Perhaps the best strategy to manage fuel spend in challenging times is old-school common sense coupled with new-school apps, services, and data.  -  Gettyimages.com/ChakisAtelier

Perhaps the best strategy to manage fuel spend in challenging times is old-school common sense coupled with new-school apps, services, and data.

Gettyimages.com/ChakisAtelier

Have you ever heard of the three-body problem?

It’s a classic physics dilemma and thought experiment, a mathematical quandary akin to Schrodinger’s Cat. The three-body problem refers to planets and the layman’s version is this: the position of any two planets in orbit can be calculated down to the millimeter due to the immutable laws of physics. Introduce a third planet, however, and all conventional laws of physics fly out the window, begging the question, “Does physics even matter?”, and maybe on a more existential level, “Is all my good work in a field I love completely meaningless?”

It’s been known to drive scientists bonkers. Maybe you can see where I’m going with this.

In an age where fuel costs are soaring, new vehicles are as rare and costly as uncut diamonds, and the labor shortage drives longer down times, higher repair prices, and longer vehicle cycles, managing fuel spend among every other responsibility can be like trying to solve the three-body problem in fuel, infrastructure, and cost. 

“How do you best use what’s available to you?” asks Arnie Braun, senior director of fleet operations at Cox Automotive. Braun manages about 15,000 vehicles in the fleet.

Arnie Braun, Cox Automotive  -  Braun

Arnie Braun, Cox Automotive

Braun

“We first target reduction in idle through telematics,” he says, “and that’s the start, but there are other root causes that could make a significant impact. How do you identify the factors that drive fuel cost? Routing vehicles efficiently is key, and in today’s world, how do you resolve service calls digitally? Do we need a technician to go out during every call? For almost two years, many people didn’t want anyone in their homes.”

For many fleet managers, the “YouTubeification” of technical, service-oriented calls has added another ball in the air to an already stressed system. But Braun notes that fleet managers don’t work in a vacuum. “We’re constantly trying to operate well, keep technicians available, and keep our customers safe, happy, and healthy.”

Thankfully, less routes means less fuel burned. Braun says routing technology has helped bring clarity to the many metro-type calls his fleets make. “Look at how your business models have changed over the last two years. Were our salespeople just as effective on Zoom or are able to solve customer tickets without sending a technician out?”

Braun says Cox has looked at other solutions as well; he tried some aftermarket equipment with varying levels of success. Braun says speed monitors to limit vehicles worked, but that many seemingly small cost savings need to be reviewed; “Saving $100 on fuel per year also has to be weighed against other impacts such as maintenance, safety, operator efficiency, and sustainability goals.  

Braun stresses the long-known factors for his fleet, such as properly inflated tires and driver behavior. He notes that, “As much as 30% of fuel economy is in your driver’s foot,” and that telematic data can help control speed, improve safety, and yield excellent PM scores.

Looking ahead, Braun is certain a future of alternative fuels may help mitigate some of today’s fuel challenges.  

“We’re trying to target markets where we can harness renewable fuel sources,” he says, “and we’re looking at Tier 1/Tier 2 impact and trying to understand what’s next. For now, ROI can be tough to achieve, so we have to take appropriate steps forward - including piloting various technologies -  and continue to focus on all of the factors that are in our control.” 

Top 10 Fuel Preservation Strategies

Avoid Premium Fuel - Higher octane ratings does not mean cleaner, more efficient gasoline. Unless the manufacturer says so, lower-rated fuel should do the job, and the Top Tier gasoline and diesel standard ensures quality at every price. 

Optimize Routes - There’s no excuse to route poorly – there are simply too many tools out there to help you avoid traffic lights, anticipate traffic, and minimize left-hand turns (among a bevy of other fuel-saving routing strategies).

Use Apps to Source Cheap Fuel - Akin to routing, there’s too much data out there to excuse buying expensive fuel. Common map apps such as Google Maps and Waze come standard with this feature, and there are many others out there from AAA Mobile and more.

Use AC Sparingly - Air conditioning is great but can dramatically increase fuel consumption. Use the vent fan, use your windows, and park in covered or shaded places. Use AC only when necessary.

Use Synthetic Oils - Synthetic oils improve fuel economy due to low viscosity and high customization depending upon your vehicle. They’ll improve performance and assist cold weather starts.

Keep Tires Inflated - Air pressure will save your fuel spend – just one underinflated tire can reduce fuel economy by 2% per pound below the proper inflation level.

Eliminate Extra Weight - Tools, personal effects, and more add up. Fuel economy increases for every 100 lbs. or so removed from the vehicle. Have a roadside assistance plan? Good – eliminate the 30-40 lb. spare tire, jack, and tools.

Use Cruise Control - Cruise control is effective on flat terrains and will avoid stressing the engine and wasting fuel.

