Bottom Line
Modern Trucking Techniques
A game plan for improving fuel mileage

By Paul Abelson
senior technical editor


It’s been said time and time again that you can learn many life lessons from playing sports. Usually, this statement is tossed around when it comes to being part of a team.

It might be hard for some to look at saving fuel as a “game,” but using the proven tactics of legendary coaches can certainly give you a competitive advantage.

The team with the best game plan, right equipment, best conditioning and the proper technique enjoys season after season of success.

The game plan

Tom Landry, the legendary football coach, never walked into a locker room, a practice or a game without a detailed plan in his pocket. He knew exactly who was going to do what, when and – in most cases – how the game was going to turn out.

Hopping in your truck and heading down the road without giving a thought to fuel mileage guarantees you won’t see the fuel mileage numbers at the end of the trip that you’d like to see.

Fuel management involves speed control, and that actually starts with route planning. Calculate your route, your fuel stops and your rest breaks. Then plan your speeds for maximum fuel economy, leaving time to make appointments. Don’t rush from truck stop to truck stop, only to be exhausted when you get there.

Many truck stop directories and Web pages list current fuel prices. Use them to determine where and when to fuel. Maximize driving time by fueling before you pick up or after you deliver. Then there will be less need to go as fast. Join a fuel purchasing group to get discounts. If you are an OOIDA member, Truckers Advantage is a complete fuel management system designed for owner/operators.

The right equipment

The right equipment is critical to top performance in any game. Often you can buy exactly what you need, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any pro athletes who don’t modify at least some of their off-the-shelf equipment. Laces are taped into place on shoes in football. Bats are slathered with pine tar. Tennis racket handles are taped. The point being, even though there is a standard for most sporting equipment, top athletes tweak their equipment to fit their game.

When buying equipment, make sure it’s suitable for your operation. Dealers have computer programs that evaluate specs. The perfect truck for cruising at 68 to 70 mph may not let you use top gear at 60 to 62 mph. Each engine has a “sweet spot,” the rpm for maximum fuel efficiency. Make sure your transmission, axle ratio and tire size let you run at the sweet spot.

Aerodynamic trucks are significantly better than older, more classic designs. Improvements in truck shape alone provide from one-half to a full mile per gallon more.

As speed increases, aerodynamic resistance increases with the square of the speed. Take the example of driving at 70 mph instead of 60 mph without proper aerodynamics. Your speed is about 17 percent faster, but wind resistance can be as much as 36 percent greater, which could require 12 percent more fuel to go a given distance.

Your truck’s shape is fixed, but any truck can be accessorized to improve aerodynamics. Add-on devices manage airflow to improve fuel economy and vehicle stability. Nose cones for trailers, cab fairings and extenders and vortex management devices on tractors and trailers have demonstrated their effectiveness. Of course, if you’re pulling machinery or coils on a platform trailer, you won’t see those types of gains.

Tires are a major source of rolling resistance. All tires flex to keep tread flat on the road, but underinflated tires flex excessively and generate heat through internal friction. How much they flex, absorbing energy, depends on design and air pressure. Rib tires need less energy to flex than lug-types. Sidewall design varies as well. So, again, it’s important to ask dealers about their best designs for your application. A bargain tire is no bargain if it consumes more in fuel than it saves in purchase price.


Any player who isn’t in tip-top physical condition will find the game slipping away in the waning minutes. Unfortunately a truck that isn’t properly maintained may lose fuel economy from the moment the key is turned.

A well-maintained truck burns less fuel than one in poor condition. Out-of-alignment tires can be dragged sideways as much as a hundred feet or more for each mile traveled. That sideways scrub wears tires prematurely. A poor alignment can cut fuel mileage up to 5 percent.

Engine fans can consume 30 to 55 horsepower. Fan clutches keep fans running only when needed. Check your thermostat regularly. Make sure your radiator and coolers are free of debris so air flows through them freely. Check injectors regularly.

With electronic engines, it’s easy to run a diagnosis of the engine control unit and its sensors – just plug in a scan tool. Be sure all sensors are operating properly at every preventive maintenance interval. Sensor readings tell the ECU how much fuel the truck needs for every injection pulse. Faulty sensors waste fuel.

The proper technique

Sure, it’s fun to pick up a basketball and toss it at the basket a time or two to see if you can make it. But if you’re going one-on-one against Michael Jordan (retired or not), you’d better at least know how to dribble the ball.

Similarly, proper driving techniques can make all the difference in your fuel mileage. The good news is that, out of all the ways you can save fuel, this is the cheapest. It’s just modifying your behavior as a driver.

At a recent Technology & Maintenance Council meeting, member fleets with a large base of drivers reported fuel mileage differences of as much as 35 percent between their most and least fuel-efficient drivers.

These were slip-seat operations, so equipment differences were factored out. The range was as low as 4.7 mpg to as high as 7.3.

Even though prices seem to increase on a daily basis, let’s figure our example at $4 per gallon. The difference per 100,000 miles is about $30,000. Those, of course, are the extremes, but they illustrate the importance of technique. If you improve your fuel mileage performance 25 percent, you save $7,500 in this scenario.

OOIDA member Jim Booth owns a small fleet, Fifthwheels Plus. Before he retired, he was also development driver for Caterpillar. Here are his 10 rules for fuel economy.

  • Do pre-trip checks on oil, water, belts, etc. If you’re not running properly, extra fuel is burned. Misaligned belts, dragging brakes or out-of-line tires waste energy.
  • Limit warm-up time. All you need to do is get oil circulating completely before leaving. Two minutes in summer and fewer than five in winter should do.
  • Start easy. The lighter your touch on the throttle, the less fuel you’ll use. Fast starts waste fuel.
  • Use progress shifting. Let lower gears multiply available torque. The less time spent in lower gears, the less fuel you’ll use.
  • Use terrain. Let gravity pull you downhill, and coast over hilltops.
  • Watch your speed. Depending on how your truck is spec’d, each mile per hour faster than 60 mph you drive could cost you as much as 0.05 or more mpg. So, if you’re getting 6 mpg at 70, you could get 6.5 at 60.
  • Stay in gear when climbing. Plan for downgrades. Uphill, stay in the highest gear without lugging and coast in gear over the top.
  • Anticipate slowdowns and stops. Braking converts momentum into waste heat. Coast down. Stay off your brakes to save fuel.
  • Use the highest gear at all times. Stay near the engine’s most economical speed.
  • Eliminate unnecessary idling. Idling burns fuel and wears engines. Getting 6.5 mpg averaging 55 mph, mpg will drop below 6.0 with eight hours of idling.

Smoothness is a major factor. Observe what’s ahead and anticipate changes. Use cruise control. Anticipate exits, weigh stations and traffic. The longer you can take to coast down to your anticipated stop, the less fuel you’ll burn getting there and the less you’ll waste using your brakes.

You might also consider getting Pre Pass, E-Z Pass, Pike Pass, I-Pass or other automatic toll-taking devices. Stopping for a tollbooth and accelerating back to 60 mph takes about one-third of a gallon more than maintaining 60.

The payoff

There won’t be any big trophy waiting for you when you finish a trip with your personal best fuel mileage. But that won’t matter much when you feel your wallet fatten up over time because you’ve fine-tuned your operation and are winning at the fuel mileage game. LL


Paul Abelson can be reached at