While it's impossible to fully understand why diesel prices have risen so much, one thing is clear: whatever the cause, or causes, you have no control over fuel prices. Yes, careful planning might help you smooth out sudden spikes in the price you pay, or volume purchases might deliver negotiated prices a little lower than those paid by your competitors. But there's nothing you can do to drive down prices when the market is set on pushing them ever upward. The only thing you can control is how you conserve — or waste — that pricey fuel.

To be honest, for the last decade or so fuel economy has not been that important to many fleets. On the for-hire side in particular, an abundance of freight and scarcity of truck capacity kept the focus on filling the driver's seat and the freight moving to take advantage of those good rates. If diesel prices climbed, fuel surcharges not only made up most of the difference, but relieved fleet managers of driver annoyances such as lower-horsepower tractors or speed governors.

Today the situation is reversed. It's freight that's getting scarce while the supply of drivers is adequate, if not plentiful. More importantly, a fleet's number one and two operating costs have flipped from labor and fuel to fuel and labor. It's time for everyone who runs a fleet of trucks to reexamine fuel economy strategies, even those you might have rejected in earlier times as too expensive.

When it comes to equipment, you probably shouldn't rule out anything without taking a good look. For example, trailer aerodynamic devices, battery-powered air-conditioning systems, automated transmissions, and weight-saving materials are among the many possibilities that have in the past been routinely dismissed as too expensive to justify solely on fuel economy gains. Run the numbers again. What wasn't cost effective at $2.50 a gallon certainly could be at $4 a gallon.

But don't lose the healthy sense of skepticism that's served trucking so well in the past. High fuel prices always bring out the cow magnets and magic elixirs accompanied by fantastic testimonials and guarantees too good to believe. Look to trusted sources like EPA's SmartWay program for proven suggestions on equipment investments that hold real fuel economy advantages. A supplier's reputation and track record can also help you evaluate claims. At the very least, ask anyone with a new product or approach to fuel economy to show you SAE/TMC standardized fuel economy test results. You want verifiable proof, not just kind words from enthusiastic users.

Of course, investment in your human resources is just as important as equipment in any systematic approach to maximizing fuel economy. For drivers, that means training and monitoring, fleet speed limits, bonus plans, and a menu of carrots and sticks. For operations, it means new emphasis on productive routing and equipment utilization. For maintenance, renewed commitment to tire airing, preventive maintenance and other basics that impact fuel consumption.

And for managers like you, it means that no matter what you think you know about fuel economy, it's time to rethink your entire approach.

E-mail: jmele@fleetowner.com

Web site: fleetowner.com

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