The Car and Truck Fleet and Leasing Management Magazine

Cox Looks to Sprinter and Hybrid Vans for Better MPG

March 19, 2014

Cox has invested in the Mercedes Benz Sprinter and over the last year has so far replaced more than 1,500 Chevrolet Express and Ford E-Series models with the diesel van.
Cox has invested in the Mercedes Benz Sprinter and over the last year has so far replaced more than 1,500 Chevrolet Express and Ford E-Series models with the diesel van.

Since launching the Cox Conserves sustainability program seven years ago, Cox Enterprises has shifted from spec’ing its traditional work vans to the Mercedes Benz Sprinter — citing a big jump in miles per gallon — and has made other changes in how the fleet approaches efficiency.

The Cox Conserves program is a companywide effort to reduce carbon output and other environmental impacts. “In many cases, what’s good for the environment is good for the bottom line — and the fleet is one of the greatest examples of this,” says Elizabeth Olmstead, Cox Enterprises spokesperson, adding that with a fleet of around 13,000 total vehicles, carbon output reductions is where the fleet has made a tremendous impact.

So how has the Cox fleet affected this sustainability initiative? Cox fleet gurus Mark Leuenberger, assistant vice president of supply chain and fleet, and Jim Bigelow, director of fleet, break down some of the most recent changes to fleet, including spec changes and standardization, a look to hybrids, routing refinement and other operational efficiencies.

Sprinter: Locked In

When the Cox Conserves program first started, biodiesel-capable vehicles played a dominant role in the company’s vehicle choice; however, as biodiesel quickly waned and became difficult to find at the pump, this was no longer a viable fuel choice. “You just can’t run a fleet of our size on biodiesel right now,” Leuenberger says. Switching to a clean diesel platform, however, was a far more feasible option.

Cox has invested in the Mercedes Benz Sprinter and over the last year has so far replaced more than 1,500 Chevrolet Express and Ford E-Series models with the diesel van.

Leuenberger says that switching to the Sprinter has been a “huge win” for Cox, since the van has a higher weight capacity, more head room, and more importantly for Cox, the company is achieving about an 85% increase in miles per gallon. “While they’re more expensive up front, those are the kinds of things that Cox is willing to invest in,” he says. “It’s an all-around win for us because in the end, once you calculate the total cost of ownership, it’s really cheaper to own despite diesel being a little more expensive.”

The drivers have been pleased with the vehicle choice, commenting particularly on the tighter turning radius.

Standardization with Flexibility

To achieve the switch to Sprinter, Cox has undergone spec standardization across its entire fleet, from vans to bucket trucks. Fleet at Cox is managed as a shared service among the different operating groups of the company, which makes standardization — as well as negotiating for better pricing — easier to accomplish.

The standardization is flexible, however, and takes weather and terrain into consideration. “We don’t say that this is the cookie-cutter truck that everyone gets because we know that Phoenix will have different requirements compared to New England,” Leuenberger says. So when it came to standardizing, fleet shared services reached out to those divisions and customers for input. Once all specs were gathered, they were reviewed to ensure that operating costs and environmental impact are on par with company goals.

For bucket trucks, the company is using electric hydraulic booms, so the trucks don’t have to idle to operate the boom lift, or increase the rate of engine wear and tear. “Everything we do is an evolution — we started with an all-in hybrid truck but this is what we’re doing now,” Leuenberger says. Currently, Ford chassis trucks are the standard bucket body for Cox with either Altec or ETI booms.

Another strategy shift within overall fleet standards is that the company maintains a tighter fleet replacement cycle of five to six years. “We have found with the natural progression of the CAFE standards that vehicles every year are getting a little bit better mileage, so as we turn our vehicles, we’re getting better mileage that way,” Leuenberger says.

Maintenance is also a piece of the company’s standardization practices. According to Bigelow, the entire chassis as well as all upfits on vehicles are checked for any mechanical or safety issues at every scheduled maintenance interval.

On the boom trucks, this helps prevent any hydraulic failures, for example. “We’ve taken the approach that good preventive maintenance (PM) on the entire vehicle will do as much as possible to eliminate those problems,” he says. “We do not have a substantial amount of hydraulic problems and we attribute that to our PM program.”

To further streamline maintenance, Manheim, a Cox Enterprises subsidiary and wholesale vehicle auction service, provides maintenance for about 85% of the Cox fleet. In areas not serviced by Manheim, the company will find local shops and manage the services and relationships on behalf of Cox.

On Deck: Hybrid Vans

Cox Enterprises is currently in the final stages of crunching data on piloting hybrid vans from XL Hybrids, a third-party electrification company that provides bolt-on hybrid systems for several van models.

The XL Hybrids system is slightly different than a typical conversion. The only modification done to the vehicle is that the driveshaft is shortened. This makes it an attractive option for Cox, especially since tightening its fleet replacement cycle. “If we do something with the truck or it reaches the end of its life, we can unbolt the system and bolt it onto the next truck, so we don’t have to deal with anything integrated with the vehicle,” Bigelow says.

Like the spec standardization, any technology additions must go through an internal analysis. In the case of the hybrids, the Cox Conserves program has already signed off on the energy portion of the review. “Right now it looks like it’s going to go into pilot mode,” Leuenberger says.

Should all go well, Cox will add five to 10 vans from XL Hybrids as part of a pilot phase. Upon purchase, the company expects to see an ROI between 2.5 and 3.5 years, and would only use the vehicles for urban routes, since the regenerative braking and other hybrid features are more useful for non-highway driving.

The company has been looking at hybrids for a while, but had yet to find anything that would work for the Cox fleet due to weight constraints. “You put all the batteries in the vehicle and now you don’t have the same capacity for equipment,” Leuenberger says, adding that this research is another reason the Cox Conserves program is such a great asset.

When the fleet is first approached by a vendor, everything is turned over to the Cox Conserves team to research ROI and environmental impact. Leuenberger says that probably about 20% of the stuff that comes across the fleet desk is tested, and about 1% of those tests actually deployed fleet-wide.

For example, Cox has tested out natural gas vehicles (NGVs) as a possible fleet option but doesn’t plan to implement any NGVs — namely because of infrastructure. “We continue to work with natural gas companies and conversion companies on giving them our thoughts on what would make a successful vehicle for us,” Leuenberger says, adding that in areas where infrastructure wasn’t an issue, fill time and vehicle capacity came up as operational challenges.

In these NGV tests, due to reduced capacity and longer fill times, Cox found that drivers were having to return to the office more often to get supplies, and generally had less time to fulfil services at the same rate. “It ends up costing us more and they’re burning more fuel that way anyway,” Leuenberger says.

Routing Efficiencies = Driving Less

The simple conclusion that when you drive less, you burn less fuel is what got Cox on board early on to add routing software to its field service fleet. Now, the company is deploying routing software across all its operating units over the next year. The company expects this expansion will give all its operations about a 20% reduction in mileage.

Essentially, the routing software continuously re-shuffles the deck throughout the day — taking into account scheduled services as well as unplanned outages — to ensure that techs are driving to the next closest job they’re equipped to handle versus a set group of locations to reach that day.

Improving upon what is already in place often provides quick and achievable goals when it comes to operational efficiencies — hence why only 1% of technology tested at Cox is actually put into use. “Once you adversely impact your operations, you negate all the benefits,” Leuenberger says.

By Joanne Tucker

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