Getting ahead of the curve is what good fleet management is all about. It means getting new technology and systems up and running without compromising day-to-day operations. And in many cases, these innovations ultimately move from the “optional” to “required” column because of a government mandate or economic necessity.

While the rest of the industry scrambles to adapt, those who are ahead of the curve already have a few years under their belt; the new system of technology is running smoothly — and without excessive cost.

I had the good fortune to talk with one such fleet manager, now retired, who made it his business to be ahead of the curve: Richard Hays, director of environmental services for the city of San Diego.

It's ironic that his forward thinking occurred in a venue that had been labeled “Enron by the Sea” last year because of shady fiscal management of the pension fund. In contrast, during his 15 years as head of San Diego's refuse operations, Hays and his team made many positive changes, including converting most of the 180 refuse trucks to dual-fuel (diesel and LNG) configurations.

“I'd been reading about all the lawsuits being filed in Los Angeles over particulate emissions from trucks, and here we were with the biggest fleet just one county down from them,” he told me.

“While the lawsuits worried us, it's not what drove us into alternative fuels,” he added quickly. “It was really all about doing the right thing. Refuse trucks drive up and down our residents' streets, sometimes twice a day, and our drivers sit and breathe the fumes. That's why we went to dual-fuel trucks, primarily burning LNG.”

But all the good intentions in the world wouldn't have mattered if Hays and his department hadn't been able to keep costs under control.

Hays got a break because the old refuse facility needed to be replaced, enabling him to build a state-of-the art shop capable of handling LNG trucks without a huge investment of resources. In addition, in-house modification of truck routing software helped drive up fleet productivity and efficiency, which meant the same level of service could be maintained with fewer trucks.

Then came the clincher: As diesel prices skyrocketed, using LNG at 85 to 92¢/gal. created a windfall for the city.

That's not to say there weren't bumps in the road. “We had problems with warranty coverage when the company providing our dual fuel systems was sold,” Hayes recalled. “We had fuel tank problems and computer glitches. At times, it was a battle to make it work.” But it's a battle that paid off nicely. Not only are fuel costs far lower, the fleet has more leeway in meeting future emission targets because it of its status as an “early adopter.”

Yet Hays and his crew didn't stop at vehicles. By using off-the-shelf solar collectors, they were able to create an energy-independent municipal building, saving $750,000 a year in energy costs. The team also instituted efforts to produce fuel-grade LNG from its own landfill gas.

Hays notes that the thinking hasn't stopped just because he retired. Currently, the fleet is looking at ultra-low-sulfur diesel to see if that might be a better emissions-reduction strategy in the long run than LNG, especially in light of its far lower initial investment and maintenance costs. Hays points out that nothing highlights a fleet's ability to think ahead like its willingness to re-examine where it has been — all while taking care of the trash, day in and day out.

“It wasn't just me out there doing all this; we had all of our people working on these projects, while never forgetting our daily mission,” he says. “Refuse collection consistently ranked No. 1 for eight out of nine years in terms of customer feedback. That tells you we're on the right track.”