Waste not

| April 01, 2007

Keep the pedal off the metal to save fuel.

Hot air rises, jets soar and rockets streak, but diesel fuel prices have been in hyper-drive since 1999, forcing the trucking industry into dramatic changes almost nobody foresaw just seven years back. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, average diesel prices in the Southern states, where fuel is usually cheapest, went from 91.6 cents a gallon on Feb. 22, 1999, to $3.28 cents a gallon on Oct. 3, 2005 – 358 percent inflation over 6 1/2 years – before easing back to $2.38 as of Feb. 5, 2007: a 260 percent inflation over eight years.

The effects on trucking, both bad and good, are hard to overstate. On the bad side, the squeeze morphed into a crush; sink-or-swim struggles were business as usual. The industry is still adjusting, and frustration runs high.

“A month ago, crude oil was going for $49 a barrel, and now it’s $59,” says L.W. Bryant, chief financial officer for U.S. Inter-Mex Transportation, a 70-truck company based in Pharr, Texas. “What happened in a month to change the price like that?”

But on the good side, the entire trucking industry is fighting back by conserving fuel. Truck, engine, trailer and parts makers are spending a lot of time and money finding fuel-saving innovations: lighter, more aerodynamic rigs with better tires and lubricants and more efficient engine-drive train matchups.

Meanwhile, freight carriers of all sizes are cutting fuel costs with buying strategies and reduced idling. They’re closely monitoring their trucks and asking drivers to save fuel, too. For that and other reasons, it makes sense for drivers not just to learn but to apply some reliable fuel-saving tips.

“We have all the magic computer information from the engines now,” Bryant says. “We know how many miles each truck has driven and how many hours it’s idling.”

That information is used mostly for fuel-buying strategies, but it also shows which drivers use the most fuel and why.

“If a driver has a heavy foot, we can help him lighten it,” Bryant says.

Though it rarely happens, illegal fuel selling is also more obvious.

“He’s sitting there topping off his tank and he says, ‘Hey, you give me $50 and I’ll pump $70 worth of fuel for you,’” Bryant says. “When the fuel mileage goes from 6.2 miles a gallon to 3.7, you know something must be wrong. We stay on top of it too much for it to happen too often. You have to.”

Instead of selling or wasting their employers’ fuel, company drivers should do all they can to conserve it, even though they don’t pay for it.

“If the drivers won’t work to cut their fuel consumption, then the company has to spend more on fuel,” says Cliff Ellis, a 30-year trucking veteran who currently drives for Valley Transportation and lives in Toledo, Wash. “If they spend too much on fuel, they don’t have as much for other things, like raises and new trucks. Their costs could go up to the point where they’re going out of business. If you’re one of the drivers wasting fuel, you just helped yourself out of a job.”

“Our fuel bill has more than doubled in the last five years,” Bryant says. “We were paying $1 a gallon before Sept. 11, 2001, and we’re paying $2.50 now. It’s probably our second biggest expense, right behind payroll.”

Fuel conservation is a good way to show loyalty to your company. Expect the company to show you loyalty in return.

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