How Fuel Management Can Save Dollars for Truck Fleets
Trucks just aren’t as fuel-efficient as cars. That simple fact makes the impact of rising fuel prices all the more painful for truck fleets than for the typical fleet of four-door sedans. It also makes managing fuel costs a more urgent issue for truck fleets.
Managers of truck fleets, however, know that they’re not helpless in the face of higher fuel prices, and they know where to look to take action.
Truck Expenses Differ
Are truck variable expenses different from those of cars? The expenses may fall into the same categories - fuel, maintenance, tires, oil, etc. - but the proportions are very different. Tires can be as much as 8 percent of truck operating expense, for example, compared to less than 1 percent for cars. Fuel is by far the largest expense for cars, and even more so for trucks, comprising as much as 70 percent or more of budget dollars. For that reason alone, the past months’ spikes in fuel prices have been particularly painful for truck fleets.
Fleets of medium- and heavy-duty trucks can manage fuel expenses with some strategies not available to fleets of light trucks and full-size vans. But much can be done to soften the impact of fuel prices when fleet managers conduct proper research and planning.
Managing fuel expense begins, more than with cars, with proper specifications. Developing appropriate specifications is the result of knowing what job the truck will be expected to do:
How heavy is the load the truck will be expected to carry?
What, if any, towing will the truck do? How much weight will be towed?
What is the cargo volume?
How many people must the truck carry?
What is the geography, i.e., urban, suburban, mountainous, extreme
These and other considerations should be the basis for choosing engine and drivetrain combinations that will contribute to more fuel-efficient use. Not all trucks, however, carry the same load every time. Make certain that you know the normal load total and resist the temptation to spec for the heaviest load, if that is the rare exception.
One good way to learn exactly what job the truck will perform is to get out in the field and ride. Spend a day or two with drivers in different territories and pay attention to what they do. How often do they start and stop, load and unload? What kind of driving do they have to do? Ask questions and take notes. You’ll likely find that specs can differ from territory to territory, as the use can differ dramatically. Some trucks endure heavy stop-and-go driving; others operate at high speeds over long stretches of flat road. Still others battle extreme elevation changes.
A sure way to waste fuel is a “one-size-fits-all” approach to specs. The ultimate goal should be to spec every truck to the maximum level to do the job, but no more than that.
Drivers Play a Critical Part
Most truck experts will say that all the careful spec’ing in the world can be neutralized if your drivers don’t know how to drive for fuel efficiency. As much as 30 percent of fuel costs are dependent upon the driver. All those things that dampen fuel savings in cars do so to an even greater extent in trucks:
Short stops and “jackrabbit” starts.
In medium- and heavy-duty trucks, for every mile per hour faster driven, an additional one-tenth of a gallon of fuel is consumed. Thus, driving at 75 mph rather than 65 mph will cost a full gallon of fuel.
One less mile per gallon can cost the fleet tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in additional fuel expense. Driving with a “light foot” - slowing down and accelerating gradually - will maximize the efficiency of the specs.
Regular driver training, for safety as well as fuel efficiency, should be a part of every fleet program. Some fleets have instituted driver incentive programs, where drivers are rewarded for incremental improvements in their fuel efficiency rating. On a cautionary note, the benchmark for such rewards should be the driver’s own record, rather than an external benchmark.
Take a Look at Routing
Unlike most car fleets, many truck fleets travel regular routes delivering product and servicing customers. One other method of keeping a lid on fuel expense is to review truck routes, and make certain that they are as efficient as possible. Think of it this way: if you have trucks that travel regular, 100-mile daily routes, and you can reduce that route to 90 miles, each truck will drive 2,600 fewer miles each year. For a 1,000-truck fleet, that’s 2.6 million fewer miles. At fuel expense of 10 cents per mile, that’s a savings of $260,000, simply by reducing the total miles the trucks must drive.
Routes often tend to evolve over a long period of time and often are not current with the territory alignments, customer locations, and company warehouse facilities. When routes are reviewed, not only can the total mileage be reduced, but costly downtime can also be slashed (particularly when a vehicle is replenishing stocks of products, parts, etc.). Route reviews should be conducted on a regular schedule. Don’t hesitate to simply listen to your drivers, as well. Veteran drivers can usually provide ideas to make their routes more efficient, and they know all the “short cuts,” too.
