Figuring drivers into fuel

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Managing fuel economy is a lot easier than it used to be. Carriers can spec aerodynamic trucks, govern engines for fuel-efficient driving and take advantage of lightweight equipment. They can meticulously plan routes to find cheap diesel, participate in fuel cooperatives or bulk purchasing plans and even pass on spikes in diesel prices to their customers.

Although engines squeeze more miles out of the same tank of diesel and savvy carriers manage fuel costs better, bad drivers can still ruin a fleet’s fuel economy. Despite all the advances, drivers remain an integral part of the fuel efficiency equation, carriers say, because you can’t fully control them. True, you can monitor them and hold out carrots and sticks, but few carriers can bring themselves to dismiss drivers over fuel-guzzling habits. Even so, some carriers are using the information and incentive tools available to them to get results and squeeze out a few more tenths of a mile per gallon.

A deeper understanding
The biggest change in driver training for fuel economy is information. Today’s engines allow fleet managers to obtain detailed information on drivers’ habits, providing the data needed for training and bonuses.

Many carriers still figure fuel mileage by dividing fuel receipts and trip mileage. But engine computers give carriers a clearer picture of how fuel is being burned, says George Ambrose, president and owner of Montana Express, Inc., a 76-truck fleet based in Butte, Mont.

Before January, Ambrose gave drivers fuel bonuses based on fuel receipts and trip envelopes, but that system was time consuming and revealed little about how fuel could be saved. So Ambrose decided to leverage the data he could mine from his engines. Three months later, he has seen success, especially in reducing idling.

“We’re seeing remarkable results,” Ambrose says. “Most of the fleet are under 20 percent idle time where we were at 30 to 40 percent idle time.”

Mike Ward’s company constantly counsels drivers on their driving performance. “It’s an ongoing conversation with them. We get close and personal with the drivers,” says Ward, vice president of the Altoona, Pa.-based large regional carrier Ward Trucking. “We tell them from reports exactly what their truck is doing.”

Ward believes vehicle improvements represent a bigger percentage of the fuel economy equation than they once did, but drivers still control the reigns. The company is aggressive in training the basics: shift properly, don’t speed, start and stop slowly, don’t rev the engine unnecessarily and reduce idling. The emphasis pays off. Even the carrier’s pick-up-and-delivery fleet has been able to eek out respectable fuel economy figures above 6 miles to the gallon.

Although sheer volume of miles means that over-the-road fleets probably have the most at stake when drivers waste fuel, metropolitan fleets too are finding improvements in fuel efficiency by gathering data on their units. Boston-based Iron Mountain, a records and information management company whose services include courier pick-up and delivery, has begun using Minorplanet Systems’ Vehicle Management Information system on 42 pickup-and-delivery vehicles that are based in Dallas.

Other mobile communications vendors, also offer proprietary systems or interfaces that allow for real-time monitoring of vehicle and driver performance. PeopleNet Communications, for example, has developed PerformX, an application that allows fleet managers to view electronic control module data through both exception alarms and detailed reports.

Milton Hollis, director of service operations for Iron Mountain’s Dallas district, says fuel costs have decreased by 30 percent because the company can now manage what its drivers are doing when they’re on the road.

“We’re getting excellent fuel economy,” Hollis says. “A lot of times drivers don’t do what they’re supposed to do – no matter how efficient of a schedule you draw up from them. This is holding drivers more accountable.”

Hollis also is using the VMI system to track idling. “We’re actually idling less as result because drivers know that they’re being watched when they come to a stop.”

Some drivers have a problem with the system, but Hollis says those are drivers who had a problem with the company’s policies already.

Marvin Barnett, owner of a small trucking company in Gem, Kan., says driver participation is the key to any fuel economy program. His 17-truck carrier, M&A Barnett, also takes advantage of engine data, governs his trucks at 65 mph and keeps a tight reign on its idling. “We’re here to make profit,” he says. “We’re not here to have fun.”

Idling away money
Speed is a factor in fuel consumption, but it can be controlled effectively through governors. Idling can be a much tougher problem for a couple of reasons. First, it’s totally unproductive since you get no miles to the gallon. Second, although you can monitor idling and, in some cases, limit it through engine electronics, you must rely on drivers to help.

That’s why the ability to tap engine data and truck movements periodically or even in real time help so much.

Barnett plans his drivers’ trips so they can avoid the climate situations that force them to idle. “Some of our drivers run higher than 29 percent,” he says. “But one driver stays below 4 percent and several rate at 8 percent. We try to encourage drivers in the summer time to plan trips to sleep at higher elevations. If they’re in West Texas, we tell them to drive until midnight and then shut down.” In the winter, drivers are encouraged to use heated blankets that plug into their cigarette lighter.

Montana Express’s principal fuel-economy focus has been on idle time, which is where Ambrose believes he can achieve the greatest results. When Ambrose began an incentive program, drivers who haul primarily in the coldest areas were worried their idle times would hurt them. But they seem to be embracing the program.

The carrier is averaging more than 6.3 mpg, even though his trucks crisscross the Rockies. “In our terrain, that’s really good,” he says. “After a couple of quarters I want to be able to provide these people an outline that shows what they’ve saved us and what we’ve been able to return to them.”

