Fuel costs are by far the largest vehicle-based cost for motor carriers per mile, according to the American Transportation Research Institute. Between 2011 and 2019, the most recent year for ATRI’s annual Cost of Trucking report, fuel costs ranged from about 34 cents per mile to nearly 65 cents per mile, with 2019 coming in at about 40 cents per mile.
The average fuel economy for truck tractors among ATRI survey respondents was 6.5 mpg. How much could fleets save if they could improve that number?
In its first Run on Less event in 2017, the North American Council for Freight Efficiency proved that it was possible to get 10 mpg in real-world, long-haul operations using commercially available equipment and technologies. If the 1.7 million trucks on North American highways today achieved the same level of efficiency as the trucks in the three-week fuel-efficiency run, they would save 9.7 billion gallons of diesel fuel, $24.3 billion, and 98 million tons of CO2 each year, according to NACFE.
Two years later, Run on Less Regional participants achieved a cumulative 8.3 mpg. If all regional-haul fleets were to operate at this fuel efficiency, the industry would save more than $9 billion in fuel and 30.6 million tons of CO2 over the course of a year, according to NACFE.
Maximizing your trucking fleet’s fuel economy, however, can be a complex and nuanced task. We turned to a group of past and current HDT Truck Fleet Innovators to learn how these leading fleets approach it.
1. Take advantage of new-truck advances
Every time a truck maker introduces a new model, it’s more fuel-efficient than its predecessor, so keeping the average age of the fleet young is a common strategy. At Hirschbach Motor Lines, based in Dubuque, Iowa, leveraging new equipment is “first and foremost” in its fuel-economy strategies. Hirschbach keeps its fleet age to 36-48 months, according to Nick Forte, director of equipment assets and facilities. (CEO Brad Pinchuk is a 2021 Innovator.)
Keeping equipment young has multiple benefits, says Don Digby Jr., president of Denver-based Navajo Express and a 2019 Innovator. With an average age of only 2.5 years, he says, “this not only provides our drivers with safe, reliable equipment, but it allows us to trade out our tractors when their average mpg starts to see a negative impact due to their age and wear and tear.”
And increasingly, the electronics of newer trucks allow fleets to fine-tune truck performance to take the most advantage of improvements in aerodynamics, rolling efficiency, and engine/transmission optimization, points out Shaun Sadler, senior vice president of equipment at U.S. Xpress and a 2021 Innovator.
“The last couple of years, we have worked to optimize intelligent powertrain programing,” he says. “These advancements in technology have really given us the ability to take advantage of up-/down-hill programing to optimize fuel burn and cost functions.”
The Chattanooga, Tennessee-based truckload giant is also field-testing new axle technology that disengages one of the two drive axles at highway speeds. This results in lower torque and power requirements, allowing the engine to burn less fuel.
A. Duie Pyle is a Northeast mostly less-than-truckload carrier with very different operations from U.S. Xpress, but Dan Carrano, vice president of fleet maintenance and a 2021 Innovator, says he, too, has been taking advantage of new powertrain options, which operate the engine at a slower rpm for greater efficiency.
2. Do your homework
There are a great many fuel-economy specs, options, and products out there, with more coming on the market all the time. How do you identify which may work for your fleet?
Gerry Mead, executive vice president of maintenance and equipment for Hub Group and a 2016 Innovator, says he relies on literature such as Confidence Reports from the North American Council for Freight Efficiency and through organizations such as the Technology & Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations, and follows it up with real-world testing.
Larger fleets may collaborate directly with OEMs and suppliers to not only stay on top of the latest innovations but also participate in field testing.
At Maverick Transportation, for example, “we continue to focus our attention toward maximizing the technologies that our suppliers of choice have brought to our attention,” says Mike Jeffress, vice president of maintenance at the Arkansas-based flatbed fleet and a 2012 Innovator. As an example, he cites working with Daimler on a package that builds on the Freightliner Cascadia’s aerodynamic advantages with the Detroit DD 13L engine coupled with the DT12 automated transmission, driven by Meritor 2.28 14X HE axles sitting on the Michelin X line energy tire package with wide-base singles on the drive axle. He’s currently testing solar panels from Purkey’s Electric.
Smaller fleets should push their dealers to keep them up to speed on the latest innovations, says Vince Tarantini, president of 100-truck Carmen Transportation in Toronto, Ontario, and a 2019 Innovator. “Ensure that beyond providing a ‘price,’ they offer newly acquired knowledge regarding fuel efficiency in spec’ing the truck/trailer.”
