nussbaumtruck.jpg Photo: Nussbaum Transportation
Nussbaum Transportation averaged 8.6 mpg fleet-wide in 2017.

Boosting fuel efficiency

Not long ago, getting over 10 mpg was a pipe dream in trucking. Now, in some ways, it’s the norm—with even better results to come.

The days of get more miles, get another load and who cares about how many miles per gallon the truck gets are gone.

In today’s trucking world, better fuel economy is the rule, not the exception. So it wasn’t a shock when the seven trucks competing in the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE)-sponsored “Run on Less” demonstration last September averaged 10.1 mpg over their collective 99 days on the road while still maintaining average road speeds of 54 mph.

After all, Nussbaum Transportation, which sent one of its 360 trucks to Run on Less, averaged 8.6 mpg fleet-wide in 2017. And Joel Morrow, a co-owner of Ploger Transportation and one of the Run on Less participants, averaged as high as 16.75 mpg on a run of 520 miles one day last year and just over 11.4 mpg during a recent month. He has been driving for three decades.

“The numbers from Run on Less are very hard to ignore,” said Morrow, who predicts additional events will focus further attention on the critical issue of fuel economy.

“We thought we would reach 9 mpg and we got 10.1 mpg even though we had to deal with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma,” added Mike Roeth, NACFE executive director. “The primary reason is the drivers who are the best of the best and knew the world was watching. In a time when some say technology makes the driver less important, Run on Less, which had a lot of technology on the trucks, proved that you have to train the drivers how to use it in the best way. Just because the transmission shifts for you doesn’t mean you can slam the pedal to the metal and expect good fuel economy.”

Photo: Run on Less

The Run on Less drivers were so competitive that they averaged idling numbers in the single digits.

“They did things like making sure their license plates weren’t sticking in the airstream,” said NACFE consultant Yunsu Park, who crunched the numbers for Run on Less. “They looked for every possible gap, made sure that nothing was sticking out, that nothing was loose on the truck. It was a little bit of an obsession to detail.”

Park said that aside from talented, experienced and focused drivers, Run on Less succeeded because “all the trucks were pretty highly decked out with all the aero that’s available. OEMs have gotten very good about optimizing for emissions and fuel economy at the same time.”

None of the seven Run on Less trucks were the same. There were 11-liter, 13-liter, and 15-liter engines. There were 4x2, 6x4, 6x2, and 6x2 liftable rear axle configurations. There was a variety of tires. All the trucks were Phase 1 GHG (greenhouse gas) compliant, which meant that they were all 2015 models or newer, no matter the manufacturer.

“We weren’t surprised by the 10.1 mpg average of Run on Less because we had many drivers averaging over 10 mpg in our fleet at that time,” said Cory Adams, Nussbaum’s driver performance coach. “We’re more surprised when we see a driver from another fleet being honored for getting over seven miles a gallon. At Nussbaum, it’s a problem if someone only gets that kind of fuel mileage.” 

NACFE’s Roeth hopes that Run on Less proved that trucks can average 10 mpg in real-world conditions.

“One of the reasons we wanted to do Run on Less was to myth-bust that 10 mpg doesn’t happen,” he said. “Some of our trucks [including Morrow’s] were affected by the hurricanes because they were in the Southeast. Trucks have to drive in extreme heat and snowstorms.

“We’re actually quite pleased that a little more of the real world snuck in to Run on Less,” Roeth continued. “[Since the event], we’ve had dozens of calls from fleets saying, ‘We’re kinda mired at 7 or 7.5 mpg. What do you guys suggest so that we can get better?’ Success for us comes one at a time like that. There are 80 technologies and 1.5 million trucks. You eat the elephant one bite at a time.”

Back then to now

Few were trying to take a bite out of that elephant two or three decades ago.

“If you go back to the ’80s, the ’90s or even the early 2000s, the mpg on trucks stayed pretty much the same because there wasn’t very much technology available to significantly improve fuel economy,” said Mike Spence, senior vice president of Fleet Advantage, which advo­cates replacing pre-2015 trucks with new models.

“It was four, five, six miles a gallon and fuel was a buck. Everybody rebuilt engines because you could do it for $2,000 or $3,000,” he explained. “Then all of the technology started to come on board,  and fleets had to become more efficient to compete. The best way to do that is to build your fleet around the preventive maintenance model so you can increase your uptime, increase your driver satisfaction, and have improved fuel economy. It doesn’t make sense any longer to run a six- or seven-year-old truck. It’s costing you more to run that truck than it is to own a new truck.”

The average vehicle age of the 100 fleets that work with Fleet Advantage has dropped from about seven years to four over the past five years. According to Fleet Advantage, replacing a 2012 sleeper with a 2018 can save a buyer $22,162 this year, given 15% better fuel economy and lower maintenance costs.

