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Curbing the burden of fuel costs

DALLAS, Texas - In a recent survey conducted by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), fuel costs ranked as the number two concern of trucking executives in the US. Not surprisingly, f...

CUT COSTS: Fuel costs can be reduced by recognizing the most fuel-efficient drivers, an ATA panel says.

CUT COSTS: Fuel costs can be reduced by recognizing the most fuel-efficient drivers, an ATA panel says.

DALLAS, Texas – In a recent survey conducted by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), fuel costs ranked as the number two concern of trucking executives in the US. Not surprisingly, fuel costs are often cited as the number two cost of doing business for carriers.

The remedy to battle fuel costs requires a proactive solution and there are many products in the marketplace aimed specifically at improving fuel efficiency.

“The price is outside our control, but the rate we use that fuel can be controlled,” noted Joe Stianche, fleet manager with Sanderson Farms in Laurel, Miss.

Stianche and a panel of four other speakers were on-hand at the American Trucking Associations management conference and exhibition in Dallas as part of a session aimed at providing insight into some fuel-saving strategies.

Setting the mark

The first step in improving fuel costs is figuring out what a fleet’s fuel efficiency is. Bob Wessels, manager of quality and continuous improvement with Caterpillar, suggests running SAE tests. The tests are the same systems manufacturers use to gauge the fuel efficiency of their products.

The tests require a fleet to utilize two trucks running the same route, with the same weight and performing a number of runs to ensure testing is accurate.

Wessels also pointed out that the test should be performed in different weather situations, as the elements have a big impact on fuel efficiency.

“If you test a route not indicative of your runs, you have a problem. If you only test in the summer and not think of the winter, you have a problem,” he explained. “It can be done but it is a lot of work. It can have a lot of value but it has to be recorded properly and accurately to be effective.”

As well as weather, there are a number of factors that go into a truck’s fuel efficiency including the road surface, start and stop traffic, tires, and idling times to name a few.

“Less freight can also have significant advantages in fuel savings,” noted Wessels. “But that would be a pretty crazy business model to haul less freight, but it just gives you an idea what goes into it.”

A truck’s mechanical components will also have an impact on fuel consumed.

With the arrival of new engines there are still a few question marks on how much of an impact new components will have.

“The issue of the fuel consumed by a DPF during a fuel test still needs to be discussed,” Wessels added. “Manual switch cooling fans could be a huge problem, with new engines the fans are running at 80 hp.”

When it comes to transmissions, Wessels advises to gear fast and run slow or maybe switch systems.

“Wrong gear problems can be addressed by top two transmissions or automated transmissions. You take the problem right out of the driver’s hands,” he suggested. “The big ticket remains the driver, the driver, the driver.”

Cutting through the wind

Many truckmakers have paid special attention in recent years to ensuring their newest offerings are as aerodynamic as possible. But for maximum improvement, the trailer behind the truck also has to be taken into consideration.

“Aerodynamic tractors only affect streamline on the truck,” explained Richard Wood, president of SOLUS – Solutions and Technologies. “Aerodynamics is lagging behind what’s happening in other areas.”

Although the technology may be lagging, there are a number of companies on the market offering aerodynamic solutions for trailers, including Wood’s business.

There are four hot spots on a tractor-trailer that together add up to 75% of the unit’s drag. The affected areas are: the front of the truck, the gap between truck and trailer, under the trailer and the back of the trailer.

There are a few different options for each hotspot on the trailer that will help to improve aerodynamics. For the gap between the truck and trailer, additions to the front of the trailer aim to reduce the gap space and help shuttle air around the gap. For the undercarriage there are different variations of skirts to keep surrounding air from getting trapped under the trailer; and for the back of the trailer there are different additions to help air smoothly flow around the back.

Although travelling speed has an impact on how effective aerodynamic additions will be on fuel efficiency, there should be improvements at all speeds, noted Wood.

As not all equipment is created equally, not all aerodynamic additions will work for every trailer.

“If you are pursuing aerodynamics, have an expert come out and look at your vehicles because they are not all built the same,” added Wood. “Device performance is influenced by the vehicle and the environment.”

Around the clock monitoring

Software and technology companies have taken an interest in fuel economy and have aimed to eliminate quarterly, monthly or even weekly data analysis.

“With technology as it is today you should be able to download all that data and analyze it,” said Gary Holderby, customer service manager with QUALCOMM. “You should be able to look at your truck’s data at any time.”

This type of on-demand data collection has the ability for fleets to address any fuel concerns as they arise, before they may become a larger problem. The technology sector has also changed the focus of fuel efficiency.

“In the companies I work for, we have tended to move away from the miles per gallon. Now we focus on idle-time,” Holderby noted.

Drivers carry different loads, run different trucks, run different terrain on their routes – start/stop, hills – but the amount of time a truck is running can be measured accurately with new technology.

As well as a number of anti-idling devices to power a truck while it’s turned off, it requires an entire team effort.

“It’s important to get driver buy-in,” added Holderby. “If you reduce idle time by two hours – that’s breakfast and lunch – there will be significant savings.”

Purchasing fuel is another way to manage costs. It may not always be practical to drive around looking for the cheapest pumps, but technology has helped eliminate the driving.

“You can use an in-cab navigation system to find the cheapest fuel in the area of a driver,” noted Holderby. “You can also have on-demand pre-trip planning for drivers. An automated trip plan that gives a driver, along with his route, a fuel plan saying this is where you need to fill up based on our network and negotiated rates.”

Culture of change

Careful fuel stop location, pre-planning and layover time will all help in a fleet’s fuel efficiency, but Stianche suggests making sure your tracking measures are accurate.

“I suggest that if you’re measuring fuel economy, you have a couple of different yardsticks,” he explained. “If you maintain two or three of them and one is out of control instead of beating on the driver’s head you can fix the system.”

A little friendly competition can also go a long way.

By ranking each truck in one of five groups, Stianche explained it allows drivers to see how their fuel economy compares to the other drivers.

“Periodically rank each truck in the fleet by mpg from top to bottom, probably quarterly,” he noted. “You might only see a half-mile per gallon between the bottom and the top, but nobody wants to be on the bottom.”

In the end, improving fuel economy is a task that requires attention to a number of different areas including technology, spec’ing vehicles, communication and drivers. But it’s important to know what area needs improvement.

“You need to know whether you want to work on the truck or the driver,” concluded Stianche. “Maybe you need to work on both, give your truck an aspirin and have your drivers parameters changed.”

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