3. Evaluate potential payback
When evaluating potential fuel-economy specs, products, or programs, Tarantini says, his company looks at return on investment and capital requirements.
Calculating ROI, Tarantini says, involves determining the useful life of the equipment you’re evaluating to determine how long the payback can be. “Be conservative and underestimate the potential savings,” he says. “Document your assumption – do the math on a worksheet to future reference. If it pays for itself at 50% of its useful life, it’s worth looking at.”
To have accurate numbers to plug into that ROI equation, however, involves testing in your specific application.
“If a supplier comes to us with some sort of new device, we start with seeking track test validation first,” says Maverick’s Jeffress. “Based on those results, we will then seek input from the engine supplier on experiences they have had testing such a technology.” Then there are determinations as to sample size and what type of measurement process are best for testing.
“I try to get as real world as possible,” says Mead, who has done third-party independent testing using his company’s trucks using the industry-standard, TMC Recommended Practice on fuel testing.
Hirschbach Motor Lines also turns to third-party testing, says Forte. It uses MVT Solutions, a spin-off company of fuel-economy pioneer Mesilla Valley Transportation, which now offers fuel-efficiency testing and consulting. “Daryl [Bear, lead engineer and COO] has a good understanding of our fleet mapping and has a reputation of science-based validation of components.”
One of the biggest challenges, Jeffress says, is getting the timing right on making the adoption decision. “Moving too soon on making a final decision can create losses, and moving too late can create losses as well.”
Another challenge, says Hirschbach’s Forte, involves supply issues. “In many cases the supply chain is not ready for a large implementation,” he says. “There has been a ramp-up effect, so it pushes the ROI on the technologies” out further.
Of course, not every fleet has the type of testing resources that Maverick or Hirschbach do. U.S. Xpress’s Sadler suggests starting with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Smartway program. “Participating in the SmartWay program is an easy way to get your feet wet,” he says. “The process is data-driven and provides an easy format to get you moving in being more active in sustainability.”
4. Spec for the application
Fuel-saving specs and equipment that work for one operation won’t automatically work for another.
“To start the process, you need to understand how the vehicle is going to be used,” Pyle’s Carrano explains. “Is its primary use linehaul or pick-up and delivery? Is it pulling vans, flatbeds and tanks, or is it pulling doubles trailers? What is the tractor configuration? Sleeper, tandem-axle day cab, single-axle day cab or straight truck? Is the truck being operated in a high-mileage highway application? What is the average payload?”
For instance, Steve Rush, owner and president of New Jersey-based tanker fleet Carbon Express, has found success in reducing weight to improve fuel economy. Spec’ing day cabs instead of sleeper cabs and putting drivers up in hotels not only saved fuel but also improved driver retention and safety.
“We found this to be the most productive of all the things we have done or tried to improve mpg,” says the 2015 Innovator. “We spec the lightest weight day cab we can and gear it to give us better mpg,” including wide-base single tires. Lift-axle tractors allow one axle to be lifted as the load gets lighter throughout the driver’s route, removing the rolling resistance from another pair of tires.
But the specs that work for Rush’s small regional tanker fleet wouldn’t work for Carrano’s less-than-truckload fleet, and vice versa. And as more fleets diversify their operations, they’re discovering they need different specs for different parts of their fleet.
U.S. Xpress, for instance, recently developed a new tractor specification for its regional/dedicated accounts so they can run more efficiently at lower speeds with reduced vehicle weight.
Maverick Transportation is another fleet finding that the specs that work well for its long-haul operations aren’t ideal for some newer business areas.
“Aero devices, as we have learned, have value for our traditional over-the-road fleet,” Jeffress says. “That equation becomes challenging as we migrate toward dedicated services that require assets to run in low-clearance environments.”
Pyle’s Carrano says one of his biggest challenges is spec’ing tandem-axle day cabs that are used in both linehaul and pickup-and-delivery operations.
“What might be advantageous to a tractor in a linehaul operation may be a hindrance in a pick-up and delivery operation,” he points out. There are few advantages to aero packages in a low-mileage or slow speed application, plus a higher risk of damage to these components in some urban environments. One thing he has done is adding side extenders to the rear corners of the cab to help close the gap between the rear of the tractor cab and front of the trailer to smooth the air flow around the truck while on the highway.