“A lot of the conversation that used to be around—‘This is a good model to move to’—was based on industry standards and published fuel economy and maintenance costs,” Spence said. “Today, you can extract the data right from the clients’ trucks. Any time that the maintenance and fuel costs along with the finance exceed the cost of a new truck, that is the tipping point.”

James Husted, director of maintenance for Ohio-based Garner Trucking, said that his fleet’s fuel economy has risen from a little more than 6 mpg two decades ago to 7.2 mpg today thanks to improved technology. That figure rises to 7.9 mpg at Garner when only its 2015 model year and newer trucks are counted. 

“It’s been a pretty gradual climb with our aerodynamics, our horsepower specs, transmissions, and rear-end ratios all changing,” said Husted, a 31-year Garner veteran. “I never thought I’d see a 281 [rear-end ratio]. When I started, our rear ends were probably in the neighborhood of 411. A big part of fuel economy is getting the OEM involved. When we spec a truck, we’re upfront that we’re spec’ing it for [improved] fuel mileage so we get a lot of cooperation from the OEMs.

“We watch everything we do because sometimes the small things can really add up,” he stressed. “There’s no question that better fuel economy comes from better aerodynamics and downspeeding the engine, but I don’t know how much farther they can go now with either one.”

Ploger’s Morrow said that fleets shouldn’t go any farther with even three-year-old trucks.

“If you’re gonna stay on top of things, you can’t get any more than two years old or you’re gonna get left in the dust,” he explained.

Sometimes less is more

When it comes to spec’ing and engines, Morrow firmly believes that less is more.

“One of the big things when it comes to spec’ing a truck in the American market, especially for general van freight, is we over-spec,” he declared. “Our engines are too big, and we run too much horsepower. I run 11-liter engines and I stop at about 425 hp. There’s just no need to be running a 15-liter engine for typical van freight duty cycles. I’ve consistently put up really big numbers with 11-liter engines.

“I’ll be the first to admit that with some of the old, smaller engines, you had to stay on top of ’em to keep ’em running,” Morrow continued. “[But] today’s 11-liter engines, like the Volvo D11 or the Mack MP7, are supremely reliable.

“Driver perception needs to change,” he said. “Because they get paid by the mile, when you’re hiring drivers, they want to know how big your trucks are and how fast they go. But the bigger engines cost more to maintain. My 11-liter truck runs with the big boys.”

Morrow also said that there’s a connection between engine displacement and the aerodynamic efficiency of a skirt.

“With my 11-liter engine, I can pick up aerodynamic enhancement all the way down to about 31 mph. In a 15-liter, the skirts aren’t effective until about 50 mph,” said Morrow, who uses standard rolling resistance tires—as opposed to the au courant ultra-low rolling resistance types—on his 6x2 liftable truck in order to reduce running slip levels. “With larger engines, I couldn’t even begin to make the case for the aerodynamics doing regional and multi-stop deliveries. And people driving in the Northeast, where the average speed is maybe 44-47 mph, have a hard time justifying buying skirts.”

Jimmy Ray, co-founder of Mesilla Valley Transportation, said that his New Mexico-based fleet first focused on fuel economy when prices soared a few years back. Mesilla Valley has invested in solar-powered electric auxiliary power units (APUs) as well as trailer boat tails in order to save fuel.

“With solar, we went from 10 hours to about 15-16 hours,” Ray said. “It costs $1,000 [per truck], but it really does work.”

 As did adding the boat tails and lowering Mesilla Valley trucks’ rear end ratios.

“Every tenth of a gallon is a considerable savings,” said Ray, whose 1,380 trucks averaged 8.5 mpg in 2017. “My partner, Royal Jones, loves numbers, so if they add up, the next thing you know, we’re doing it. We’ve messed up on some stuff, but we try to get a 10-, 11-month return to be back to zero. If it doesn’t pay for the product in 10 or 11 months, we don’t use it.

“A different spec in an alternator can save you $500 in fuel annually,” he explained. “Do the math if you have 500 or 1,000 trucks. The bottom line is that anything that makes heat costs you money. Changing from a 267 [rear end] ratio to a 250 ratio means less friction and seal drag, and that little change adds up.”

It adds up to the tune of $70,000 a year, according to Ray.

Nussbaum’s Adams said that his Illinois-based fleet is starting to experiment with solar panels for its APUs, which can “save big on battery replacement.” However, he quickly added that having a properly trained driver can also pay off in big savings.

“We have good equipment with a lot of technology, but even with the same truck, one driver will get two miles per gallon better than another one,” Adams said. “Taking advantage of gravity is big so if you can find a way to get up to cruising speed without having to use so much fuel, that’s great.