Get a Fleet Fuel Card - Fuel management services help control expenses, provide gobs of data about fuel purchases, and helps limit extra spending. 

Avoid Idling - Last but not least, stop idling. Idling more than 10 seconds burns fuel and spews CO2. 

 

Like most challenges in fleet, there's no skeleton key to unlock the cogs of strong ROI and fleet/driver safety. You just have to be willing to adapt.  -  Gettyimages.com/sorbetto

Like most challenges in fleet, there's no skeleton key to unlock the cogs of strong ROI and fleet/driver safety. You just have to be willing to adapt.

Gettyimages.com/sorbetto

Let the Tool Do the Job

Like Braun, Abe Stephenson has been in the fleet industry a long time. Stephenson is the fleet and administration manager at Dish (~3,500 vehicles) and after 15 years has some experience handling adversity in fuel costs.

“Several of my strategies haven’t changed,” he says. “Several times per week we report on all fuel transactions – have we hit certain criteria and/or thresholds? Any fueling events larger than tank capacity per vehicle? Fuel cards can only be used three times per day.” 

Stephenson says he monitor after-hours reporting and that skimming has become more of an issue since the onset of the pandemic. 

“Even though we get all that money back when we file those claims, I’m looking forward to chip reader upgrades across the board. When fuel cards all have chip readers, that should offer more security. Fueling behavior matters - how much weight are we carrying per vehicle? If we convert to new product or carry new product, we’ll save a dollar per year for every pound we reduce and dollar more per pound per year. 

Stephenson also mentions the challenge of simply employing people in the long-term. “A high-turnover environment yields drivers immune to laws of accumulation,” he explains, “so I’d rather let the tool do the job. We use Derive on our GM vehicles. We also use inhibitors.”

Stephenson notes that Stellantis doesn’t allow some products and/or services on their vehicles, which became an unexpected challenge for his ProMasters, which feature some of the best cargo space within his fleet. He says using services such as Derive was one of the largest fuel-saving strategies he’d seen to date, and that he also likes how Mobileye helps prevent tailgating and sudden starts and stops, reducing accident rates and keeping vehicles on the road. as to offer.

Foiling Fuel Theft

"Security is a big deal in fuel management,” says Warren Williams, director of marketing at MultiForce Systems Corp.

“Fuel theft is serious. Gas has gone up so much that people are using non-sparking drills and fueling gas tanks from the parking lots, and achieving fuel security is hard to do; many of the security devices simply fail when communicating fuel type, fill-up times, etc.” 

Williams has been in the fleet, fuel, and security business for a long time and has seen everything there is to see regarding the security (and siphoning) of fuel. He stresses that each fleet manager needs to find the fuel security devices and reporting that works for them.

“We work with identiFUEL to capture vehicle and driver ID automatically. Drivers present their cards at the nozzle, a green light goes on, and the right fuel goes in the right vehicle. We help avoid fuel contamination. When everything is correct, the driver fuels up, is billed appropriately, and the vehicle will function.”

Williams says many contemporary reporting services are intuitive, robust, and will make fuel management incredibly simpler for fleets large and small. 

“If the fleet manager has an easy and efficient way to pull reports, it makes his job easier and his office more efficient,” he says. “We help managers secure and report on fuel usage. We can report by vehicle, department, individual, fuel type, job type, etc. Fuel management really benefits the end client because they know where their fuel is going.”

He also says a robust fuel management program helps identify anomalies, bringing fuel theft or (in most cases) maintenance issues to light. 

As a service fleet, he says the aerodynamics of ladder racks, ladders, and other top-vehicle gear is terrible for fuel economy. “Ladder rack upfitters don’t seem terribly concerned about that, though ours is working on a lighter, more aerodynamic solution,” he says.

“If you save me one mile per gallon, that’s gold! We’ve made decisions on which vehicles to acquire based on that alone – that savings can trump an entire lifecycle forecast for competitive vehicles.”

He also says the WEX fuel app helps his team find the lowest-cost stations in the area. “Without adding extra drive and talk time, how can we find those opportunities? We employ many remote technicians who work out of their homes need to know where those stations are.”

Stephenson says he ended the year conducting a fuel station usage analysis incorporating data from the app and other telematics solutions as well as a survey of his team; where do they fuel? How often? Where and why do they refuel during high-volume times?

Using telematics, Stephenson notes one factor of contemporary fuel management that’s entirely manageable is engine idling. “Managing that program can pay up to half of our GPS costs/program. We have goals in place for that, and it’s a primary data point for us to look at.”

With high turnover – roughly half of the fleet vehicles every year – keeping a close bead on how, why, and how often fuel is bought and consumed is another reason Stephenson keeps things simple and tries to let the vehicles and their suite of technology and telematics help him do the job.

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