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Driving Fuel Efficiency

Fuel efficiency is about the whole spec, from the powertrain to the tires, from the sloped hood and roof fairing to the gap between the tractor and the trailer. Leave no stone unturned.

By Jim Park, Equipment Editor

What’s in it for me? That’s what drivers want to know when you try to get them to save fuel.
There are few stronger motivators than a good return on an investment. Building driver buy-in to your fuel economy program requires enough incentive to overcome what drivers perceive they’ll be giving up, along with enough disincentive to maintain certain bad behaviors. And while financial reward is certainly a strong motivator, it’s not the only effective one.

Without getting into a lot of psychobabble, one can look to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to gain an understanding of motivation. Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before individuals will desire the secondary or higher level needs.

In a driver’s world, cutting truck speeds from 65 to 60 mph, for example, could be perceived as a significant threat to their earning capability. It will save fuel, but if schedules are tight or there are penalties for service failures, requiring the driver to make the same run over a longer timeframe could create a lot of stress.

From the driver’s point of view, a late arrival could mean a missed appointment or delays in unloading. That could compromise the reload, which could translate into additional time away from home – with no additional compensation.

Maslow would say that because the drivers’ primary needs (security of income and home time) are not met, they would be less likely to embrace your request for better fuel mileage. The same applies to demands to limit idling.

If the truck isn’t equipped with an auxiliary climate control system, the discomfort of spending a summer night in an overheated truck cab will probably supersede your need to cut idling costs.
If you expect to change behavior simply by demanding change, you will likely fail. On the other hand, if the requests are accompanied by assurances and incentives, and something can be built into the program to instill improved self-worth, fulfillment and pride, then you’re practically assured of success.

Personal responsibility

It takes two to tango, and drivers’ responses to such situations can be quite different.
Keith Tuttle, president of Motor Carrier Service Inc., a 100-truck regional fleet based in Northwood, Ohio, says his focus is on hiring and retaining only the best drivers. He offers rewards and bonuses that reflect drivers’ commitment to excellence.

“We’re all about individuals taking personal responsibility for what they do and for the welfare of the company,” he says. “I’ve got a great bunch of drivers who deliver exceptional results week in and week out. I couldn’t build the kind of loyalty and the kind of programs we have here at MCS with the wrong mix of drivers or 130% turnover.”

MCS was recognized in 2011 and 2012 as the Truckload Carriers Associations’ Best Fleet To Drive For (company driver) and was named Carrier of the Year for four years running by customer Jones-Hamilton Co. It’s not surprising then, that MCS, with a turnover rate of 31%, can afford to turn away 39 out of 40 applicants.

Tuttle has the luxury of being able to choose his people carefully. He looks for certain qualities in drivers that make them a cut above the rest and provides generous rewards to those who rise to the challenge.

Tuttle says his company philosophy is that of constant improvement. Most of his drivers respond well to the challenge. Others don’t. Fuel mileage reports, as well as fleet CSA scores, are posted in the common areas of the terminal facility for everyone to see. Some see it as a personal challenge to place in the top 10 every month, but Tuttle admits some of his drivers would rather not be exposed as mediocre.

“We’ve burned a few bridges that way,” he admits. “We had some people who are more comfortable working at a company where they are just steering-wheel holders. That’s fine. We’d never stop pushing them to do better, but we’ll let them go when they are ready to go.”

The drivers who get the best fuel mileage are the same ones who get the best mileage from their tires, don’t have mysterious things happen to trailer doors, never have a problem at a roadside inspection and have the best rapport with customers, Tuttle says. “They are the true professionals in every sense of the word, and it’s a full-time commitment on their part. It shows in everything they do. Everything.”

MCS tracks driver fuel consumption during a three-month period, and drivers are grouped based on the model and year of truck they drive. The fleet runs Freightliner and Volvo trucks from model year 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2012. The fleet average for its 2006 trucks is 6.531 mpg, while certain 2011 trucks are getting 7.69 mpg.

Clearly, MCS sets the bar pretty high. Tuttle’s drivers’ primary needs are being met, making them receptive to further growth and development. It’s easier to establish incentive programs with a receptive workforce, and MCS certainly makes it worth the effort to participate.

Incentive programs

Getting driver buy-in to a fuel economy program isn’t always easy, especially if you’re asking them to give up something with no return. Drivers are always leery of the potential inequities in incentive programs because they know fuel economy is affected by factors beyond their control, such as weight, weather, terrain, engine generation, etc. They know there are performance issues involved, and if the program seems stacked against them, they’ll have no part of it.

Grouping trucks with similar specs helps keep the comparisons fair and transparent. Josh Kaburick, CEO of Earl L. Henderson Trucking in Salem, Ill., speaking during a recent Truckload Carriers Association webinar on fuel economy, said fuel mileage is a big part of the company’s incentive program for its 400-plus drivers, called Overall Performance.

