Trucks at Work

The new calculations

Three years ago, a 3/10th per a mile difference in fuel economy among truck models didn‘t matter. Now just a 1/10th per mile difference will drive our truck purchasing decision.” -Bruce Stockton, vice president of maintenance and asset management for Con-way Truckload.

I got the rare chance to listen to Bruce Stockton in person talk about how he and his company, Con-way Truckload, are completely changing the way they approach spec‘ing trucks. As his quote above indicates, almost everything now is related to improving fuel efficiency - but not without paying close attention to how those specs ultimately impact the life cycle calculation for Class 8 tractors.

For example, his research indicates that automated mechanical transmissions (AMTs) can improve a tractor‘s fuel efficiency by 1/10th to 2/10th of a mile per gallon - and that is across the fleet. With diesel priced at $4.50 per gallon an AMT could save about $1,500 per truck per year at the 1/10th per mile level. However ... with an upcharge for an AMT running anywhere from $4,500 to $5,500 more than a standard manual 13-speed transmission, and with truck trade cycles ranging between three to five years, the fuel savings may not be enough to cover the price premium for an AMT - thus the return on investment (ROI) isn‘t there quite yet.

“Look, we‘re from Missouri, which is the ‘show me state‘ - so you must show us that, at the end of the day, we‘ll save money moving to whatever new component or spec you propose,” he explained during a speech at the 33rd annual Truck Blue Book workshop held in Aspen, CO, this week. “You must show us with data - preferably with data we generate - not tell us.”

This is but one example showing how that Con-way Truckload - formed after San Mateo, CA-based Con-way Inc. purchased truckload carrier Contract Freighters Inc. (CFI) of Joplin, MO, in 2007 - is running the numbers on all sorts of truck spec changes today.

Here‘s a simple but huge one the carrier made over a six-month period - slowing down its tractors from 70 miles per hour to 65 mph. Changing the settings for the fleet‘s engine governors by just five miles per hour doesn‘t sound like a whole lot (and it took from Nov. 2007 through April this year to do that on Con-way Truckload's 2,856 tractors) but it reaped huge savings, Stockton said.

“Our average fuel mileage per tractor went from 6 mpg to 6.28 mpg - nearly a 3/10th of a mile improvement in fuel economy,” Stockton said. “That translates into about $4,500 saved per truck per year in fuel costs.” What Con-way did with that extra money is even smarter - giving it back to its driver corps of 3,000 in the form of a 1 cent per mile pay increase.

For Stockton - a 23-year industry veteran - it all comes back to making decisions on good, solid data. “I like to use a group of 50 trucks to get data,” he explained. “You also have to be careful in terms of how you compare data sets among vehicles. For example, 70% of our T660 Kenworth Studio Sleeper tractors operate with driver teams, whereas only 40% of our Freightliner Cascadia tractors do. That can change the data you‘re getting significantly, especially in terms of fuel economy. Take idle time: our team trucks average 14% idle time, whereas our solo drivers average 35%.”

Everything gets looked at in the fashion at Con-way Truckload now - even paint schemes. The carrier decided not to repaint its current CFI-emblazoned units, waiting instead to bring on the new colors with new trucks as the old ones are replaced. The new units are painted a base white with a single 10-inch wide straight blue line, as the original “angled” blue stripe would have cost the carrier millions of extra dollars per year. “It‘s also easier to move trucks between our TL and LTL operations if they all sport the same design,” Stockton said.

That‘s probably the next big area - trying to “re-use” trucks within the Con-way family in order maximize total life cycle value. After three or four years in the truckload fleet, Con-way would use its own trailer manufacturing arm to convert TL dual drive axle sleepers into single rear axle daycabs that could be used for pickup and delivery as well as linehaul work at Con-way Freight, the company‘s LTL arm.

On paper, Stockton said this type of truck re-configuring should cost $10,000 to $12,000 per unit, making it worthwhile when compared to the residual value used sleeper tractors maintain in the market. “It‘s got the added benefit of keeping our fuel efficient specs within the company,” he stressed. “That way, it doesn‘t allow a second buyer to take our crafted specs and then haul freight at a lower rate against us.”

That‘s what the new calculations in spec‘ing are all about - looking at how all the pieces of the truck puzzle can be reworked to save fleets money not just in terms of fuel but across a much wider range of issues.