5. Prioritize driver buy-in
You’ll never get the full benefit of aerodynamics and fuel-saving technology without driver involvement. When we asked our Innovators how they measure success, “driver acceptance” was key.
“Driver buy-in is extremely important to the success of almost any product we want to use to improve performance,” says Ken Johnson, CEO of Leonard’s Express, a 2021 Innovator. His fleet of about 350 trucks is based in Farmington, New York. “The drivers are still in control of the vehicles, and although we have taken steps to minimize the impact of driving habits, we still see two drivers doing similar runs in identical vehicles with several tenths difference in mpg.
“Drivers have choices where they can work, many choices. If they feel that the technology we are using is too intrusive or annoying, they may look for a different place to work. So we try to talk – and more importantly, listen – to our drivers with how they feel about things we add or subtract.”
Marc Kramer, chairman of Soar Transportation Group and a 2021 Innovator, makes similar observations.
“The extremely tight driver market always remains a consideration, as drivers seek to be comfortable, which can lead to excessive idling, especially during extreme weather variations across the year. There is a clear need to balance maintaining a positive driver experience, resulting in greater driver retention, with driving every last percentage point of fuel efficiency.”
Hirschbach works with its driver advisory board when evaluating such changes, Forte says. “These are the men and women who are out on the roads, and in many cases people forget that changing one thing can have a cascade of effects on the job at hand.”
Maverick’s Jeffress says his testing protocol for new fuel efficiency devices includes education of the drivers in the test group “to determine what impact it has not only on the fuel side, but on the overall driver experience.”
6. Give drivers the tools, training, and incentives they need
A key to driver acceptance and maximizing fuel economy is training on the equipment and technologies in the trucks they’re driving, as well as general fuel-efficiency training, coaching, and incentives.
“What happens, new technology comes out, and the transmission or the truck can be operated better, and we fail to pass that along to the driver,” Mead says. For example, creep modes on many transmissions will allow a driver to go slowly, steadily, and safely around a yard without fuel-wasting pulses on the accelerator.
At Soar, Kramer explains, one key is “investment of time in driver education and continued education on what impacts fuel economy on the road, from how over-idling and excessive stop and starting can impact fuel economy, to unplugging things from their inverters when not being used in an effort to prolong battery life and idle management use.”
At U.S. Xpress, training includes not only fuel-efficient driving techniques, including on the best use of adaptive cruise control, but also required map reading and trip planning training. This allows drivers to not only make the best use of their hours of service in conjunction with their fuel stop schedule, but also contributes to less fuel consumption, since the driver has to make fewer stops when using appropriate trip planning.
Incentive programs help inspire drivers to use that training and technology to best advantage.
At Carmen, says Tarantini, the idea is to “share in the savings” through performance bonuses. They let drivers know how they’re doing with a biweekly performance report, reach out to drivers to review equipment performance, and coach where necessary.
Jeffress says Maverick’s Pay for Performance program “uses old-school, actual gallons calculation for mpg instead of an algorithm.” Dashboards are updated daily using the latest fueling information. Drivers receive updates daily and fully understand their performance based on the quarterly goal as well as how they rank within the fleet assigned. Goals for each division are reset quarterly, and idle percentage is a key part of the goals.
And keep in mind communication and learning goes both ways.
For instance, a year ago, Carbon Express started holding a weekly call with all its drivers to discuss best practices, what they can do better and what they’re doing wrong, whether it’s fuel economy or other topics. “This call has been amazing,” Rush says.
At Leonard’s Express, “we spend a lot of time talking with drivers on their performance,” says Johnson. “We also listen to the good drivers to learn their driving habits that help improve fuel mileage and then share these skills with drivers that aren’t performing as well.”
7. Make it a company-wide effort
Neither drivers nor their equipment operate in a vacuum. Maintenance, information technology, and operations all contribute to fuel savings.
For instance, Sadler says, “We continue to apply a lot of energy around touching our equipment frequently. This is to ensure we are optimizing all aspects of the equipment to keep it running in the best condition possible.”
Hub Group’s Mead offers similar advice.
“When you think about your PM from a fuel economy standpoint, you’ve got to start with your tire inflation,” he says. “I check my tire inflation and the tires in general, and mating and matching also.” The right oil, the right air filter changes, and proper alignment are also maintenance factors, he says. “You’ve got to really pay attention to your alignment – even on your trailer.”
