As utility fleets look for ways to blunt the impact of rising fuel costs on their bottom line, one opportunity for substantial cost savings can be found in training and motivating their drivers to operate their vehicles with more fuel efficiency.
According to a 2011 study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/86074/102758.pdf?sequence=1), the cumulative impact of neglecting good eco-driving practices can take a highly fuel-efficient vehicle with baseline performance of 36 mpg down to 19.8 mpg, a 45 percent drop in efficiency. Considering that commercial trucks are used in much harsher duty cycles and conditions than passenger vehicles, there’s potential for even greater negative impact on fuel economy if drivers aren’t managed effectively.
Biggest Fuel Wasters
Three driver behaviors tend to be the biggest fuel wasters.
1. Unnecessary Idle
Engine idle wastes 0.25 to 0.5 gallons per hour depending on engine size and air conditioning operation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/driveHabits.shtml). “Whether it's the guy that eats lunch in his vehicle or, in some cases, we see people who leave the vehicle running almost the entire the day [to keep it cool during hot summers], that's a significant waste of fuel, as well as additional wear and tear on the vehicle,” said Karl Weber, vice president of enterprise sales for SageQuest (www.sage-quest.com), which is owned by Fleetmatics Group (NYSE: FLTX) and a provider of GPS fleet tracking and management technology designed to improve mobile workforce efficiency.
As a frame of reference, if only one driver excessively idles the vehicle for two hours per day, that adds up to a nearly $1,000 annual hit to the bottom line assuming $3.75 per gallon. Spread that over 10, 20, 50 or more drivers and the loss compounds.
Not all idle can be avoided, however – especially in utility applications. “In some types of vehicles, you have equipment on them that requires the engine to run,” Weber said. “If you take a vehicle in the utility industry that’s equipped with a bucket, often the engine has to be running for the bucket to be engaged and go up [via a PTO provision]. In that instance, organizations are going to be interested in tracking their drivers’ PTO idle versus non-PTO idle.”
“For every 5 mph you travel over 65 mph, you reduce your efficiency by 7 percent,” said Nick Ehrhart, telematics vice president of business development for Donlen (www.donlen.com), a full-service fleet management company headquartered in Northbrook, Ill., and a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Hertz Corp. (NYSE: HTZ). “So, slowing down when it’s safe to do so will greatly increase your vehicle’s fuel economy.”
This is because as speed increases, so does the aerodynamic drag (wind resistance), which forces the engine to work harder and consume more fuel to operate at the higher speed.
3. Aggressive Driving
Rapid acceleration and harsh braking reduce fuel economy by as much as 33 percent at highway speeds and 5 percent in town, according to the EPA. Therefore, if you have multiple drivers who make it a habit to “punch” the accelerator “off the line,” weave through traffic or slam on the brakes, their behavior is eating a chunk out of your organization’s bottom line.
Correcting These Behaviors
What can fleets do to help drivers break these habits so they become more fuel-conscious? Here are three tips.
1. Hold drivers accountable. “By far the most critical strategy to changing driver behavior is to create a driver policy [that clearly states expectations and consequences for noncompliance] and enforce it,” Ehrhart said. “You want all drivers to have a chance to be recognized or given a token of thanks [for improving behavior], but for those that don’t try and continue to behave poorly, there needs to be some type of repercussion.”
2. Educate drivers on the big-picture consequences of fuel-wasting behaviors. “I think most people realize that aggressive driving is not good, whether it's from a safety perspective, or wear and tear of the vehicle, or fuel economy,” said Art Liggio, president of Driving Dynamics (www.drivingdynamics.com), a Newark, Del.-based driver training firm for corporate fleets. “We focus on challenging the drivers to think about the responsibilities they have when they’re on the road, getting a little bit deeper into the person's psyche. Instead of just saying, ‘It's because you're going to reduce your gas mileage by 5 miles per gallon,’ the focus is more about how this activity, action or behavior has even deeper consequences, drilling down all the way to how much these [driver behaviors] affect the financial viability of the employer.”
3. Incentivize positive driver behaviors. Weber referred to one client that implemented a driver incentive program, based on vehicle data captured by SageQuest’s GPS/telematics system, that helped reduce daily idle per vehicle from two hours to 45 minutes, saving the company nearly $1,000 in fuel costs per day. “They said, ‘All right, we're going to rank our drivers every week based on the average idle time per day. And if you hit a certain threshold, you go into a bucket. Once a week, we're going to pull a name out of that bucket with drivers that qualify based on appropriate behavior. We're going to give away prizes, such as Xboxes or 40-inch LCD TVs.’ They’ve significantly reduced their idle and maintained it with this [incentive] program.”
When it comes to correcting driver behaviors, Liggio summed it up this way: “If you want to change behavior, it's not about throwing facts and figures at your drivers. You have to give them a 360-degree view into how their behavior actually affects others, and their employer in particular. And that opens their mind. Then they have this learning moment where they say, ‘Hmm. Maybe being an aggressive driver gets me to appointments faster or on time, but maybe being three or four minutes late is not as painful as the other things my behavior can cause.’”
Said Weber, “Fleets are realizing that they're not just going to be able to eliminate the behavior, they need to manage it. They need to help drivers understand the benefit to them – ‘If we can cut this [idle] down, we'll have more money to do other programs.’”
About the Author: Sean M. Lyden is a nationally recognized journalist and feature writer for a wide range of automotive and trucking trade publications, covering fleet management strategies, light- and medium-duty trucks, truck bodies and equipment, and green fuel technologies. He blogs at Lyden Fleet Strategies (www.lydenfleetstrategies.blogspot.com).