My guess is many fleets and their suppliers think that being more environmentally conscious means spending more money. In other words, helping the Earth hurts the bottom line. I, for one, don't think that's true. In fact, I think it's possible to actually save money by going “green.”

Take Webb Wheel, for example. Kent Finkbinder, president of the company's trailer business, took a group of trucking reporters on a tour of Webb's new plant in Tell City, IN, earlier this spring and highlighted how being “green” can save money in the long run. He explained that Webb uses robotic spray systems and water-based paint to coat its wheel hubs. While the system costs more up-front, it saves money in the long run by conserving the amount of paint used yet covering the wheel hub more thoroughly than a human operator could do.

“Even more important is the safety benefit: none of our workers are being exposed to the paint itself or its fumes,” he told me. “On top of that, the system allows us to collect and reuse the paint ‘overspray’ — something we couldn't do with a human-operated system.”

Finkbinder also pointed out that metal shavings — the waste left over from holes drilled in the hubs, again, by robotic production machines — get sent back to the metal foundry across the street to be reused in the metal production process. That totally eliminates an expensive waste stream.

Back on the fleet side, new technologies are being deployed to help minimize the amount of fluids used to keep vehicles in tip-top operating condition.

In the past, extending engine oil drain intervals typically required switching to a higher grade of oil or adopting an engine oil sampling and testing program. Now, for light trucks at least, there's another method: letting the vehicle itself determine when the oil needs changing.

General Motors has developed the Oil Life System (OLS), which it said can double or even triple the time between oil changes compared to the standard 3,000-mile interval that many fleets use. That reduces the amount of engine oil used by trucks, which in turn reduces the used oil waste stream.

“OLS, which is now on more than 95% of GM cars and trucks, ends the traditional 3,000-mile oil change by alerting you when the oil change is really needed — which could be anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 miles,” Brian McVeigh, general manager of GM's Fleet & Commercial division, told me during a special 2006 product preview GM held in Salt Lake City this May.

“There are roughly 20-million vehicles on the road today already equipped with this technology. These cars and trucks together can help save an estimated 120-million gallons of oil if drivers and fleet administrators simply follow the “change oil” light recommendation,” he explained. “That really translates to everyone's bottom line.”

“The technology is based on actual engine and operating data that calculates when the oil needs to be changed,” Joyce Fierens, GM's director of fleet service, told me.

She cautioned that the savings are totally dependent on how far a fleet can safely extend the oil drain - and that wholly depends on the operational conditions and use patterns of the fleet's vehicles. “However, not every fleet operates in harsh conditions, so it doesn't make sense to have an oil change schedule based on those conditions,” she pointed out. “It's just one more way we can use technology to save money and conserve resources at the same time.”