The cost of saving fuel

I don't know if I'm a pessimist or a realist, but it seems to me that good news is always balanced by bad, just as theory is by reality. No matter what type of fleet you run, the good news is that you can expect to see your fuel economy improve by up to 50% over the next ten years. Why? Well, for many that's the counterbalancing bad news. We're about to drop the starting flag on a full-out sprint

I don't know if I'm a pessimist or a realist, but it seems to me that good news is always balanced by bad, just as theory is by reality. No matter what type of fleet you run, the good news is that you can expect to see your fuel economy improve by up to 50% over the next ten years. Why? Well, for many that's the counterbalancing bad news.

We're about to drop the starting flag on a full-out sprint to maximize the fuel efficiency of commercial vehicles because the federal government is going to require it. Consumption of carbon-based fuels like petroleum has come to be perceived as a threat to national security since we depend so heavily on foreign sources. It is also identified as a major contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are driving global warming at an escalating rate. (Please, no heated emails on the “global warming scam.” Whether you accept the science behind it or not, it will shape legislation and our lives in significant ways.) Just as diesel engines were fingered as major contributors to the pollutants behind our cities' bad air, trucks and buses have been identified as burning over 25% of all transportation fuel. With 2010 diesels essentially eliminating the air pollutant issue for commercial vehicles, the federal government has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to turn its attention to GHG.

This time, the trucking industry is going to see some real benefit from new emissions regulation — the best way to cut GHG emissions is to reduce the amount of carbon-based fuel we burn. I've yet to meet any fleet manager who's not interested in better fuel economy and lower fuel bills.

We've already seen the first steps in this direction with EPA's voluntary SmartWay program. Essentially suggested specs for over-the-road tractor-trailers, SmartWay quantifies fuel savings for low rolling resistance tires, aerodynamic devices and idle reduction technologies. It extends its official approval of a device or product only after it independently certifies the potential fuel savings, which gives adopting fleets some reassurance that they're not wasting their money chasing only theoretical economy gains.

It looks like this commonsense approach will be extended to EPA's coming fuel economy mandates. The panel that put together the basic outline for establishing such requirements produced a report that will please many with its insistence that fuel economy in commercial vehicles is a complex subject and that trucking cannot be treated as a monolithic industry. Instead, it says regulators will have to create a number of models to accommodate trucking's varied operations and that it will even have to devise different methods for measuring fuel efficiency for each. It also strongly suggests that regulators run pilot tests to validate their models and standards before setting those standards in concrete.

Okay, so where's the bad news in commonsense rules producing trucks that do more with less fuel? No surprise, it's cost. The panel estimates that an OTR tractor-trailer can get 50% better fuel efficiency by 2020, but that the technology to reach that level will add about $84,000 to the initial price of the combination, or about $1,600 for every 1% of improvement. That's the best-case scenario. The ratio of cost to benefit for lower mileage applications like utility trucks or pickups is much less attractive.

Fortunately, there's more to the panel's commonsense recommendations than just throwing expensive hardware at the problem. Next month, we'll talk about their non-technical suggestions for reducing every fleet's fuel bills.

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