Driving by numbers

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Donald Jackson sits in a room attached to Jacobson Transportation’s Des Moines, Iowa maintenance shop waiting for his scores. His truck is parked outside, with its driver-side door open. Former trucker Susie Lasher has tethered a laptop to a port underneath the driver’s seat extracting the truck’s vital statistics.

In a few minutes, Jackson and Lasher, Jacobson’s equipment analyst, will review his idle time and fuel efficiency. Every time a driver brings a company truck in for scheduled preventive maintenance, Lasher downloads miles per gallon, idle time, cruise time, miles in top gears and other information from the truck’s engine. Then she prints out the information in a report she can show to drivers, critiquing their performance while the truck receives its PM.
The session is designed to correct poor driving habits while cutting operating costs.

Although some drivers may dread their review, Jackson isn’t exactly sweating. As a top performer, Jackson’s data will probably show his idle time well below the company’s target 30 percent – a far cry from the 40 to 50 percent idle time some drivers were showing before Jacobson began tracking driver performance.

“If you look at fuel mileage, you can tell a lot of difference between drivers,” Jackson says.

Jacobson Transportation President and CEO Howard Hein says the company has had the ability to track the performance of drivers like Jackson for several years. But Jacobson Transportation, was unable to take advantage of the technology until it moved to a new PM facility this year. “Our old facility wasn’t adequate,” Hein says.

In fact, the old PM shop had poor truck parking and bays too small to work on trailers and shut out the cold at the same time. At one point, technicians tried to overcome limitations with a “really long” computer cord, but to no avail, Hein says.

In 2000, the company began planning a new maintenance facility. With rising fuel costs and a slowing economy, the company decided it was more prudent to rent another facility that met their needs, and when one nearby opened up, the company jumped at the opportunity.

Now the company is seeing results from its new facility and its driver performance program. “During our first trip through, most of the trucks were averaging 6.34 mpg,” says Hein. Now trucks are averaging nearly one half mpg more, and idle time has dropped, even during the hottest part of the year.

The company downloads driving data like idle time and hard braking from each truck as it comes through for preventive maintenance and reviews the data with drivers.

Technological solution
The system works simply. Jacobson’s company trucks are equipped with Caterpillar or Detroit Diesel engines. The company downloads engine performance data stored in the truck’s engine computers every three to four weeks. Drivers can monitor their performance while they drive using a digital display. Both engines download data into custom software packages – DDEC Reports for Detroit and Fleet Information Software from Cat. The software is customizable, and Lasher has created unit-by-unit reports for drivers as well as comprehensive reports for Hein.

The data downloads in only a couple of minutes and is quickly formatted. Once the data is gathered, the truck is taken into the maintenance bay and the driver meets with Lasher. Not every driver likes what he hears, but Lasher diffuses the situation by showing them the numbers not telling them how to drive.

“I won’t tell a driver how to drive,” Lasher says. “A driver will occasionally tell me, ‘I’ve been a driver for 27 years, and there’s nothing you can tell me about driving.’ I just show them the numbers.”

“I tell them that they will not freeze and they will not roast,” she says. “I’m only asking for a tenth of a mile on fuel and idling under 30 percent.”

As a former driver, Lasher says she can relate to the truckers she helps manage. “I’ve had a good response,” she says. “A lot of the guys have really improved.”

When the company first tracked the fleet’s numbers, idling was out of control, Hein says. “Some drivers had idle times above 48 percent,” he says. “I caught a guy that was down at the shop when I was down there, and the truck was running for an hour. Then he comes up to the office and was in here for an hour getting a load. The truck was running the entire time. Then, he left here, went down to a truck stop and went in to eat. The truck was running.”
That’s when he knew he had a problem. “If you go in to eat, you have to turn off the truck,” he says. “Unless there’s a blizzard out there, it does not take long to cool it off or heat it up.”

Some drivers don’t care and insist that their idle time is necessary to stay comfortable. Hein says the company doesn’t want its drivers to sacrifice comfort, “but you ought to be able to run that truck at 30 to 35 percent idle time and be comfortable.”

The company hasn’t set up a grading system for drivers yet, but Hein has already used it to evaluate the safety of one driver. “We found a guy coming down a large hill going way too fast,” Hein says. “We warned him. Two weeks later he was in again. We downloaded the information and found out he had done it again. That was that. From a safety standpoint, that is huge.”

The system may eventually ferret out mechanical problems as well. Close attention to fuel efficiency numbers can help technicians diagnose engine troubles. But Hein is most interested in improving driver performance. “We have some guys who have taken this idle time seriously and have got it below five percent,” Hein says.