“So is looking ahead to avoid a situation. If you see that traffic’s coming onto the on-ramp, get over a little early,” he explained. “Any time you hit your brakes, you lose some fuel. Coasting towards a ramp helps. When you know the speed limit is going to be lower because there’s a town coming up, start coasting. Take advantage of the eCOAST [cruise control] feature on our trucks where the transmission disengages and your rpms drop all the way down to 600 so you’re getting excellent fuel mileage.”

Nussbaum also offers its drivers incentives for better performance.

“We have an emphasis on fuel economy,” Adams said. “We’ve got a scorecard that covers safety, production, and fuel economy. That’s the one that doesn’t have a points ceiling because you can always get better mileage.”

Like Nussbaum, Mesilla Valley rewards drivers who get better fuel mileage. Each half mpg from nine to 11 earns drivers another penny per mile.

“That goes through the fleet and creates a culture,” Ray said. “Slower speed and patience is how a vehicle gets mileage. After that, equipment dictates the level of fuel economy.”

Randy Swart, chief operating officer of Pennsylvania-based LTL fleet A. Duie Pyle, said that his fleet, which burns about 10 million gallons of fuel annually, realized a 2.8% improvement in fuel economy in the second half of 2017 after implementing a driver education program about that topic.

“I truly believe that the thing that got the drivers engaged the most is that we started putting their miles per gallon and their idle time on their driver manifest every day,” he said. “They could see their metrics for the day, the week, and the month and how they compared to the company average.”

Swart, whose sustainability-conscious company has a solar-powered facility in Pennsylvania and is considering adding to the 10 electric hybrid trucks it runs in greater New York City, said that a focus on the environment has also driven customers to A. Duie Pyle.

“So many of our customers ask us about our carbon footprint, whether we’re using electric or solar,” he added, noting that Pyle’s 1,300 trucks run about 50 million miles annually and are nearing 7 mpg on average. “I think some of our customers do business with us because we do those things. It’s not a giant step. It’s a lot of small steps. Many of these things make plain old good business sense and as technology moves forward, it’s easier to implement them.”

Don’t go overboard

But NACFE’s Roeth cautioned against going overboard with unnecessary after­market additions in hopes of improving fuel economy.

“It’s like your cellphone,” he explained. “If you customize it for your use, then it becomes a huge tool. No longer can you just throw an engine and a transmission together. With tractor aerodynamics, whether you’re a day cab or a sleeper, we believe that you should go all in and then remove things that you decided you really don’t need rather than trying to justify skirts, better mirrors, etc.”

NACFE’s Park said that one cheap and easy way that fleets can try to improve fuel economy is by installing a weather app.

“The technology’s out there—and it’s so cheap,” Park said. “Collect the data so that you’ll have a database of information available if you need it. The thing that surprised me the most during Run on Less was the effect that temperature had on miles per gallon. As it gets colder, air density increases, which costs you fuel. And above 80 degrees, you’ve got to work harder to keep everything cool. Maybe fleets will adjust for where they use their trucks and how they use them because temperature deviations above or below 80 degrees hurt the miles per gallon.”

While Garner’s Husted said that drivers can’t be relied on to manage aerodynamic enhancements, Ploger’s Morrow said the people behind the wheel are the most critical part of better fuel economy.

And they don’t need to have been on the road for 24 years, as was the average Run on Less driver.

“I’ve spent a few weeks training a driver with three years’ experience,” Morrow said. “This kid came straight out of the U.S. Army. When he started working for us, his initial numbers were in the seven-miles-a-gallon range. Now he’s in the nines on a regular basis doing multiple-stop deliveries.”

Morrow teaches Lauer and other Ploger drivers that time management is crucial to fuel economy.

“I know that people want to stay at home until the last minute, but leave yourself enough time so that you don’t have to stand on the accelerator,” Morrow said. “From a fleet manager standpoint, most of ’em are in 13- and 15-liter engines. You can’t change that, but turn the horsepower down. They don’t need 500 hp. to run general freight. Turn it down to 425 or even 405.”

What’s the next frontier when it comes to fuel economy? Electric and driverless trucks becoming commonplace? There’s disagreement about how soon the latter will be anything more than a curiosity, but the former seem to be on their way in a hurry, along with ever-changing improvements under the hood and in aerodynamics.    

“There’ll be at least as much change in the next 10 years as there has been in the previous 35 or 40,” Fleet Advantage’s Spence boldly predicted. “There are so many technologies coming from an aerodynamic standpoint and from a drivetrain standpoint that will significantly improve fuel economy. And I think that you’ll see more and more electric vehicles, which will make a huge difference in the consumption of fuel.”

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