Like Montana Express, Ward Trucking focuses on idle time. Many of Ward’s tractors are equipped with idle controls that shut down the truck after 5 minutes. But that doesn’t mean a driver can’t run up the idle time.

“If we see that a driver is idling more than others, we’ll have a counseling session with him,” Ward says. The engine data has become a regular part of driver education and training. The carrier can also use the data to recognize good drivers.

Such data can be useful in evaluating whether to keep a driver. At Ward Trucking, drivers who fail to meet their company’s fuel targets don’t last long. “Eventually we get tired of selling it to the guy that doesn’t care, and he needs to move on. At a certain point, this is our goal. If you’re not able to meet them, we need to make a change,” Ward says.

Tying bonuses to fuel
Fuel economy obviously is a priority at Ward Trucking. But with industrywide turnover high, even through the recent downturn, not all carriers believe they can afford to use a stick with their drivers.

Most settle for carrots. Montana Express, for example, has had a fuel bonus program for years but initially it was cumbersome and didn’t target specific driving habits. Today, the carrier rewards drivers a penny a mile on a quarterly basis if they meet certain targets as confirmed by engine data.

M&A Barnett still calculates its fuel bonus using receipts and the odometer, although owner Barnett checks engine data to ensure his drivers follow their training. M&A Barnett pays a quarterly bonus based not on cents per mile but on the amount of money the company saves. The actual mpg number is used to determine a driver’s share of the savings.

The fuel bonus at M&A Barnett starts at 6 mpg, because “the way the trucks are set up, you’d be hard pressed not to make 6,” Barnett says. Drivers earn a bigger percentage of the fuel savings depending on how much they save. For example, a driver who averages 6 to 6.5 mpg gets one third of the money M&A Barnett saves on fuel beyond the 6-mpg baseline. Drivers who get more than 6.5 mpg win two-thirds of the money the carrier saves. “I don’t mind giving them most of it because they save me on tires, brakes and maintenance,” Barnett says.

M&A Barnett’s fuel economy program has improved the company’s performance in two areas – the bottom line and driver retention. The carrier averages between 6.5 and 6.9 mpg, with some trucks over 7 mpg.

Barnett credits the incentive program, which has the added retention benefit of affording an opportunity for higher pay, with much of the success. But incentives alone wouldn’t do it. Speed control and driver education are key. Barnett doesn’t believe that speeding generated enough revenue miles to offset the extra fuel burned.

“We’ve proven that those guys that drive 70 mph or 80 aren’t getting many more miles,” Barnett says.

A payback from incentives?
Although they seem popular, fuel bonus programs are hardly universal. A recent survey of CCJ readers found that fewer than 12.5 percent had bonus programs that specifically involved fuel economy. There are other ways of getting drivers focused on fuel economy, of course. Ward Trucking, for example, does not pay a fuel bonus, but it recognizes drivers who perform above average.

Ward Trucking has looked at a bonus as a carrot for better fuel consumption, but Mike Ward is skeptical. “You’ve got to be real careful with bonuses because they can lead to inequities. Drivers forget to write down their fuel purchases. Getting the bonus becomes more important than getting the job done. I don’t want them to kick the truck out of gear going down a hill.”

But Ray Barton, president of Ray Barton Associates, believes a fuel bonus program can help companies achieve success in more than just fuel economy. Reduced turnover and greater safety are side benefits because fuel-stingy habits also tend to be safer, and bonuses increase drivers’ income. Barton cautions, however, that bonus programs must be structured so that drivers can win bonuses only if they are actively involved in improving their performance.

That caveat certainly rings true for David Denny, Jr. Denny, president of Denny Transport in Jeffersonville, Ind., is disappointed with his 65-truck fleet’s fuel bonus program.

“It’s more a nuisance,” Denny says. He relies mainly on smart spec’ing and tight control over driver behavior to get his fuel efficiency for his regional haul trucking company based out of Jeffersonville, Ind.

Before electronic engines, Denny emphasized driver training for fuel efficiency and created a bonus program to reward drivers who achieved better than 5 mpg. Then, when he began spec’ing electronically controlled engines, fuel efficiency improved dramatically. Although targets in the bonus program moved up accordingly, Denny says drivers were able to achieve the goal by just driving.

Varying equipment also frustrates an equitable program, Denny says. The carrier pulls both vans and tankers. Tanker drivers were getting the bonus without any change in their driving habits because tankers are more aerodynamic. “We used to spend a lot of time on the driver equation, before computerized engines,” he says. “The tanker driver would get fuel bonuses much more often.”

Now, Denny relies on those engines to govern the driver’s habits. “We limit the speed they can go and the RPMs they can shift at,” he says. “Everything is governed.”

Denny does work with drivers on idling, however, reviewing idling data and setting targets for his drivers. “The biggest thing a driver can do is keep the truck from idling,” Denny says. But even idling can unfairly affect the bonus if a driver is delayed by weather, for example. “There are so many things out of their control.”

Still, drivers do control a large portion of a carrier’s costs. George Ambrose has embraced technology and fuel-efficient equipment to reduce the money he spends on diesel. But the driver remains key to the fuel economy equation. “Without their participation and their good job, none of us will stay in this business.”