IT and MPG

Driver and vehicle performance data gathered by IT solutions is often presented in dashboard-style format, allowing fleet managers to quickly spot problem areas.

By Jim Beach, Contributing Editor


In the abstract, reducing fuel cost represents a pretty straightforward undertaking: Get as many miles as possible out of every gallon of fuel, pay as little as possible for those gallons, and reduce the number of miles each truck travels to get the job done. Information technology can help manage all three goals.

“No matter how you slice it, reducing fuel costs comes down to two things: increasing mpg and reducing the number of miles you drive,” says Chris Ransom, director of sales for NetworkFleet, San Diego.

We discussed routing and route optimization in our March issue. Adam Kahn, director of product marketing for Qualcomm Enterprise Solutions, noted then that back-office routing and dispatch systems combine the right freight with the right truck based on destination, delivery windows, driver profiles and other factors.

However, establishing the most efficient route in and of itself is not enough to ensure that truck is operated in the most fuel-efficient manner or that the fuel purchased along that route is the cheapest available. A number of technology vendors offer solutions to help fleets manage both of these.

Improving mpg

Ransom says he sees three components to increasing fleet fuel efficiency: reducing idling, improving driver behavior and maintaining vehicle health. To help fleets identify areas where they can improve, NetworkFleet collects GPS from its onboard device and collects operational data directly from the truck’s electronic control module. It sends that information via a cellular network to the company’s servers, where customers can access the data online. They also can receive email reports on a periodic basis.

Other companies offer similar services.

Steve Katz, director of sales for Blue Tree Systems, Roanoke, Va., says coaching driver behavior can result in a 30% to 35% improvement in fuel economy. Blue Tree’s R:Com fleet management system links map location data to all events such as excessive idling, harsh acceleration or braking, speeding, driving without use of cruise control and over-revving, and other events to produce color-coded driver and vehicle reports to highlight areas for improvement. The system allows profiling vehicle characteristics such as rpm bands, over-speeding, fuel consumption targets and other areas. The system can summarize driver performance based on groups (by terminal, equipment driven, etc.) and also can produce individual driver scorecards.

Christian Schenk, vice president of market development and product marketing for Xata Corp., says managing driver behavior by monitoring speeding, progressive shifting and idle time are considered “table stakes” for these packages, and most customers expect those capabilities as a minimum. The Xata Turnpike product puts a dollar value on a fleet’s drivers based on their performance, allowing fleet managers to direct their efforts toward those drivers needing the most help.

Brad Pinchuk, president of Hirschbach Motor Lines, East Dubuque, Ill., says his fleet monitors the driver behavior aspects of fuel economy by getting daily downloads from their tractors’ ECMs via mobile communications devices. That data is then integrated into its enterprise software, which generates reports that highlight fuel efficiency, speeding, shift-ranges and other factors.

The company runs 500 trucks pulling temperature-controlled trailers. Pinchuk says they have improved their fuel economy by about 15% as a result of the various strategies they have implemented.

Although fleets typically see the most improvement through managing driver behavior, vehicle health is also an important aspect. “When a vehicle has a ‘check engine soon’ light on, it’s averaging 2 to 6 mpg less than normal,” says NetworkFleet’s Ransom.

Analytics

Monitoring vehicle fuel efficiency and driver behavior is a good start on improving a fleet’s fuel usage, but often the data collected can present an incomplete picture. That’s where operational analytics comes in. PeopleNet’s Vusion division and other vendors offer products that can reach across the various systems within a fleet such as dispatch, enterprise management, maintenance management, mobile communications, fuel tax auditing systems and fuel card programs to bring data together for analysis.

According to Thomas Fansler, Vusion president, the system combines data from these various sources to compile a more complete picture of vehicle and driver performance. Instead of just looking at fuel-use data from the engine’s ECM, for instance, it also looks at fuel card information, fuel tax data, equipment specifications and aftermarket products such as APUs and GPS data to produce a truer picture of vehicle performance. “A lot of fleets go astray in managing mpg,” he says.

Fansler says that for trucks running engines with 2007 emissions standards, fuel-use figures from the ECMs tended to be overstated and may give misleading results due to calibration inequities (although engine makers we contacted did not concur). Fleets also need to consider load and geographical characteristics, tires, fuel-tank size, APU use and other data.

Oftentimes, once these other factors have been taken into consideration, fleets find that the trucks they thought were the “dogs” of the fleet are actually performing better than they thought, while the trucks that appeared to be the top performers are lagging behind. Knowing that information can be vital for a fleet looking to increase its fuel efficiency, Fansler says. Looking at a hypothetical 900-truck fleet, for example, a difference between 6.51 mpg and 6.35 mpg for two different truck model and engine pairings can mean a savings of $1.6 million per year in fuel costs if the fleet specs the better-performing truck.

“Fleets are always looking for more granular information from their systems,” NetworkFleet’s Ransom adds. “For example, a fleet operator may want to know idle time, but only when the PTO is not in use. That gives them a better picture of the idling that they want to control.”

Theft and fraud

As fuel prices rise, so do incidents of fuel theft or fraud. A number of solutions exist to help fleets fight such theft. Vusion’s Fansler says that by combining data from a number of sources, fleets can know a truck’s tank level at key off, tank level at key on and compare that to any fuel card charges to help spot fuel theft or fraud.

