With crude oil prices receding, we've probably seen the peak for diesel prices for at least a few months. Forecasts, for what they're worth, see diesel prices dropping as much as $0.30/gal. over the summer, which is substantial, but not what anyone would consider low. And whether it's attributed to stronger Chinese consumption, more serious disruptions in the Middle East or just the return of winter weather, the price of oil and its derivatives will certainly start climbing again.
So while the price may bounce around from month to month, the overall trend towards higher fuel prices is here to stay. As difficult as it may make running a truck fleet, we're going to have to learn to live with high fuel prices.
Business often sees government regulation as an obstacle, if not an outright threat to productivity and profits. That was certainly the case with diesel emissions standards. They have added significantly to the initial cost of a truck, while also adding to ongoing operational costs. However, some time in the next few months we're going to see new federal regulations that most fleets will welcome — fuel economy standards that will lower diesel consumption by as much as 20% within six years. Yes, there will be some cost to meeting the new standards, but given the trend in diesel prices, fleets can expect to get a positive return on the investment.
The standards, as welcome as they may be, are really just about potential fuel savings. They only address the vehicle's ability to reduce consumption. That's an important step, but as anyone involved in running a truck fleet knows, equipment is just part of the equation when it comes to saving fuel. True fuel efficiency is not measured by some calculation of miles per gallon under controlled conditions, but by the amount of freight carried or work completed with a gallon of fuel.
That makes drivers and operations the real key to unlocking any new potential designed into future trucks. Unlike truck design, which is relatively easy to regulate at the manufacturing level, those two elements are your responsibility as a fleet manager.
You need to do everything you can to help drivers understand their role in conserving fuel and to make sure they do what's necessary to maximize the potential being built into their vehicles. Technology like smarter automated transmissions and load-sensing engine controls can remove some of the individual variation from driver performance, but there's no way to replace the human brain when it comes to the ability to anticipate and to make the complex decisions that result in good fuel efficiency.
And you need to support drivers with an operational focus on efficiency that allows them to succeed in doing the most with the least amount of fuel. Poor load planning or routing are just the simplest examples of ways fleet management can undermine fuel efficiency. A well-run fleet sees and manages to the big efficiency picture — getting the most productivity out of its fuel purchases.
Few who operate a fleet of trucks need to be told that minimizing fuel consumption is of prime importance. If you do need convincing, look around you at the competitors who've been driven out of business by this recent spike in fuel prices. You can't control the price of diesel, but you're about to get some help on using less of it. Just be sure you're ready to take advantage of that potential coming your way.