Market conditions might make the timing right to set a more fuel-efficient speed
As the price of diesel fuel has increased in 2018, so too have fleet fuel costs. For larger fleets with leverage, that fuel cost has shifted to shippers that are paying more in fuel surcharges. For smaller fleets and owner-operators, shifting that burden may be a little more difficult, especially if they don’t operate with a fuel surcharge program.
Times like these, though, are presenting smaller fleets and owner-operators an opportunity, not just right now, but to set standards for the future. What do we mean?
Let’s start with fuel prices. On March 18, the national average price of diesel fuel was $2.966 a gallon, according to FreightWaves’ SONAR data. Since then, it rose almost every week to a peak of $3.289 on June 3. It has dropped slightly since then, settling at $3.244 last week.
In combination to rising fuel prices, freight volumes have continued to climb, and when combined with the hard ELD enforcement of April 1, capacity is at all-time highs. According to DAT, the van load-to-truck ratio was up over 82% year-over-year in May. That means there is plenty of freight to move, as reflected in spot rates that are at $2.30 per mile in the van sector, and even higher in flatbeds and reefer segments.
For small fleets and owner-operators, the easiest way to save fuel costs is to slow down, something the larger fleets have been doing for years. What is the optimal speed? According to data touted by the American Trucking Association a few years ago, at 75 mph, a truck uses 27% more fuel than one traveling 65 mph.
It’s tempting to drive faster these days as the strict enforcement of hours-of-service through the widespread deployment of ELDs which, according to SONAR data, means the average driver is only driving 6.64 hours a day, as of June 23.
But the combination of the tight capacity, the leverage truckers have with shippers because of the ELD mandate, and higher fuel prices, means that now might be the time to cut truck speeds to save fuel and improve safety. According to ATA, speeding or driving too fast also contributes to 18% of all fatal crashes where a truck was deemed to be at fault.
Truck speeds in recent years have been going up, as evidenced by fleets responding to NACFE’s 2017 Annual Fleet Fuel Study. That report noted that many states have increased speed limits in recent years and trucking companies have been doing the same.
“Some fleets in this study shared that they raised the speed limit on their trucks in 2016 or now in 2017, via modifying the programmable engine controls on their trucks,” NACFE wrote. “Reports generally had them increasing the number about 2-3 mph; 62 to 65, 63 to 65, 65 to 68.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that truck fleets boosted their speeds during a time of low fuel prices. The resulting financial impact was not as great. As fuel prices increase, though, those speed boosts may come to an end.
While it may seem counterintuitive, the pressure shippers are now facing to secure capacity might be offering an opportunity for drivers to lower truck speeds and set a new standard going forward. If you can drive your truck 10 mph slower, potentially saving 27% in fuel if ATA’s study is correct, and shippers are willing to pony up higher rates to cover your additional time, that is a win-win scenario for your truck’s bottom line.
If you are not interested in slowing down that much, believing that over time the additional loads will make up for any additional fuel cost, than J.D. Doyle, CTO of LinkeDrive, maker of the Pedal Coach product that helps drivers operate their vehicles in the optimum range for the best fuel efficiency, has some advice.
It’s all about average speed. “You can make up time and hours by thinking of ways to keep your average up without simply driving faster at the top end. Shorter stops, smart lane selection, timing duty cycles, navigation, etc.,” he says. “Smooth is fast. Forward awareness, timing traffic and progressive acceleration (and deceleration) tactics lead to better overall averages.”
The PedalCoach product helps drivers find the sweet spot for the best fuel efficiency, but Doyle also advises driving in the right gear for the load, terrain and weather.
“Use the pedal when the terrain, weather or traffic warrant it,” he says. “It may seem faster to ‘set [cruise control] and forget it’ and count the hours to your destination, but with the wrong combination of terrain, weather and traffic, you might find yourself going only marginally faster, but using much more fuel.
“Some days are better than others to try and make up time,” Doyle adds. “Wind and rain have a significant impact on mpgs, if you know you're going to face big head or crosswinds, going as fast as you can is going to be less efficient. Running against the wind is like driving faster, so while you are getting the time savings of riding 65 mph, you might be using fuel as if you were running in the mid-70 mph.”
Doyle’s final bit of advice centers on proper planning of trips. “Good planning goes a long way,” he says. “For multi-day routes, optimal planning can help you save hours or even a whole day of delivery or driving time by not trying to make up all the time in the final push to the destination.”
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