Plug in, turn on and master your power

by Frank Condron

Last summer, Cummins Engine Co. held its first Signature Appreciation Days at company headquarters, essentially a picnic for the owners of the chrome-topped Signature Series engines.

Like any other picnic, it had hot dogs and balloons for the kids and cold beer for the grown-ups. But along with the typical picnic activities, the company also held some informal information sessions and demonstrations to highlight the features of its 600-hp red power plants. One session in particular dealt with getting the most from engine electronics.

The group may have been dominated by experienced owner/operators, but many of them were still stunned by what their engines’ electronic control modules – the brains behind the brawn – could do. Fleets, it seems, aren’t the only groups that can take advantage of the computing power.

Given what has happened to fuel prices in the year since the picnic, there should be more interest than ever in the electronics. Owner/operators and fleet managers alike are looking under rocks to find new ways to cut down on their fuel consumption and try to salvage profit margins. There is now no excuse for not utilizing every feature on your truck that can help you maximize profitability. And there has never been a better time to find out what your engine electronics package can do.

Obviously, electronic control modules (ECMs) on trucks are nothing new. They first began to appear in the mid-1980s and became widespread after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new emissions standards in 1991. Even stricter standards pushed onto the industry in 1998 finally drove the mechanical engine out of existence.

Since then, of course, improvements and upgrades have come at an almost daily pace. Today, there is practically no aspect of engine, drivetrain or even chassis function that you can’t monitor and/or manipulate electronically through the ECM. All the major engine manufacturers now offer comprehensive electronics packages that allow the ECM to store data that can be retrieved and analyzed using an associated software package. They all perform the same essential functions, but each one boasts its own “exclusive” features. For the most part, physically setting the engine parameters is still in the hands of the service technician. But that doesn’t mean owner/operators can’t make the most of electronic features.

Electronics packages on modern trucks are designed to function at three different levels, one for each of the three individuals involved in running the truck: the driver, the service technician and the fleet manager. In the case of the owner/operator, of course, those three roles are often rolled into one.

For the driver, the electronics system is there primarily to provide real-time feedback on the condition of the engine and other major components like the transmission and ABS brakes. Fault codes can alert the driver to problems such as low oil pressure or overheating, so any potential damage can be minimized. For the service technician, the ECM can record trip data about engine performance that can then be compared to normal performance spec’s. Some systems even offer a “snapshot” feature that gives the technician a picture of conditions inside and outside the engine when a problem occurs, or around the time of a something like a hard-braking event. The fleet manager, of course, uses ECM data to see which trucks – and which drivers – are operating efficiently and profitably.

Today’s more sophisticated electronics systems, however, can do a lot more than just record data. Programmed with parameters set by either the owner/operator or a service technician, electronics systems can act as an on-board driving coach, helping maximize fuel efficiency and performance. In many cases, the electronics system can stop the driver from becoming his own worst enemy.

How big a role do driving habits play in profitability? A huge one, according to Ben Macaro, general manager, customer service for Cummins Ontario.

“Studies show that driving habits can have as much as a 35 per cent impact on fuel economy,” Macaro said. “That’s the difference between 7 mpg and 4.55 mpg.”

Fuel efficiency is basically influenced by four factors, said Macaro: vehicle speed, engine speed (in rpm), the use of cruise control, and idle time. These factors are dependent, to a great degree, on driver personality and driving habits. But a driver can use electronic tools to influence his driving habits.

Take vehicle speed. An optimum cruising speed range can be set in the ECM, which alerts the driver through a dash-mounted display when it’s exceeded. That same unit can offer real-time feedback on miles per gallon and what percentage of time is spent in the optimum speed range.

Some drivers may not like having a computer telling them when to slow down, but it does make a difference on the bottom line.

“A good rule of thumb to remember is that fuel economy suffers 0.1 mpg for every 1 mph between 60 and 70 mph,” Marcaro said. “Drivers need to strike a balance between what they want for fuel efficiency and how fast they want to run. Ideally, they need to figure out how fast they need to run.”

The cruise control can do wonders for fuel economy, but only if the driver uses it. Wayne Wissinger, manager for electronic product strategy for Mack Trucks, said electronic settings can help drivers get the most from the cruise feature.

“The cruise maximum setting on most trucks is set to the maximum road speed limit,” Wissinger said. “But if you set the maximum cruise setting at about two or three mph below the maximum road speed, you will steal a little fuel economy. And the numbers are close enough that the driver will still use the cruise. If the maximum cruise speed is set too low, many drivers just won’t use it.”

In terms of engine speed, the ECM can be programmed to maintain a maximum no-load speed or to monitor the amount of time the engine operates at high rpms. A throttle governor can be programmed to limit engine rpm or even vehicle speed in lower gears.

“Engines tend to get the best fuel economy at low speeds, when the horsepower available is higher than the horsepower required,” Wissinger said. “But some drivers tend to cruise at engine speeds that are too high for the vehicle speed. If a driver moves from a highway to a secondary road, he might cruise at 1,800 rpm in ninth gear for a long time. The computer can be programmed to make the driver move up a gear if they can, and that helps fuel economy.”

Probably the greatest enemy of fuel economy is idle time. Obviously, drivers on the road have to think about things like sleeping comfort and cold-weather starts (something that automatically improved with the advent of electronic engines), but if most drivers were honest about it, they would have to admit they could probably cut down their idle time if they thought about it more.

“I’ve seen an ECM report that shows 56 per cent idle time,” Macaro said. “Lots of it is just bad habits – a guy goes to dinner and leaves the truck running. But old habits die hard. What drivers have to remember, especially owner/operators, is that when the vehicle is idling and not moving, that is fuel wasted.”

The electronic system can take the thinking out of it. An ECM can be programmed to maintain a lower idle speed or to shut the engine down after a set amount of idle time. Based on the outside air temperature, some ECMs can even be set to start the truck when necessary to maintain cab and engine temperature and to keep the batteries charged. Most drivers want their truck to idle longer when they start it up, and the electronic controls can allow for that too, Wissinger said.

“An idle shut down of five minutes is no good when the truck is warming up,” he said. “But the engine can be programmed to extend the idle shut down to 15 minutes, or whatever the operator wants, following a longer period of inactivity, and then go back to five minutes during normal operating hours.”

Other parameters that can be set to improve fuel economy include things like progressive shifting prompts, which are delivered through a das
h-mounted display unit, and low gear torque limiting, which provides for maximum torque in top gear. Using the latest software packages from the engine manufacturers, service technicians can even view and modify injector calibration codes and horsepower ratings.

“We can review all the factory settings, review the load factor, run simulations for various configurations,” said Macaro. “We find out, does the driver need 500 horse, or would less horsepower be more efficient for his purposes? In some cases, more horse may be costing you more fuel on one level. But then you are saving on another level because you are shifting less and every shift costs fuel. Every situation should be treated individually.”

Back in the good/bad old days, drivers simply chose equipment that was powerful enough to perform the task it needed to perform. That is still basically true, but electronic tools now make it possible to tailor the equipment to perform to maximum efficiency for a specific task along a specific route. Clearly a truck hauling livestock across Saskatchewan will benefit from different operating parameters than the same truck hauling auto parts through the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania.

Finally, electronic tools can be very helpful in terms of staying on top of general maintenance. Once again, the operator can let the computer do the thinking for them; the ECM can prompt the operator to change the oil, change a filter or rotate the tires according to pre-set time or mileage limits.

“Sometimes it gets put on the back burner, but doing routine maintenance is one of the easiest ways to improve performance. If your engine is just not running well, that is going to hurt fuel economy,” said Wissinger. n

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