Excessive idling is also a fuel waster unique to truck fleets (although it is far more prevalent in over-the-road fleets, medium-duty and light-duty delivery fleets can suffer as well). Drivers, along with other bad habits, can often get into the practice of leaving the truck running while working at a customer location or restocking at a warehouse or other company facility. This is particularly true during extreme temperatures, i.e., on hot summer days or very cold winter days.
Proper and regular driver training can include reinforcement of vehicle idling policy. Leaving a truck idling for more than a few minutes, especially with the air conditioning running, can waste thousands of gallons of fuel each year. In addition, one hour idling per day is estimated equivalent to 26,000 additional miles of engine wear each year. This kind of additional wear and tear will shorten vehicle service life, and contribute to the waste of fuel.
Other Techniques to Save
Specs other than just engine and drivetrain can impact fuel efficiency:
Tire spec’ing and care are key components in the formula for peak fuel efficiency. Proper size and tread design, chosen with the truck’s mission in mind (load, geography, etc.) can improve mileage. Supply every unit with a tire pressure gauge and make it a stringent item of fleet policy to have drivers check tire inflation on a daily basis: once before setting out for the day and again before the end of the day. Underinflation is the number one cause of tire wear, and can sap fuel efficiency as well.
Many truck fleets require upfitting to allow the truck to perform its mission. Bins, ladder racks, shelves, and more are built into vans, pickup trucks, and even van bodies to carry parts and product. Efficient upfitting is linked to several other areas affecting fuel efficiency. Upfitting should maximize driver efficiency and reduce the need to make stops to replenish supplies. Work with an upfit vendor to choose the upfit design best suited to the mission. The result will be fewer stops, shorter service and delivery calls, and less idle time, all of which will help maximize fuel efficiency.
Though generally a greater consideration for over-the-road fleets, all fleet managers should research the aerodynamics of their selected vehicles, particularly medium-duty cab/chassis combinations fitted with van bodies. Ask your manufacturers’ representatives for information on drag coefficients and what is available (cowlings for the cab roof, for example) which can decrease drag and thus improve mileage.
All major manufacturers are working feverishly to perfect alternate fuel offerings. Hybrids, biodiesel, propane, and other technology can provide substantial improvement in fuel efficiency.
Simply replacing existing gas- and diesel-driven trucks with available alternatives, however, should be avoided. Again, work with manufacturers’ representatives to make certain that such technology is capable of performing under the strain of heavy loads, extreme geography, and frequent starts and stops.
Check also into the fuel infrastructure (the availability of refueling and qualified service). If an alternative-fuel truck is available, it may save in fuel costs, but if fuel isn’t readily available, or if service and repair facilities are difficult to find, the additional expense of doing so can cancel out any direct fuel savings.
Borrow from Car Fleet Strategies
In addition to strategies unique to truck fleets, most fuel-saving processes that apply to automotive fleets can also be used for trucks.
Personal use policy may not come into play for a fleet of 20-foot van-body straight trucks, but fleets of pickups and vans are often used by drivers on personal business. If you permit personal use of company-provided trucks, but don’t pay for fuel used, use the data that fuel expense generates to track some of the more obvious signs that the policy is being ignored, such as fuel purchases late on Fridays, followed by others early on Monday, and direct purchases on weekends.
Other fuel purchases in violation of company policy happen as often in truck fleets as in car fleets, including:
Non-fuel items, such as food, lottery tickets, etc.
Premium fuels, where it is neither needed nor recommended.
Items purchased for non-company vehicles, i.e., family cars, boats, and equipment such as lawnmowers.
Other fuel-efficiency strategies are:
Review inventory to make sure all vehicles in service are needed and eliminate surplus.
Institute and strictly enforce a preventive maintenance program, possibly the most important single process in maintaining peak fuel efficiency.
Use a fleet fuel card program. Not only will your drivers benefit from the convenience, but you will obtain detailed data to track fuel usage and develop savings strategies.
It is clear that while fuel prices may be volatile, the overall trend is up. Smart truck fleet managers take the time and make the effort to examine all aspects of the truck to manage the increases. When fuel efficiency becomes a regular focus, sudden price increases can be kept to a minimum, and your bottom line will benefit.