Making the Grade Private Motor Carrier

Making the Grade

New low-viscosity oils will play a </strong><strong>key role in boosting fuel economy

NASHVILLE, TN – Cleaner air has traditionally come at a cost. Tighter emission standards have led to pricey equipment, increased downtime, added maintenance, and maybe even trucks with lower residual values, says Paul Menig of Tech I-M, a consulting service which specializes in truck-related technology.

But the latest focus on reducing greenhouse gases offers a new benefit in the form of equipment that burns less fuel.

January marked the first phase in new fuel economy regulations for the trucking industry, and in this year’s State of the Union address US President Barack Obama repeated the commitment and encouraged the wider use of alternative fuels. Still-tougher greenhouse gas limits will be in place by March 2016.

“Where do we go from here?” Menig asked a crowd of maintenance managers during this year’s annual meeting of the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations.

Of course, the trucking industry has hardly been standing idly by and waiting for regulators to demand better fuel economy. About 3,000 companies are already participating in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decade-old SmartWay program which identifies fuel-saving devices and quantifies the benefits they deliver.

“We have been a SmartWay partner for a long time,” said Dwayne Haug, associate vice-president of equipment purchasing at Werner Enterprises, which has 7,300 trucks and 23,380 trailers operating in jurisdictions such as the U.S. and Canada. “We’ve been green for a long time,” he added. “We used to call it conservation. We used to call it survival. We used to call it profitability.”

The fleet has adopted fuel-saving changes including bunk heaters, Auxiliary Power Units, optimized speeds, trailer skirts, low-RPM engines, and fewer out-of-route or empty kilometres. “It isn’t necessarily low-hanging fruit. This has been a battle,” Haug said. “The next steps are going to be very hard. They’re going to be very miniscule.”

As hard as these steps may be, many fleets are already meeting the tougher greenhouse gas limits set by California, said Stephan Lemieux, manager of the on-road heavy-duty diesel section at the California Air Resources Board. His state actually mandates elements of the otherwise voluntary SmartWay program, such as Low Rolling Resistance (LRR) tires and better aerodynamics for 53-foot dry vans and reefers.

The number of available fuel-saving products has increased dramatically in recent years, driving down prices in the process. SmartWay, for example, has verified 366 new fuel-saving tires and 38 retreads, many of which match the price of their traditional counterparts or cost less than $50 extra per tire, he said. And where five companies made 11 different aerodynamic devices for trailers in 2008, there were 33 companies with 76 such products last year. The average prices of these components plunged from $2,800 to $1,000 during the same time period; the average Return on Investment dropped from 30 months to fewer than 11 months.

Regulators are also evaluating aerodynamic improvements for flatbed trailers, boosting their fuel economy by as much as 5%, Lemieux added.

Human factors

As important as the new hardware may be, Scott Webb of Mesilla Valley Transport draws attention to the “human factors” that can help to burn less fuel as well. The orientation programs for drivers in his fleet have focused on fuel economy since 1981, encouraging employees to be easy on the throttle, shift into the top gear as quickly as possible, and not to tailgate.

The company began to measure driver performance as early as 1986.

“We also turned it into a game with them,” he said, noting how every driver’s fuel economy is compared to that of their peers. “People don’t want to be at the bottom.” There are some undeniable benefits to being at the top of the list, too. The most fuel-efficient driver of the year wins $25,000. Quarterly prizes have included Harley-Davidson motorcycles, jeeps and cars. By 2009 the fleet had several drivers reaching an average 12 mpg (19.5 L/100 km), until Exhaust Gas Recirculation systems made numbers like those impossible.

It isn’t the only technology to negatively affect fuel economy. Average speeds increased when electronic logbooks were introduced, he adds, since drivers could no longer hide some of the time spent in traffic jams.

But Mesilla Valley has also embraced technology to improve fuel economy. Super single tires were adopted, complete with brackets to carry the larger spares. Aluminum wheel covers were added to improve aerodynamics, but also answered driver complaints about the look of the steel wheels. The fleet was even stamping its own trailer skirts as early as 2008, eventually buying the devices from suppliers. There are now roof cap extenders, solar panels to recharge batteries, and trailer boat tails. Using more than 500,000 US gallons (1.9 million litres) of B20 biodiesel every month, the fleet has even opened its own plant to produce the fuel.

“High miles per gallon [are] attainable,” Webb said. “You can do it. You can make money on this.”

The latest emission rules are ensuring that available technology is embraced more quickly, said Arvon Mitcham of the US Environmental Protection Agency, noting that the required technology will pay for itself within one to two years.

“There may be more advances and more innovative technologies coming along,” Mitcham said. Energy from future turbochargers might be stored to power accessories or be fed back into the drivetrain. Predictive cruise controls could ensure the best following distances.

No matter what form it takes, the equipment is likely to be similar on both sides of the border as greenhouse gas emissions continue to tighten. The EPA is also looking to encourage “global harmonization” through work with Transport Canada and Environment Canada, Mitcham said.

In the meantime, SmartWay is updating its list of available technologies and criteria, said Sam Waltzer an environmental engineer in the EPA’s technology assessment centre. A new SmartWay Elite rating will identify trailers which have used aerodynamics to improve fuel economy by 9%, with another 1.5% to come from Low Rolling Resistance tires. Ratings for pup trailers are also on their way. New charts, meanwhile, will give manufacturers a chance to prove whether their options have passed tests beyond the SmartWay test track — including time in wind tunnels, coast down tests, and computer models known as computational fluid dynamics.

“Fleets want to know how a technology will perform in their fleet, and to know the tradeoffs,” he said, referring to factors such as added weights, extra maintenance and driver acceptance. “Manufacturers want apples-to-apples comparisons of technology performance.”

And everyone has a burning desire to reduce the demand for fuel.