And don’t neglect the electronics under the hood.
“We plug into every truck, every time,” Mead says, to check the engine parameters. “You want to make sure all your systems are right.”
Similarly, U.S. Xpress has implemented powertrain ECM parameter file updates at every service, ensuring the most up-to-date software is in place so the powertrain can perform at its best settings.
On the operations side, Sadler says, “we have a very innovative IT team who are always trying to drive efficiency in the daily activities of our drivers. We continually look for ways to eliminate wasted mile, bobtail runs, increase trailer visibility for the closest available asset, and much more.”
Driver apps include parking locators to reduce wasted miles (and wasted fuel) as drivers search for open parking spaces.
8. Measure (and manage) improvement
Johnson of Leonard’s Express says one of the biggest challenges in implementing fuel-efficiency improvement is “being able to accurately measure whether a product is working or not.” It’s an area the company is working on improving.
Soar’s Kramer uses a variety of key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure both fuel economy and fuel expense, “as well as KPIs related to key inputs that drive this, e.g. speed, tire wear, fuel compliance, incentive payouts, etc.”
At U.S. Xpress, Sadler says, they are using fuel probes that provide more accurate fuel usage data and “real time” fuel consumption data, transmitting data over existing telematics.
“This data will help guide our future efforts in validating efficiency trials and vehicle specifications.”
Carmen’s Tarantini stresses the importance of documenting your expectations and setting goals to be measured. Compare test units or new equipment with current specs in similar operations.
“Miles per gallon is a big ultimate metric, but we also drill down to smaller contributors, such as idle time spent in extended time (beyond one hour),” he says. “Our maintenance system has great reporting we use to analyze this data.”
Mead of Hub Group points out that the electronics on today’s trucks make it easier to get the data fleets need to measure success and make improvements.
“Today you can do that all electronically, pulling the data off the trucks over the air instead of having to go touch them with a laptop.” Beyond information such as fuel usage and idle time, you can use data such as the truck’s payload, the weather, and even get some feel for traffic by looking how much time the pedal was on.
“With that kind of data, fleets can make some adjustments,” he says, such as experimenting with fan on/off time or determining the optimal speed.
9. Remember: MPG is not the only measure of success
It doesn’t do much good to achieve high fuel mileage numbers if it costs money in other areas. The quest for fuel savings is a balancing act.
“We look at how a different equipment specs, products or programs translate to functionality and results, return on investment, and the potential impact to the driver experience, and balance across these considerations,” says Soar’s Kramer.
Take maintenance, for example.
“Success is measured not only by miles per gallon, but by cost per mile for maintenance and the amount of uptime,” explains Pyle’s Carrano. “The vehicle mpg is not very important if the truck is always in the shop.”
Both Carmen’s Tarantini and Hub Group’s Mead cited as an example Trailer Tails, aerodynamic “boat-tail” devices on the back the trailer designed to fold flat against the doors when loading or not in use. It was not unusual to see trailers going down the highway with the devices not deployed, half-deployed, or damaged, resulting in less fuel economy savings than projected along with maintenance headaches and costs.
Similarly, Sadler cites problems U.S. Xpress ran into with aero bumpers that were low to the ground to help direct air up over the top of the truck instead of swirling underneath. But because they were so low, they were prone to damange.
“Our maintenance for the related item increased, downtime increased, and we ultimately didn’t gain the fuel economy given so many were damaged,” he says.
And fuel economy must be balanced by performance requirements.
“The vehicle needs to be able to handle the challenges of the daily tasks,” Carrano says. “If you were to focus strictly on fuel economy, you could potentially build a truck that would perform poorly or – even worse – not be able to perform the task.”
He speaks from experience, recalling a group of tractors he spec’d for a dedicated account with the parameter settings programmed for fuel economy. “The performance of these tractors was horrible, and the startability and gradeability were very poor. Beside the negative driver acceptance of these brand-new tractors, the poor performance actually added a significant amount of time onto each run.”
Sadler makes a similar point. “At the end of the day, the decisions we make have to make sense for the business, for our drivers, and be sustainable over time from all aspects. The last thing we want to do is make a decision that will impact equipment uptime, driver satisfaction or increase cost per mile.”
This article first appeared as the cover story in the June 2021 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.