The driver shortage that so many analysts and industry insiders have been predicting in recent years is finally here in full force. At the same time, tonnage is at an all-time high, further crimping the trucking industry’s potential for capitalizing on good business conditions after a hard recession. As many fleets have maximized their recruiting and retention efforts, the focus now shifts to squeezing every ounce of productivity and efficiency out of their truck assets.
Before 2005, Walmart Transportation worked like many fleets to realize incremental gains in fuel and freight efficiency annually. Then, during the height of the previous driver shortage, Walmart announced a new global responsibility initiative that included a lofty goal for its private fleet to double its efficiency in 10 years from a baseline in 2005 to 2015.
For Walmart – a company whose U.S. operation employs 1.3 million people and has 4,987 retail stores, 42 regional distribution centers (each serving roughly 100 retail locations) and a fleet of 7,000 trucks – identifying and correcting inefficiencies in freight movement would have a major impact on its environmental footprint while it works to meet its goal.
More with less
To establish its 2005 baseline, Walmart Transportation established a formula to calculate its fleet efficiency by dividing vehicle miles traveled by miles per gallon to determine fuel consumption. It then takes the number of cases delivered and divides that by fuel consumption.
In the first several years of its efforts, Walmart Transportation set its sights on big wins, such as route optimization and strategic location of its distribution centers. It then focused on packaging, working internally and with suppliers to reduce the amount of space required in each trailer in order to load more freight.
The fleet also leveraged its relationships with truck OEMs, trailer makers and suppliers to upgrade equipment to the latest technology and to add new tire designs and inflation systems. In 2006, it added auxiliary power units to tractors used in overnight operations, which netted the company savings of $25 million in diesel costs in just two years.
These early efforts were promising. By 2008, Walmart Transportation was driving 7 percent fewer miles – an actual reduction of 90 million miles – while delivering 3 percent more cases per load. The end result was a 38 percent improvement in fleet efficiency in 2008 compared to the 2005 baseline, easily surpassing its interim goal of 25 percent.
In 2008 and 2009, Walmart Transportation replaced 2,400 of its 7,000-truck fleet with newer aerodynamic models to further increase fuel efficiency. It also focused on better efficiencies in how freight is loaded into trailers (the company discovered that shorter dock employees couldn’t reach the top of the trailer when loading merchandise, so it now uses stepping stools to increase fill by 3 percent), reducing empty miles and cross-dock consolidation networks.
About the same time, Walmart began to explore alternative fuel options, and the company currently is evaluating both compressed natural gas- and liquefied natural gas-powered tractors, and also has explored renewable diesel in the form of animal fat, grease and vegetable oil in a joint partnership with Tyson Foods at a Louisiana distribution center. Another tool Walmart Transportation uses is lean routing, a concept that involves monitoring seasonal demand for certain products and altering shipments to meet that demand rather than delivering on fixed schedules. Walmart says if a store normally receives daily deliveries during peak season, it can eliminate extra miles and extra deliveries by adapting the schedule to less-than-daily shipments to keep trailers as full as possible. Through eight years of implementation, Walmart’s global responsibility initiative has resulted in an 84.2 percent improvement in fleet efficiency compared to 2005, or 830 million more cases while driving 300 million fewer miles. The company recognizes that in recent years, large gains in fleet efficiency are harder to come by as it now searches for new opportunities to improve efficiency by another 16 percent by the end of next year.
From concept to reality
In a demonstration of just how serious Walmart remains in its quest to increase efficiency past 2015, the company last March unveiled a new tractor-trailer concept at the Mid-America Trucking Show that features a teardrop-shaped body that the company hopes will improve aerodynamics by 20 percent over conventional models.
Developed after Walmart representatives saw another truck on display four years ago at the IAA Show in Hannover, Germany, the concept truck has a fuel-neutral turbine engine, meaning it can run on diesel, gasoline, natural gas, biofuels and other sources, says Elizabeth Fretheim, director of business strategy sustainability in Walmart’s logistics wing. The turbine engine uses hybrid power, with the electric motor and energy storage handling acceleration and deceleration, and producing low emissions without aftertreatment. Fretheim says the company then wanted to “make something bolder, more transformative” for itself. There’s no word yet on what type of fuel economy numbers the truck posts, as track testing is just now underway.
The truck’s cab has been placed over the engine, shortening its wheelbase and reducing weight. The gap between the trailer and truck has been reduced to lower trailer aerodynamic drag. The trailer’s body is made almost entirely of carbon fiber, cutting weight by about 4,000 pounds.
Fretheim says though a truck like this may not go to market for some time if ever, the technologies of the truck are its key sticking points.