Written by Michael Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
Between autonomous trucks, electric-powered trucks and platooning trucks, you can hardly open a publication or news site without seeing some new technology being touted as the next best thing to revolutionize trucking.
I am not saying these things won’t happen. In fact, we’ve already seen significant technological and fuel efficiency strides with the testing of autonomous vehicles and two-truck platooning, and in the development of electric-powered heavy-duty vehicles.
But as we look to the five- to 10-year horizon for the commercialization of these technologies, we shouldn’t lose sight of the freight hauling efficiency technology that is available today. There are already great ways to increase fuel economy that are far short of the promised precision of self-driving trucks or groups of platooning commercial vehicles.
If the trucking industry waits for all the cool new technologies to become widely available, it will remain stuck at the 6.4-mpg number that represents the average miles fleets now extract from a gallon of diesel fuel today. Some trucks, however, are already exceeding that number by meaningful amounts. There are fleets in the annual NACFE Fleet Fuel Study that log better than that at 7.06 mpg, with some new trucks achieving 9 mpg. Some hyper MPG fleets are closing in on 10.
Even with fuel prices low, such savings amount to significant money. At $2.50 a gallon, each 1 percent in fuel savings allows fleets to save about $400 per truck per year. Depending on the size of the fleet, that can add up to a pretty big number. And those savings can happen today, not five years down the road.
Already, savvy fleets are making investments in myriad technologies that squeeze more miles out of a gallon of diesel fuel. Available technologies include those that reduce the amount of engine idling to provide power for cabs — while drivers sleep and work in their trucks — and those that reduce aerodynamic drag. There are others that decrease rolling resistance of the tires and some that improve powertrain performance.
Whatever a fleet’s fuel efficiency challenge is, there is likely a solution or combination of solutions that can help.
I am heartened that many of the large fleets have made these technology investments and continue to do so even as they keep an eye on some of the more alluring emerging technologies.
We’ve even seen three midsize fleets and an owner-operator join Run on Less — a cross-country roadshow taking place in September 2017 — to demonstrate that real trucks, hauling real freight on real routes can achieve higher miles per gallon than the national average. They will join fleets that operate more than 6,000 trucks and those with around 1,000 tractors who also are participating in the event to demonstrate that 9 mpg is possible using currently available technologies.
There is no one magic bullet or cocktail of technologies that will work every time for every fleet in every situation. Here are some of the technologies that fleets are using in the Run on Less demonstration that we also have issued Confidence Reports on:
- 6×2 axles: These axles improve efficiency by having only one axle of the rear tandem powered and the other non-driving. Today’s 6×2 axles save weight and offer fuel savings of about 2.5 percent. Incorporating manual or automated load shifting, traction control, engine parameter adjustments to reduce low speed clutch engagement and engine brake torque mean tire wear can be improved. And new generation 6×2 axles have addressed some of the traction issues of earlier versions.
- Tire pressure inflation: Proper tire inflation is crucial to optimal operation of a truck. Underinflated tires decrease fuel efficiency and increase tire wear. A 0.5-1 percent increase in fuel consumption is seen in vehicles running with tires underinflated by 10 psi. Systems are available that either monitor tire pressure or monitor and automatically inflate tires with low pressure. Proper inflation reduces rolling resistance and improves fuel efficiency.
- Trailer aerodynamics: When it comes to trailer aerodynamics, fleets have lots of choices, including nose cones, skirts, under body devices, tails, etc. Different devices offer varying amounts of fuel economy gains. Each area of the trailer represents an opportunity to reduce aerodynamic drag. The maximum aerodynamic improvement comes from a combination of sealing the tractor/trailer gap, closing or managing the air along the trailer underbody, and adding a boat tail.
Fleets that have not made investments in efficiency technologies should be heartened by this news. It means they are free to try whatever combination of technologies and practices — such as driver training and incentives and routing changes — they believe will work best for them. They don’t have to wait for the next big thing to come along to solve their fuel efficiency problems, and the improvements could be years away.
Waiting for new exciting technology to improve fuel efficiency, leaves fleets spending lots more money on fuel than they would have had they pursued a strategy of annually adopting incremental improvements that raise fuel economy.
I know it’s easy to fall in love with the latest “sexy” technologies, and I hope some of these cool developments on the horizon reach fruition. In the meantime, I plan to continue to preach the fuel economy gospel and encourage fleets of all sizes to continue to chase one-tenth mile more from a gallon of diesel. When you add up all those one-tenth gains, you end up enjoying significant savings.
While I look to the horizon as autonomous trucks, electric trucks and other advanced technology develops, I will also keep my eyes focused on the road immediately ahead to see what gains I can help fleets achieve this year and next.
Editor’s note: Michael Roeth is the Executive Director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency and leads the Trucking Efficiency Operations for the Carbon War Room.