all the way to brand new can yield sizeable savings. According to Fleet Advantage data, a fleet can realize a first-year per-truck savings of $16,928 when upgrading from a 2015 model-year sleeper-equipped tractor to a 2020 model. For a fleet of 100 trucks, such an upgrade can yield a savings of $1.7 million.

“Fuel economy accounts for a large portion of these savings,” says Griffin. “In fact, fleets can save $6,048 in the first year of fuel expenditures when replacing a 2015 MY sleeper, representing a 12% increase in fuel economy and reduction of CO2 emissions.”

But you can’t just buy a new truck and expect all to roll out good and green. “Drivers and maintenance personnel need to constantly review the truck itself to identify specific tactics that will increase the potential for fuel economy,” Griffin says. “Areas such as speed management, load capacity, idle time, and proper air pressure in tires can all affect whether a truck is maximizing its fuel economy.” 

Old Dominion Freight Line subscribes to the newer-is-greener view. The Thomasville, North Carolina-based nationwide less-than-truckload carrier keeps its fleet young — the average age for tractors was 3.5 years at the end of 2018.

“Fuel is of course a major expense,” says Chris Harrell, director of maintenance administration and fuel for Old Dominion. He says the carrier “recognizes that to improve fuel economy and reduce fuel spend, it takes commitment from the top down, such as to help drivers learn the proper techniques” to boost mpg. “We use metrics to help us address trucks that are underperforming so we can focus on those, including their maintenance.”

When it comes to reducing fuel spend, Harrell says OD philosophy’s is that, “It’s more about controlling the gallons than the cost of fuel. The cost will be what it is, whether you buy fuel wholesale or retail.

“The focus has to be on the gallons consumed by the trucks on the road,” he continues. Helping make that happen for OD are such fuel-sipping specs as low-rolling-resistance tires and automatic tire inflation systems. The fleet also deploys route-planning software to help it run smarter to run fewer miles, saving even more fuel.

“We try to make use of whatever makes sense in our operation to save fuel,” says Harrell. “Ours is a common-sense approach. It has to fit our fleet and not cause any maintenance issues. That’s why for any product we consider investing in, we’ll run a pilot test of it first. And later, by conducting preventive maintenance properly, we can address anything that can impact fuel economy as quickly as possible.”

“When it comes to fuel economy, all parties involved in a truck’s lifecycle play a role,” says...

“When it comes to fuel economy, all parties involved in a truck’s lifecycle play a role,” says Fleet Advantage’s Jim Griffin. “Drivers, maintenance and fleet operators included.”

Photo: Fleet Advantage

Proven picks

John Pope, chairman of Cargo Transporters, a nationwide truckload carrier out of Claremont, North Carolina, says the fleet’s 525 tractors are spec’ed “fairly conservatively. There are a lot of claims out there, so we generally stick with things that are proven in the market.” That still leaves a lot of fuel-saving technology for Cargo Transporters to dip into.

“Certainly, some specs contribute significantly to fuel economy,” he continues. “But even if the gain is fractional, over a million miles the savings add up.” He says that applies from the small things, like aerodynamic mud flaps, “all the way up to how we spec our drivetrain — the rear axle ratio alone can have a big impact” on mpg.

Pope says the fleet has gone to downsped drivetrains. “Downspeeding lowers rpm in cruise range, which saves fuel. Because of the success we’ve had in testing downspeeding, we’re spec’ing the drivetrain that way on our new Freightliner Cascadias.

“We’re also 100% automated transmission, using the Eaton AutoShift,” he continues. “And so far, we see it helping fuel efficiency and we don’t have to train drivers on shift points. The Cascadia itself includes a fair amount of aerodynamics, from the front bumper to along the sides. The package we’re spec’ing also includes aero wheel covers, and we put skirting on our trailers.”

Pope says the fleet made a significant change about eight years ago when it switched to wide-base single tires on tractor drive and trailer positions. “These tires have paid us dividends by increasing miles per gallon, and serviceability for them on the road has gotten better over time. At the time, we also went to aluminum wheels to reduce weight, so that also helps.”

Although those specs, plus the contributions of Cargo Transporters’ drivers, add up to improved fuel efficiency, Pope is reluctant to put a hard-and-fast figure on it. “We have no one specific number to share due to the variances that occur in different operating areas.” He says their approach is to look at a fleet average on a month-to-month basis.

Moving target

“What we do generally is look at the lower 5% to 10% of trucks in terms of fuel efficiency and then have discussions with their drivers,” Pope continues. “We want to find out if there is an equipment or a driver-training issue. A number of things can contribute to an mpg number, which is always a moving target. You get the biggest bang for your buck if you improve the poorest performers in a group.”

Brent Nussbaum, CEO of Hudson, Illinois-based Nussbaum Transportation, says the regional and nationwide truckload carrier writes one spec for its fleet of 400 tractors, which run over the road as well as handle short-haul freight and are on a four-year trade cycle. “We found what works for us. We primarily have Freightliner Cascadias that are powered by a 15L Detroit engine with a 12-speed Detroit automated transmission and are set up as 6x2 units.”

Along with the truck’s aerodynamic features, Nussbaum cheats the wind with the aero treatment given its trailers, which includes both trailer skirting and deployable boat-tail deflectors on the rear door.

“We use a tight tractor-to-trailer configuration,” Nussbaum says, keeping the gap between tractor and trailer close to minimize fuel-sucking air turbulence between them. “And we have a 29-foot trailer skirt instead of the standard 23 feet, to run it to the back of trailer and close to the rear tandem. We run with TrailerTails, and we put zero-offset wheels on trailer; they’re set in so they help move the wind past the wheels and skirting. Perforated mud flaps also let the wind through, and we spec a rain-gutter cover on the trailer roof to help smooth airflow.”

Topping 11 mpg

Nussbaum credits the fleet’s company drivers with helping the carrier score 8.97 mpg fleetwide for all of 2018, including winter mileage. “Some of our best drivers averaged 10.66 for the whole year, and others reached as high as 11.5 in certain months. And this is while running nationwide; we only do not operate in California.”

Nussbaum deploys a computerized “habits-based” driver scorecard system, supported by a SmartDrive in-cab video camera system and followed up by coaching on mpg and safety performance. “We feel relying on fuel mileage alone is inexact, given wind resistance and other variables,” he explains.

“The bottom line to scorecarding is that drivers used to get frustrated over trying to hit mpg targets,” Nussbaum explains. “But habits-based scoring takes that away.” He says if they drive in accordance with the habits the fleet trains and coaches them on, “they will turn in the mpg and safety performance needed.” 

Try the six steps suggested here and see if they can get you to a higher level of fuel efficiency. And as you move along them, remember it always pays to look, listen, and learn more along the way to anywhere.

About the author
David Cullen

David Cullen

[Former] Business/Washington Contributing Editor

David Cullen comments on the positive and negative factors impacting trucking – from the latest government regulations and policy initiatives coming out of Washington DC to the array of business and societal pressures that also determine what truck-fleet managers must do to ensure their operations keep on driving ahead.

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