Driving Fuel Economy

by Tom Bagwell

It almost goes without saying that one of the greatest challenges facing a fleet manager today is dealing with the rising cost of fuel. Controlling fuel economy can be an elusive goal. Most of our fleets are already in place; aerodynamic design, tires, and engines are already installed to help save fuel. But the cost of many solutions can easily offset any potential savings, especially when variables such as weather or driving surface are outside the fleet manager’s control. A fleet manager might have some influence in the selection of the truck, but once you have the truck, how do you obtain the greatest fuel efficiency and reduce the impact of the cost of fuel on your operation, and in many cases even remain in operation? That is what this conversation is about.



The Driver’s Role in Fuel Efficiency


There are certain things you can do in order to improve fuel efficiency. You can limit top speed and idle time, which in some areas is already mandated. But there is more to it than that. If you really want to squeeze the extra miles out of every $4.50 per gallon (and rising) of diesel, you really need the driver on your side.  The bottom line is that many devices in place that are intended to drive up fuel economy are negated by drivers.  If a truck can go faster through the wind because it’s aerodynamically sound, a driver’s tendency will be to drive faster because these features allow him to, therefore limiting potential fuel economy.  Aerodynamic features are incredibly important, but the conversation needs to shift more toward what we can control: human behavior and motivation.

Whether driving for a large fleet or for a small business with just a few trucks, drivers play a critical role in improving fuel efficiency. The most significant fuel economy variable is the driver. It is the driver who controls vehicle speed, trailer gap setting, acceleration rate, brake usage, idle time, tire inflation pressure, shifting technique, and more. It is not uncommon for fleets with identically spec’d trucks to see a fuel consumption difference of as much as 25% between the least and most effective drivers.



Collecting Fuel Consumption Data


It is critical to collect data both consistently and accurately, measuring it in such a way that your data is both valid and reliable. Traditional methods, such as measuring the fuel bill or tracking tank-to-tank, can lead to discrepancy due to the limitations of assumption and human error.  A better approach would be getting the information from the engine computer. Whether using modern tools such as electronic extraction and GPS, or reestablishing disciplined, driver-controlled methods such as spreadsheet tracking, developing a practice of accurate data collection is essential to improving fuel economy.   More important, however, is getting accurate data to the manager and driver in a timely and useful manner. Realistically, you can’t ask your people to make an improvement in performance if they don’t have useful data from which to baseline performance and ultimately demonstrate improvement.  Implementing this type of change requires an adjustment of mindset for the manager that makes driversa part of the solution, and not the problem.



Making Fuel Efficiency a Driver Priority


It is important to understand that even if you tell a driver to be more fuel efficient, track them with GPS and set mandates, but don’t incorporate their actions and insights, involve them in the process or give them the tools they need, including both valid data and a voice in the process, any improvement will be limited.  On the one hand, as a manager it is easy to give directives and set guidelines without driver input. What managers usually find, however, is that drivers can find a way around directives, and ultimately dampen results.  This type of ‘do-to’ mentality with drivers is ineffectual.  On the other hand, with a buy-in approach, or a ‘do-with’ mentality, managers will find that drivers are a great source of ideas. The manager who brings his drivers into the discussion and says, “Here is the goal, what can we do to improve and how can we celebrate when we achieve our goals”, is giving his drivers a voice in the company. Drivers clearly understand the business environment and what the issues are; it’s really about helping them help the business. Drivers who buy into goals around fuel efficiency will be much more willing to develop the necessary behaviors, and share their successes with others for the greater good.



Rewarding Driver Performance


So, by what criteria do you reward your driver for superior performance? Common industry answers have been on-time delivery, professionalism, safety record and paper work. Most companies don’t reward for fuel economy. Furthermore, they don’t train for fuel economy. Concepts such as the use of cruise control, speed regulation, proper shifting techniques, or the impact breaking and accelerating has on fuel efficiency all affect a driver’s ability to achieve desired performance.  Coaching drivers who have bought into the concept of improving fuel economy will help bring about the desired behaviors.

In the course of working with drivers, managers must strive to develop agreed upon benchmarks, and then train to the level of that benchmark. Rewards must be carefully thought out. Whether rewards are individual or group based, extrinsic (prizes, awards, newer truck/truck upgrades) or intrinsic (time off, special training courses) should be determined based on the dynamic of the group. Whatever the reward, it should be one that drives the right behavior. There is no single right answer in that respect. Care must be taken to ensure that the reward is a good fit for the team, and that it ultimately drives the desired behavior.

Once you have a program in place that values driver input, never forget that credit needs to go to the driver, not the manager. The driver is the one who will effect change, and needs to get the credit when performance improves. Lastly, find a way to reward all drivers. Everyone needs to feel a sense of participation and recognition for their efforts.



Sharing Ideas


Everyone is struggling with the same critical issues around fuel efficiency. Each manager, whether a Peterson customer or not, has a unique vision and valuable ideas to share.  Together we need to find a way to connect and share these ideas. In an effort to advance this conversation, I would like to invite you to join our discussion group on Linkedin. Registration is free. Simply go to Linkedin, input ‘Peterson Trucks’ in the ‘Groups’ field, and join us in this conversation. Together, we can engage in a discussion among fleet managers on what we can do to get drivers to want to drive more fuel efficiently. If we can work together to teach drivers how to succeed in driving fuel economy, everyone wins.


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