IN trucking, the key component to being successful at improving fuel mileage is without a doubt the driver.
But in an industry with tight deadlines, where weather and traffic often create stress and delays, it’s easy for drivers to push their tractors to the limit and their pedals to the metal.
However, the team efforts of one Wisconsin-based refrigerated carrier have drivers slowing down, shifting smarter and braking softly. This has resulted in not only astronomical cost savings for the company, but also highly coveted awards from the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
V&S Midwest Carriers Corporation was named a SmartWay High Performer by the EPA in August. This means the family-owned company is in the top 6% of all refrigerated carriers in the nation that participate in the EPA’s voluntary SmartWay program, which is comprised of companies that lead the freight industry in reducing carbon emissions.
“Anything we can do in this business to become a greener carrier is a plus,” said Eric Van Handel, company president. “Trucking companies do some damage to the environment—it’s just the nature of the beast. But anything we can do to curb it we feel is our duty.”
This is the second straight year V&S has been awarded this honor after becoming a SmartWay partner and recognized carrier since 2007, just three years after the program’s inception. Fewer than 10% of all SmartWay carriers operate fleets efficient enough to make the SmartWay High Performer list for carbon emissions.
But earning national recognition for the company’s efforts to be green wasn’t Van Handel’s main motivation for participating in the program. When he joined the family business, he knew he wanted to save the company money and also do what he could to help the environment.
Because Van Handel didn’t know exactly how to bring his ideas to fruition, he enlisted the help of Don Dains, V&S vice president of technology. Dains was the driving force behind developing a system for tracking, reporting and improving fuel mileage.
According to Dains, diesel fuel prices were on the rise and spiked to almost $5 per gallon when V&S started looking for ways to save money and protect the environment. Once they were able to accurately track odometer readings and every drop of fuel going into a machine, they were able to give drivers daily feedback and teach them how to improve.
“We did that by bringing in the odometer readings and tracking every time we fueled that truck,” said Dains. “We were able to create a report that could give us fuel mileages on a leg-by-leg basis, from fuel-up to fuel-up. Once we were able to give that feedback to the drivers in a very quick manner, they were able to quickly adjust.”
V&S also hired a fuel manager, Kay Wilkens, and part of her job is to talk with drivers about ways they can improve their driving to increase their fuel mileage. Simply driving differently, she said, is the key. She teaches them to do things like slow down, think about reducing idle time, shift at a lower RPM, ease into acceleration and brake softly.
But why would a driver want to work so hard to improve his or her fuel mileage?
At the same time V&S embarked on this initiative, it adopted an aggressive fuel mileage bonus program for drivers. Van Handel said a handful of drivers at the time got excited about seeing what they could do, and it almost became a game for them to see how good they could be.
“When they started seeing their bonus checks, it wasn’t hard for the others to follow,” said Van Handel.
Pride was the other incentive.
Van Handel said V&S has a much lower rate of turnover than most trucking companies. His approach to creating work-life balance and a respectful environment for drivers means drivers are proud to work for V&S, and they’re proud to do their jobs well.
According to Dains, V&S travels approximately 350,000 miles per week across its entire fleet, burning about 45,000 gallons of fuel. But without these fuel-reducing efforts, the company would be using around 60,000 gallons.
“We are literally saving three to four tanker trucks of fuel per week,” said Dains.
The company has also started using things like trailer tails and skirts, and the maintenance crews make sure to spec tractors and trailers properly for the type of freight they’re hauling. Van Handel said improving fuel economy takes encouragement from the operations team, administrative staff, fuel manager, maintenance crew and driver managers.
But the main factor, Van Handel and Dains said, will always be the driver.
Today, V&S still rewards drivers with fuel mileage bonuses, but the company passes its savings on to employees in the form of higher base pay. It provides all new drivers with proper training so they’re able to drive in a way that promotes better fuel economy.
“A lot of companies invest in technology … but at the end of the day, to really get into this status, it takes a culture and mindset,” said Van Handel. “There is no way we could have done this with only our equipment. I think a lot of trucking companies would fall over backwards for the type of drivers we have. Without our drivers, at the end of the day, there’s no way we’d be here with this award.”