Vnomics’ True Fuel Part One: Bad Jim

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PITTSFORD, NY — Since you can’t physically sit beside your drivers all day, observing and coaching their driving habits and performance, some sort of monitoring tool can be quite useful. However, if drivers see such devices as annoying or impeding their ability to drive the truck, they won’t happily accept the intrusion.

A technology company in Pittsford, New York has found a happy medium — a monitoring device that encourages drivers to do better rather than getting on their nerves or taking away drivability, while providing back-office data that helps fleets coach and instruct drivers on better driving habits to save fuel.

I know it works because I tried it. I recently paid a day-long visit to Vnomics, located near Rochester, New York, and saw how their engineers and developers had adopted the True Fuel technology from a military application. I also spent several hours in their test truck proving the system’s ability to coax rather than coerce me into the green zone.

It’s quite a simple system on the surface, with a huge amount of functionality built in that fleets can use in a variety of ways.

The in-truck hardware consists of a reader that plugs into the truck’s data port with a Y-cable (to keep the connection free for other applications such as Electronic Logging Devices), and collects data on vehicle speed, power demand and engine operation. Each device is matched to the components on that particular truck, including things like engine make and model, ratings, transmission and rear end ratios, and tire size. It reads a variety of sensor data that comes off the Electronic Control Unit and sends it back to the terminal in bursts via a cellular connection that’s included in the monthly fee. There’s no display to distract the driver. The box is about the size of a paperback novel and it can be installed on or under the dash in less than 15 minutes.

I’ll skip over some of the intricacies of the back-office software, as it involves lots of data analysis and algorithms I barely understand. Managers see only a very straightforward interface that shows driver performance and historical trends as well as current and previous trip data, all gathered from the truck’s Electronic Control Module. 

The test truck was a rented 2013 Volvo VNL. Vnomic's test truck is in the background.The application can do a great deal more than just evaluate driver performance. For example, it can compare truck performance and fuel consumption information and identify underperforming or improperly spec’d trucks.

Much of what makes this work so well is how Vnomics interprets and displays the data. Embedded in the system architecture are the engine’s fuel maps as well as the spec’s and ratings to help interpret the data. Layered over that are driver and environmental information that the system uses to determine if the engine is operated as efficiently as possible. For example, the system knows if the truck is 400 or 450 horsepower, whether is empty or loaded, on flat ground or on a hill. That’s all significant as the driving technique might be different in each case. 

The system doesn’t use fuel consumed as a driver-rating parameter, but rather potential fuel economy — given where you are operating on the fuel map, and how close you come to using the least amount of fuel needed to generate the required power. Among other things, this immediately deflates any arguments drivers might have about fleet fuel economy rankings being unfair because they are subject to external influences. It’s really about whether or not the driver is operating the truck correctly.

Ben Stevens, Venomics’ sales engineer explains it this way. If one driver is getting 7.2 mpg (32.7 L/100km) out of an algorithm-determined potential of 7.5 (47), he’s within 4% of the target, which isn’t bad. However, another driver might be getting 6.1 mpg (38.6 L/100 km) out of a potential 6.2 (37.9).

“That driver is a lot closer to potential and so is probably the better driver,” he says.

It’s worth noting that True Fuel works equally well with automatic or automated transmissions. While some engines now provide acceleration management programming, many still do not and older trucks surely won’t have it.

Drivers can still influence the performance of non-manual transmissions by how aggressively they apply the throttle, and that’s exactly what True Fuel is looking at in addition to speed and a few other parameters.

The results may not be as dramatic as with a manual transmission, but it’s still possible to measure driver performance, apply fuel economy rankings, and establish fuel bonus programs when using Automated Manual Transmissions or automatics.    

In testing Vnomics True Fuel, I made two runs over the same course, mostly stop-and-go driving with a little freeway time. We were bobtailing in a leased tractor with a manual transmission (the system works equally well on automated and automatic transmissions, too). I don’t think the fact that we were bobtailing matters because the system was watching performance, not fuel consumed.

For the first run I put my bad driver hat on and deliberately drove as poorly as I could, that is, hard braking, idling too much, taking gear changes to wildly high rpms, running in the wrong gear, etc. It was so against my nature to drive like this that I really had to work at it.

Following the run and lunch at the office, my score was announced as 46 out of a possible 100. I thought it would be much worse given how badly I was behaving. Ed Johannes, a customer success manager who works with Vnomics’ customers after initial installations, told me he has seen drivers with scores in the low 20s. I can’t even imagine how badly you have to screw up to earn a score like that.

Run 2 was the “Good Jim” run where I diligently tried to keep the revs down, accelerate gently, minimize idling, skipped gears, etc. Back in my comfort zone, I did pretty well, causing the alert to sound only three times for a score of 99.

Incidentally, each of the three times I messed up and over-revved a gear I was talking to Ed and Ben about tires — one of my favorite subjects. This was a real an eye-opener for me. The bottom line was the conversation distracted me from concentrating on my shifting. I blew a perfect run because I let my mind wander away from the task at hand. That really drove home how difficult it is to be a very good driver. I can certainly drive properly when I’m thinking about it, but I could never maintain that level of concentration all day long.

“Some of the drivers in our data base are scoring routinely in low 90s,” says Johannes, underscoring how good those drivers really are.

And that may be the real benefit to True Fuel. A good a diligent driver gets a gentle alert from a not-unpleasant sounding beep to remind them that they are slipping. That’s a lot easier to take that finding out at the end of the month that you blew your fuel bonus. 

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Jim Park was a CDL driver and owner-operator from 1978 until 1998, when he began his second career as a trucking journalist. During that career transition, he hosted an overnight radio show on a Hamilton, Ontario radio station and later went on to anchor the trucking news in SiriusXM's Road Dog Trucking channel. Jim is a regular contributor to Today's Trucking and, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

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