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As fleets spec for fuel efficiency, driver skill still matters

Mike Roeth, executive director of NACFE, highlights some of the findings from the group’s annual fleet fuel study during a presentation at the Meritor/P.S.I. Fleet Technology Event in San Antonio last week.

The North American Council on Freight Efficiency (NACFE) was founded in 2010 with a goal of providing unbiased, comprehensive data on energy efficient technologies in the trucking market. In essence, NACFE is trying to cut through the marketing claims to find real-world answers to what works and doesn’t work.

The group doesn’t tell any fleet what technologies it should be running, but rather produces studies on how technologies are performing in fleet operations. Under the direction of Executive Director Mike Roeth, NACFE has been producing Confidence Reports and other research to help fleets make informed decisions when it comes to what energy-efficient technologies to install on their vehicles.

Roeth spoke at last week’s Meritor/P.S.I. Fleet Technology Event in San Antonio, providing an overall look at NACFE and some of the work it has been producing. He started with a brief overview of the cost of fuel and the American Transportation Research Institute’s (ATRI) recent operational cost study for 2017.

ATRI found the cost to operate a tractor-trailer in 2017 was $1.69 per mile, up 6% over 2016. Roeth said that fuel costs at the pump were up 15%, but fuel accounted for just 36.8 cents per mile.

“Fuel is always a big cost,” he said. “You only have to go back to that $4 a gallon [in 2014] when fuel was the cost of the tractor-trailer’s [per mile costs].”

Roeth said that many fleets don’t consider the long-term cost of fuel for a tractor. Each tractor, with the latest technologies, is a little more fuel efficient than previous models. In 2014, fleets went on a buying spree and acquired a large number of new tractors. Because of that their fuel costs were lower in 2017 than if they were running older equipment.

“Had we not bought those trucks in 2014, that [37 cents in ATRI’s study] for fuel would have been much higher, maybe 42 or 43 cents,” Roeth pointed out. He also noted that regulations and corporate sustainability efforts impact the purchasing decisions fleets make.

NACFE has been tracking the nation’s average fleet fuel economy in its studies, and using IFTA reporting, it has found little change in the nation’s fleetwide fuel average since 2012, holding steady around 5.9 mpg, where it has remained since about 2007. (This incorporates vehicles of all types – over-the-road tractor-trailers are averaging higher).

In 2016, NACFE conducted the Run on Less initiative. Seven drivers from seven different fleets ran real-world routes over the course of 17 days (99 driving days in total). The fleets supplied the best equipment in their operations – most had full aerodynamic treatments, and those drivers averaged 10.1 mpg over 50,107 miles. The average load was 55,500 pounds and average speed for all the vehicles was 54 mph.

While this run represented the best drivers and best equipment, one of the things that struck Roeth was the amount of variation among the equipment.

“The tractors and trailers were less alike than I thought they would be,” he said, noting that it showed there is no one solution to achieving the best fuel economy. There was one other surprise to Roeth.

“I personally learned from Run on Less that driving trucks matters and it’s not going away with automated transmissions,” he said, so fleets need to continue educating drivers on fuel-efficient practices.

Turning briefly to future technologies, Roeth said that platooning is nearly ready for commercial applications and provides not only a fuel efficiency boost but also a bridge to fully autonomous vehicles.

“We see platooning as the next step in automation,” he said. NACFE studied two-truck platoons and found about a 4% fuel savings overall – as much as 10% for the following truck. “Where you can put two trucks together, it works really well.”

Electric trucks, which NACFE is currently studying as part of a 5-part research project, are also here to stay, Roeth believes.

“I don’t think it’s a fad and I think it will come sooner than we think,” Roeth noted. He said we will first see them in day cab, point-to-point type operations, and one of the reasons is that they are significantly simpler than diesel trucks with many fewer components.

To those who point out the weight advantage a diesel truck has over an electric, which needs heavy batteries to drive the range needed, Roeth notes that there is significant weight loss once a diesel engine is removed – about 7,800 pounds. As battery technology improves, Class 7-8 trucks running a “typical” daily range will reach parity with diesel trucks by 2025.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight covers general transportation news and leads the editorial team as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler.