Best Management Tool? Your Engine

As time passes, I meet fewer and fewer genuine nuts-and-bolts guys in trucking. One of my best friends in the business says he hates trucks. Can’t stand the operating expense, let alone the stink of exhaust. The guy lights up when you ask about his freight-broker business, though. I get the feeling that he’d like to drop the fleet entirely.

So when Scott and I got together a few months ago I was surprised to see him all enthused about engines. It’s not horsepower that has him juiced these days. It’s data. He finally gave some time to an engine rep who introduced him to the joys of electronic engine controls. After slurping fuel economy stats into a spreadsheet, Scotty was hooked. Now he tracks “fuel burned at idle” like it’s the U.S. dollar exchange rate.

With engine makers having to shorten the reins on horsepower and torque in order to meet emission targets, Jim Park’s cover story in our May issue celebrates what is arguably the more important end of the power spectrum anyway: the ECM.

Engines have had chips in them for years, but with the advent of standard J1587/1708 or 1939 datalinks, manufacturers have been able to collect a wider variety of data and develop simpler, cheaper, and more portable ways to extract that information. You can program the ECM to buzz the pager on your shop manager’s hip when it detects a fault code so he can have the right parts in stock when the truck pulls into the service bay. Caterpillar or Cummins will sell you a cable and some software you can use to import ECM data into your Palm Pilot. Mack and Detroit Diesel can dispense with the wires altogether. Cool stuff.

The upshot of all this is that the technology gap between big and small fleets, or rich and poor ones, is narrowing. As Jim writes, any engine can collect information. It’s how you manage it that counts.

My buddy Scott, whose fleet has 22 tractors, is a whip-smart MBA. To him, ECM reports are no different than financial statements: they’re numbers to be used to make better decisions. When his insurance underwriter paid a visit, Scott set out a plate of Timbits and a book of ECM data. Lots of fleets do this, but Scott left little to interpretation. He presented scouting reports on his drivers, highlighting their good habits on the road. They commit few panic stops, spend a high percentage of their time in the top two gears, and don’t abuse hours-of-work limits. When the underwriter asked about a drop location on a notorious two-lane highway, Scotty generated a report showing how his trucks serving the account operate at off-peak, low-risk times. It was impressive, yet I’d bet a week’s pay that if we popped the hood on one of his trucks, Scott couldn’t find the dipstick.

Like your accounting or safety records, there are a few general guidelines to managing ECM numbers well. You have to be consistent in how you collect, store, and report your findings. You have to weed out what’s worth tracking and how it should be organized. Once you’ve created a reporting system, you can set baselines and benchmarks. The more specific, the better. Lump everything together and work with “fleet averages” and you’ll make bad decisions about particular vehicles or drivers.

I don’t want to dismiss the importance of at least a cursory knowledge of diesel engine mechanics, especially with all the hubris flying around about how EGR and now Caterpillar’s ACERT emission controls affect (or don’t affect) fuel economy, power, maintenance, residual values, cooling systems, etc. Nor can a computer detect circumstances that throw your numbers out of whack: a part installed incorrectly, for example, causing it to fail prematurely. You’ll only catch that by walking around.

I’ve met a few fleet managers who can look at two-dozen identical Freightliner FLD 120s lined up in the lot and rattle off which one costs the most per mile to run. They can match their drivers’ ability to the idiosyncrasies of each vehicle, and then choose the best route and load. I know one guy like that who retired and now makes a nice living as a consultant, his biggest client being the fleet with those Freightliner FLD 120s. Those folks are few and far between. Help, however, is just under the hood.

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