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Driving smart can save big bucks on fuel expenses

By Paul Abelson
senior technical editor


Timing is everything,” according to an old saying. Even though the industry has enjoyed a dramatic drop in diesel fuel prices, we all know it won’t last.

Maximizing fuel economy and keeping more money in your pocket is important, no matter what fuel prices are. But the time is perfect to brush up on some driving habits to save money on fuel.

How large can those savings be? A presentation at a Technology & Maintenance Council meeting indicated that at one very large fleet the drivers’ fuel economy ranged from

4.7 mpg to 7.3 mpg, with most drivers clustered around the midpoint of 6 mpg. Even when the least fuel-efficient drivers were reassigned to the most fuel-efficient trucks and vice-versa, the gap between the same best and worst remained close to 35 percent. The conclusion drawn was that when all things are equal, the driver is the greatest contributor to fuel economy.

The first thing you need to do is to be sure you drive with a fuel-saving attitude. A lot of drivers pay lip service to improving fuel mileage, but when they get behind the wheel, too many opt to get there faster rather than trading time for economy.

An old business adage states, “You can’t control it if you don’t measure it.”

Fuel mileage can be improved before you ever hit the road with a visit to a reputable shop. A quick peek into your engine’s configuration through the ECM will show you a wealth of information that can help you modify your driving technique or possibly determine whether programming tweaks are needed.

A download from your ECM will tell you a wide variety of stats, including engine rpm; time in gear; idle time and percent fuel use; fuel used idling; load factors; PTO time; PTO fuel used; speed vs. rpm; and engine load vs. rpm.

Fleets use this information to train drivers to be more fuel efficient and you can, too. Tracking your data and comparing results while altering your driving habits can be valuable in identifying what is and is not working.

On a daily basis, as you drive, scan the graphic fuel economy display for the fuel economy you are achieving. Compare it to your target. At the end of each day, record your average fuel mileage. Keep a running record. Don’t expect to see improvement every day, but use the figures from the information display to evaluate your performance daily, weekly and monthly.

For example, Jim Booth, an OOIDA member and owner of a 15-truck fleet based in Wataga, IL, has spent a lifetime fine-tuning his driving habits to achieve optimum fuel efficiency.

Perhaps one of the best ways to save fuel is to try a trick that Booth uses daily: Drive as if there were a raw egg between your foot and the pedal.

Booth, perhaps one of the most fuel-efficient drivers in the country, accelerates gently – saving fuel – and then drives at the lowest possible rpm in each gear.

The egg principle also applies to braking. Obviously, if you need them in an emergency, stand on the brakes. But the vast majority of braking is in situations that can be anticipated – approaching exit ramps, stop signs and traffic lights. Whenever possible, try to time traffic lights so you can travel at a steady speed. There’s a big mpg difference between a steady 20 mph and accelerating to 30, braking to 10, and accelerating again.

Booth told us he regularly coasts to exits, often staying off the throttle for a mile or more. He pays attention to traffic behind him so he doesn’t become an obstacle.

Another critical element to optimizing fuel efficiency is to plan your routes to optimize drive time. (See story on Page 74)

As you develop your fuel-saving attitude, you’ll find yourself becoming aware of many added opportunities to control fuel use. For example, you might find a route that has fewer hills to climb and descend. Although it may take a bit longer, climbing requires added energy that comes only from burning fuel. Controlling downhill speed requires braking or retarding, wasting energy.

Booth also advises his drivers to use cruise control as much as possible. It keeps you at a steady pace, avoiding unnecessary acceleration.

Progressive shifting is another way to reduce fuel consumption. Many savvy owner-operators already do it. Instead of running up to redline in every gear, progressive shifting lets you take advantage of torque multiplication through the gears.

The lower the gear, the greater torque is multiplied. You don’t need to run the engine up as much. Remember, just turning the engine over, moving the pistons up and down, and spinning the crankshaft take energy. The fewer revolutions the engine turns, the less fuel it burns.

The most successful, profitable operators aren’t the fastest. They’re the most consistent, so drive as steadily as possible.   

Overall, you won’t lose much time. Booth used to tell about the drivers he’d see passing him on the highway. They’d speed to where they were going, but often be more tired. Whether it was to stop for fuel, for personal needs or to rest, he didn’t know. But cruising at or under the speed limit, he’d see the same trucks pass him as much as three or four times a day.

Driving for fuel economy takes diligence and discipline. Work on your skills now and track your progress. When fuel hits $4 and $5 a gallon again, you will be glad you did. LL


Paul Abelson can be reached at