Blue Tree Systems’ R:Com Fuel Auditor module performs the same kind of function. “It takes the fuel burned by the engine and compares it against the fuel purchased during the same time,” Katz says. “The deltas jump out.”

“If there is a difference of a few gallons, that’s probably not significant,” he notes. Each fleet can decide what is significant so they can make sure the fuel that is purchased is fuel burned in the engine. When a fleet does spot a significant variance, the system has a one-click drill-down – a mouse click on that item brings up a map that shows where that fuel was purchased and how much.

NetworkFleet offers similar fuel fraud protection through its association with Wright Express, a fuel card provider. “We can track fuel fraud through the information we provide,” Ransom says. Because the system monitors GPS location of the vehicle, “we can see if a fuel card was used in a place where the vehicle was not. If that happens, the fuel card is in some other vehicle.”

NexTraq, Atlanta, which offers dispatch and vehicle tracking products, also uses GPS and fuel card data to monitor possible fuel fraud. “If a fuel card shows fuel was purchased at a fuel stop at the same time the GPS shows your truck at a customer’s location, there is probably some fuel slippage going on,” says Mark Roberts, chief marketing officer.

For fleets operating remote fueling locations, oil-field work for instance, telematics helps control fuel loss there as well, Roberts says. “Telematics gives you the ability to look at fuel monitors at remote locations; it shows you how much fuel is being pumped from these tanks. If authorization has gone out to fill three trucks from a remote fuel tank and more fuel is pumped than those three tanks can hold, you can see you’ve got a problem.”

Paying less

There are also solutions to help fleets pay less for the fuel they do use.

“We’ve got a couple of things in that realm,” says David McKinney, vice president, general manager of optimization for TMW Systems, Cleveland. “One thing is the fuel-stop information. Our product Expert Fuel integrates with a carrier’s dispatch software and mobile communications system to provide every driver at the time of their assignment an optimized route and fueling plan.” The routing part takes into account toll costs, fuel taxes and other considerations so it can develop the best route based on toll costs and miles. The other component is a fueling plan, which takes into account the carrier’s negotiated discounts with fuel stops, preferred fueling locations and pricing.

“What we’re really doing is routing the vehicle and cost-averaging the fuel purchases along that trip so the carrier can spend the least amount of money as possible,” he says. “Fuel varies significantly geographically, so we are taking advantage of those variations.”

Stacy Barnet, fuel manager for Mesilla Valley Transportation, Las Cruces, N.M., says the company uses TMW’s Expert Fuel’s Via Points to put their drivers on the safest roads while controlling cost factors such as IFTA taxes and fuel discounts. The company, which runs 900-plus company trucks and about 300 owner-operators, also uses Fuel Advice (the online version of Expert Fuel) to “test” a route before dispatching trucks, to check the route and fuel-cost savings based on their fueling network.

“If there is more than one safe route to send a driver, but I have a significant discount difference on one road, I can make the choice to go for the savings while at the same time work with my vendors for better discounts on the other route,” Barnet says.

Bulk savings

For fleets that buy fuel in bulk, applications are available to help them get the best prices. FuelQuest, Houston, provides fuel automation and taxation solutions for bulk fuel management. The company manages more than 19 billion gallons of fuel.

Ryan Mossman, FuelQuest vice president and general manager of fuel services, says there are a number of ways fleets can save on their bulk purchases.

“We approach it from the procurement and logistics standpoint,” he says. “Some people may only look at what the fuel costs, others may look at fuel costs and transportation. But we look at a number of other things in managing bulk fuel purchases.”

“The freight, fuel and contract costs are one piece, but we also look at load shifting,” he says. Load shifting means moving a load of fuel scheduled for today to tomorrow or vice versa based on what’s happening on the spot market, as that price moves instantaneously. “The cost you pay at the rack can reflect those movements quite quickly,” Mossman says. “What we do is alter the physical delivery to capture that change. If I decide to take my load tomorrow instead of today, I might save 10 cents a gallon. Our software enables us to do this.”

Another thing they look at is inventory optimization. “A lot of people keep too much inventory in the ground, concerned about not running out of fuel. What people forget is that can add up to tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars of cost.”

FuelQuest’s software predicts usage for each hour of the day based on historical data. Most fleets don’t fuel continuously but have periods of heavy fueling and periods of inactivity. Knowing this allows the fleet to move to a more just-in-time inventory, which means a reduction in inventory in the ground, which results in savings.

“Keeping too much inventory in the ground can prevent you from taking advantage of swings in the market,” he says.

The service also provides invoice reconciliation, making sure the fleet is paying the right amount on fuel, freight and taxes. “Many people don’t audit their fuel invoices, but we can find significant savings in making sure the invoices are correct,” he says. “When you are talking about $30,000 being the average invoice price, an error can be pretty significant.”

Aerodynamics, effective driving behaviors, engine specs, tires, gearing and other factors all play a role in fleet fuel efficiency. Enterprise management systems, dispatch programs and telematics allow fleet managers to effectively manage all of these things.

From the June 2012 issue of HDT

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