That has Hein toying with an incentive program. Most of the trucks in Jacobson’s fleet are governed at 65 mph. But Hein has six trucks driven by his top performing drivers set at 68 and 70 mph. He’s trying to gather enough data to find out if it makes sense to increase speed or offer bonus pay or give drivers an option.

Hein says a lot of his guys would like to have their speed governed at 67 or 68 mph. “Once we get through with our tests, I may give them an option to turn it up to 67 or 68 or give them another penny a mile,” he says. “We’re trying to get enough history built up to get a feel for what we’re doing. We’re going to see where those trucks are at. Once we get a little history on them, we’re going to develop a program where I’ll either turn the truck up to a certain point or I’ll give drivers a bonus if they meet certain standards.”

The company also looks at hard brakes and cruise control use to see if drivers are driving safely. “If you have an awful lot of hard breaks it means you’re following too closely or not paying attention,” Hein says.

When the company moved to its new facility, Hein also had an alignment machine installed, so trucks coming in for PM now have their alignment checked and corrected.

Hein says the company has seen tread life double. “Proper inflation and proper alignment save tire life and money,” Hein says. “We’ve come a long way in a short time.”

Jacobson Transportation
Location: Des Moines, Iowa
Principal: Howard Hein
Equipment: 140 Freightliner Columbia and Century Class with Caterpillar and Detroit Diesel Engines; Eaton Fuller Super 10s; 780 dry vans; 200 owner-operators
Freight: Dry goods, washers and dryers, raw materials.
Challenge: Getting better idle and driving performance from drivers.
Solution: Track performance and encourage improvements through education and
incentives.

Attention to numbers
All of this attention to detail is paying off for a company that grew from 10 trucks in the early 1990s to 140 company trucks and more than 200 owner-operators today. Hein, a former CPA, says the company managed its growth slowly and has worked to insulate itself from economic downturns. During this year’s slow economy, for instance, Jacobson has had all its trucks full and running and has even rented trucks to handle loads.

The genesis of this effort lies in a successful brokerage and logistics division. During a business slowdown five years ago, the company began looking for ways to support its linehaul operations during sluggish times.

“Five years ago, we had a horrendous year in this industry,” Hein says. “Things were down. We were rather fortunate – we got ahead of it a little bit, but we still had trucks sitting. We said there’s got to be a better way of doing this. We can’t be a Point A to Point B trucking company and survive these downturns – not in the long run.”

Hein says the company launched a brokerage division, so that its linehaul division would have access to its own brokered loads when freight began to dry up. “When things slowed down, we’d have a source of loads to keep our trucks running,” he says. “In this business, you have to be able to give drivers a paycheck or they’re gone. And you have to make a living yourself.”

Many companies Jacobson’s size that struggle also have brokerages, though. Hein wanted additional security. With the backing of successful linehaul and warehousing companies (Jacobson’s sister corporation began 35 years ago as a warehousing provider and still exists as Jacobson Warehouse Company), Hein was able to leverage Jacobson Transportation’s experience and create a new division – a kind of logistics service that many manufacturers need.

Hein says he wanted to manage both inbound and outbound freight for manufacturers and even put a man in their office, if necessary, to aid the process. Hein hired an experienced logistics manager that shared his sales philosophy: go after smaller manufacturers where margins are higher and maintenance is lower.

“We didn’t want to go after huge, huge companies. Those are usually low margins and high maintenance. We wanted to go after the ones that we could handle, provide service to and make money off of.”

“Our whole idea behind this premise was total freight management,” Hein says. “You have a manufacturing company. I’m going to come in, and I’m going to save you money on all outbound freight, and I’m going to manage all your incoming freight, and I’m going to put a man in your office. We’re going to take over that function for you and let you focus on manufacturing.”

Today, the brokerage and logistics divisions make up nearly 30 percent of Jacobson Transportation’s revenues. The logistics division, which serves clients like Pela Windows and Maytag, has its own fleet, a mix of 80 Class 8 and smaller pickup and delivery units.

Real synergies
“With our logistics business and our linehaul, we have some real synergies going. The linehaul can support the brokerage if it gets in trouble; it can support logistics if it gets in trouble. And if freight is slow, linehaul can draw off the other divisions to keep those trucks running.”

Hein says diversity and cost cutting have helped keep Jacobson Transportation in the black during this year’s slow down. “This is a tough year in this business. We’re not making what we normally make, but we are making money. We’ve had some slowdowns, but not shutdowns.”