Making fleets more efficient

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One of the larger questions being asked as the debate over government-proposed heavy truck fuel economy mandates gets rolling deals with overall vehicle efficiency. That’s because meeting these government fuel economy targets is going to require work on many parts of the tractor-trailer besides the engine, where much of the focus has been for the last decade in terms of both controlling exhaust emissions and fuel consumption.

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Of course, truck manufacturers are the ones in the cross hairs of the proposed fuel efficiency mandates: they are the ones that will be charged with getting their equipment “certified” by these new rules. Yet fleets need to be integrally part of this process, too, largely because they are the ones tasked with putting such “certified” equipment out on the highway in freight hauling service.

Plus, the fleet focus can’t be just on tractor-trailer fuel economy alone, for these combination vehicles also need to produce returns large enough over time to pay for any upfront incremental cost (and there’s sure to be a lot of THAT, I can tell you) required to meet these proposed fuel efficiency targets.

Conway Truckload is an example of one fleet that’s been following the “total vehicle efficiency” path in recent years – trying out any number of new technologies and components not only to reduce tractor-trailer fuel consumption but improve freight hauling efficiency and safety as well.

[Here’s one example of how it’s trying to boost overall vehicle efficiency; by using a unqiue in-house designed “double stack” system for its trailers.]

Safety can actually be a key metric in this new fuel economy debate, because (let’s face it), if a tractor-trailer gets involved in a crash, it pretty much wipes out any bottom line savings gained from reduced fuel consumption.

But first, here's a look at some of Conway Truckload’s fuel saving efforts to date:

• Switching to fuel-efficient single wide-base tires on all tractors for a savings of 0.2 miles per gallon, with all trailers to follow by the end of 2012.

• Using special engine and drive train lubricants to increase operating efficiency.

• Lowering each truck’s weight by more than 670 pounds through specification changes, resulting in savings of 11,400 gallons of diesel fuel per year.

• Equipping the fleet with highly engineered aerodynamic panels to reduce drag.

• Reducing idling time through measures such as utilizing diesel-fired bunk heaters and commercial transponders for bypassing weigh stations, as well as increasing the use of team drivers and designating convenient “no idling” parking areas at selected terminals.

• Recycling used trailers and refurbishing them for return to the fleet through its sister company, Road Systems, Inc., instead of buying new trailers.

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One new product Conway Truckload is testing for improved fuel economy is the UT-6 Trailer UnderTray System designed by the SmartTruck company – a trailer aerodynamic system purported to offer a fuel efficiency gain of at least 8.5% for the base model, with the full UT-6 trailer system delivering more than 11% gains in fuel efficiency, according to SmartTruck's testing results so far.

Now, the jury is still out on the fuel saving capability of this product (and rightfully so) but Conway Truckload is one of several fleets in the mix testing the UT-6 out to see if really can help improve the fuel footprint of tractor-trailers in real world operations.

“Previous attempts to gain a return on our investment of typical trailer aerodynamic technologies haven’t existed until now,” noted Bruce Stockton, vice president of maintenance & asset management for Con-way Truckload. “We believe SmartTruck has found a way to utilize the airflow and minimize turbulence around a tractor-trailer, while improving safety as well as fuel efficiency.”

I’ve talked to Stockton on more than one occasion and I can tell you he’s no starry-eyed dreamer when it comes to fuel economy. Conway Truckload adopts enhancements for its fleet only if they prove themselves out on the highway after rigorous in-house testing.

That’s the reason why Conway Truckload adopted wide-base tires for its tractors and trailers, for example, as Stockton points out in the video below.

Yet at the same time, as almost anyone in trucking knows, there's recognition that safer trucks save fleets a lot of money over time as well. And those savings, by the way, influence the overall “vehicle efficiency” pretty significantly, too.

Conway Truckload’s sister company, LTL carrier Conway Freight, recently wrapped up a nearly year-long test of integrated system of crash warning and vehicle safety technologies in partnership with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI); a project that convinced the company to spend an extra $5.4 million to put these systems on 1,300 new Freightliner Cascadia 2010-model tractors it recently ordered – an order valued at $100 million, which is not chump change in any business.

The “suite” of safety systems on these trucks includes: rollover stability, front collision warning with adaptive cruise control, and lane departure warning, as well factory-installed in-dash AM/FM/Satellite radio units which replace portable radios and are designed to minimize driver distraction.

“The insight we gained from the IVBSS [Integrated Vehicle-Based Safety Systems] heavy-truck field operational test study confirmed the feedback we got from our drivers — these technologies are ready for prime time and are effective at helping drivers avoid the most common instances of crashes involving commercial trucks,” explained Bob Petrancosta, Conway Freight’s vice president of safety.

Over the course of the 10-month study, which began in February 2009, 18 Conway drivers operated the trucks out of the company’s Detroit service center as part of its normal business operations, logging 601,844 miles; 22,724 trips; and generating 13,678 hours of data.

While the test vehicles were driven, data acquisition systems recorded driver actions and responses to the integrated warning system. Some of the study’s key findings were:

• The majority of drivers perceived that the integrated crash warning system would increase driver safety, and it made them more aware of the traffic environment around their vehicle and their position in the lane

• Seven drivers reported the integrated system prevented them from potentially having a crash

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• Fifteen out of 18 drivers said they prefer a truck equipped with the integrated safety system and would recommend that their employers purchase such a system

• In terms of satisfaction, drivers rated warnings for lane departures the highest, and second highest in terms of perceived usefulness

• The integrated crash warning system had a statistically significant effect helping drivers maintain lane positions closer to the center

• Overall, drivers responded more quickly to potential rear-end crash scenarios with the system

“With the anticipated release of FMSCA’s [Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration] Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010 initiative and the potential for stricter safety regulations for truck drivers and trucking companies, we’re proactively pursuing a high-tech approach to safety,” Petrancosta added.

“[This test] validated these technologies over the past year, confirming what we initially believed — these are effective technologies in our operation that can provide real-world, lifesaving results,” he noted.

They’ll also save the carrier money, too – further boosting the overall efficiency of the vehicles they operate. And that will be a critical metric as the trucking industry waits to see if these proposed fuel economy standards become reality in the next few years.

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