“Fuel economy has to be within fleet parameters, as well as on-time service and good safety records,” he explained. “We set up new drivers with mentors to get them off on the proper footing. Existing drivers who are slipping also get a mentor to bring them back around again.”
The driver fuel economy information is posted in the drivers’ lounge for everyone to see and compare.

“Our bonus system offers a pretty substantial payout, but they have to earn it, and the big thing there is fuel economy,” he said.

Another Illinois-based company, Nussbaum Transportation, developed an in-house algorithm to level the playing field between trucks and various other parameters. Phil Braker, vice president of operations (and a 2012 HDT Truck Fleet Innovator), had his IT department crunch the numbers and weight variables such as terrain and truck model to arrive at a more level playing field.

“Our fleet is by no means homogeneous, and we wanted driver buy-in, not resistance because of technical considerations,” he says. “We spent a lot of time getting it right, and I think our program is very fair now. The drivers seem to think so too, and they are participating.”

C.R. England, Salt Lake City, has a rather creative reward program that works like a lottery. Drivers are awarded entry tickets to a drawing for a Harley Davidson motorcycle based on performance in three categories. If drivers meet certain mpg numbers or idle time parameters, they are awarded tickets to the drawing. They can earn up to three tickets in each of three categories by bettering their performance.

“All drivers and independent contractors have a chance at the draw,” says Allen Nielsen, director of fuel at C.R. England – Global Transportation. “A really good driver could go into the quarterly lottery with as many as nine chances to win, but another driver with just one ticket is still very much in the game. We wanted to make it as fair as possible, and everyone who performs well has a stake in the game.”

The winner for the first quarter, Devery Hope of Sacramento, Calif., had a 7.48-mpg average for the quarter and 6.5% idle time. He was well above 0.5 mpg greater than his peers in both his fleet and the National Division.

“The toughest part of keeping the idling down was leaving the engine off in places like El Paso,” Hope says. “It gets darned hot there, even in the winter.”

Hope graduated from C.R. England’s driver training program in 2010 and had less than two years driving experience at the time of his win.

Driver training

Hope was taught to drive for fuel efficiency at the C.R. England training school in Salt Lake City.
“They really emphasized progressive shifting at school, so I really don’t know any other way of doing it,” he says. “My instructor explained why we need to keep the rpm low each time we shift gears, so that’s how I do it.”

Andy Roberts, president of one of Canada’s best truck driving schools, the Mountain Transport Institute in Castlegar, British Columbia, says the driver training curriculum at some schools is cut short to keep costs down. This robs students of the opportunity to learn valuable skills such as progressive shifting and traffic management.

“Entry-level drivers should be taught advanced driving skills right from the start,” Roberts says. “In fact, it makes sense to teach them right once, rather than having to reteach them later when you want to change bad habits. The problem schools face is getting the students into the workforce as quickly as possible. There’s already a lot to cover to get a new driver qualified for work. Sometimes those softer skills are overlooked.”

In addition to entry-level driver training, Roberts does advanced and remedial training for several carriers. He used to have a full-motion simulator to develop higher driving skills, including fuel economy training. However, he saw a dramatic decline in business during and after the recession – but not for the obvious reason.

“Fleets suddenly got so busy as the recovery gained momentum, and with fewer drivers on the payroll than before the recession, they couldn’t take the drivers off the road to send them for skills upgrades,” Roberts says. “That’s regrettable, because a few days training provides benefits that pay back for years to come.”

Fleets such as Earl Henderson and MCS have had great success with mentoring programs, but there are costs involved. There has to be a commitment to improve, but the results usually benefit everyone in the fleet. As Tuttle noted, his most fuel-efficient drivers are also the easiest on the equipment and the best with the customers.

Drivers like that aren’t born. They are taught, developed and nurtured.

Henry Albert is such a driver. He started as a company driver, but he’s now a single-truck independent operator. His normal monthly average fuel economy (documented) is around 9 mpg. He recently sold a truck with 915,000 miles on it, and the front brakes still have one-third of the lining left on them.

“I learned to appreciate the value of good fuel economy when a small fleet I was working for as a company driver offered to split the fuel savings with us,” he says. “That put a lot of extra money in my pocket, and it didn’t cost me anything.”

In his opinion, that approach works better than micromanaging.

“I have worked for fleets – but not for long – with a my-way-or-the-highway attitude – that had governed trucks, progressive shifting programs and all that. I saw drivers beating those trucks up because they didn’t like having everything controlled.”

Albert says it’s a circular sort of argument. “If you’re the kind of fleet that encourages a driver’s best performance and you hire the right drivers, you’ll get very good results,” he says. “If you can’t afford to be choosy about who you hire, and, for example, you govern your trucks at 62 rather than getting the driver to want to run at 62, you’ll get different results.”

When it comes to drivers and their needs, some are more easily satisfied than others. And it’s the same with fleets. Mr. Maslow would probably conclude that if everyone’s needs are set too low, they probably aren’t worth trying to satisfy.

From the June 2012 issue of HDT

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