Not overnight

Bruce Stockton, vp-maintenance and asset management for Con-way Truckload, will tell you that fleets seeking to go green must realize it's not something that happens overnight and that it must also make economic sense. Take, for example, the carrier's recent effort to slow down its 2,700 highway tractors by ratcheting back engine governors from a top speed of 70 mph to 65 mph. By adjusting its fleet

Bruce Stockton, vp-maintenance and asset management for Con-way Truckload, will tell you that fleets seeking to go green must realize it's not something that happens overnight — and that it must also make economic sense.

Take, for example, the carrier's recent effort to slow down its 2,700 highway tractors by ratcheting back engine governors from a top speed of 70 mph to 65 mph. By adjusting its fleet to run at the lower maximum highway speed, Stockton says Con-way Truckload expects to save 2.8 million gal. of diesel fuel per year — keeping $11.2 million in its pocket if diesel prices remain at $4 a gallon — while reducing annual carbon emissions by about 62 million lbs.

Yet it took the carrier nearly six months to adjust all its engine governors, requiring an awful lot of patience and follow-through on Stockton's part. “We started this process in mid-November 2007 and didn't finish until the end of April this year,” Stockton notes. “If there was a way we could have turned our trucks down via our onboard communication system, then we could have done it overnight indeed, but that process doesn't exist yet.”

Other green efforts required a much longer timeframe to achieve, however. Back in 2003, when it was known as Contract Freighters Inc., the company decided to switch to wide-base tires on the rear axles of its highway tractors — a move that ended up improving the fuel economy of each power unit by 0.2 mpg. But it took about three years for that changeover to occur, Stockton stresses, noting that the same wide-base tire switch is now ongoing for Con-way Truckload's 8,600 trailers, a process that won't be wrapped up until 2012.

“When you look back at when we started this process, we weren't talking about sustainability or using any of the other green buzz words out there,” he says. “We were looking for that tiny operational edge: a way to achieve savings across our fleet for the long term. Efforts like these take time, and that's a big struggle right now as fleets can barely afford to pay for fuel, much less reinvest in brand new trucks spec'd this way.”

Nothing is too small to be overlooked, adds Stockton. Detailed specification changes, such as removing a step plate here and a bumper plate there, helped Con-way reduce the weight of each of its highway tractors by more than 670 lbs., saving 11,400 gal. of diesel fuel per year. That also included equipping the fleet with aerodynamic panels to reduce drag and slicing engine idle time through measures such as diesel-fired bunk heaters, commercial transponders for bypassing weigh stations, increasing the use of team drivers, and designating convenient “no idling” parking areas at selected terminals.

Still, Stockton emphasizes that a solid return on investment (ROI) must always be established before any change is made to a fleet's equipment, no matter the green benefit. “We look at every single available opportunity out there to save fuel, reduce emissions and be greener, but everything we've done to date comes with a very simple corollary: we've always had an ROI within at least the first half of the vehicle's life expectancy,” he explains. “If the ROI is outside of that, then we don't pursue it.”

That mind-set applies especially to big-ticket items, such as the Class 8 hybrid prototypes currently being developed by Paccar and Eaton now being tested by Wal-Mart. Despite the fuel-savings help from electric motor assist during on-highway operation combined with the ability to switch to battery power for heating, cooling and hotel loads while parked during off-duty hours, the price tag for such trucks still seems too high to Stockton.

“Class 8 hybrids are still very, very expensive at this moment, and that needs to be weighted against our trucking business model,” he says. “The electric motors and batteries add a lot of weight, so we may not be able to gross out in terms of freight capacity per tractor-trailer. It's a very complex problem, one that won't be solved overnight.”

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