While Diesel prices have fallen well below the historic highs of 2008, fuel conservation remains a critical concern for refrigerated fleets and must be considered when looking for ways to trim operating costs, Richard Moskowitz, vice-president and regulatory affairs counsel for the American Trucking Associations (ATA), said in an address to a recent trucking industry meeting.

Currently, the US is the world's largest crude oil consumer, but that is changing, he said. Demand for crude oil is surging in China and India as their economies develop. Demand also is growing in other countries, and all of that is helping to drive oil prices.

Supply limitations also affect price. Moskowitz cited what he calls a “Wall of Worry” on the supply side. Factors include a security risk premium because so much of the world's crude oil supply comes from regions that are politically unstable. Hurricanes and other weather events add to the price of oil.

Federal action

Despite the challenges, things can be done to rein in diesel prices. Among them, the federal government could grant more access to areas currently off limits to drilling.

“The current policy of the US government, particularly Congress, is don't drill; pay more,” said Moskowitz. “We have more oil resources than Saudi Arabia, but they are off limits.

“The Alaska National Wildlife Refuge contains 10 billion barrels of oil. Another 18 billion barrels of oil are offshore in the outer continental shelf. The oil shale in the Green River Basin may hold up to 800 billion barrels of oil.”

He called for federal action to make the oil trading process more orderly, greater transparency in the market, and elimination of excessive speculation by investors.

Further, Moskowitz said the federal government can help the trucking industry conserve fuel and minimize the impact of higher oil prices by passing legislation to mandate speed reduction, incentivize idling reduction, eliminate traffic congestion, develop more aggressive fuel economy standards, expand the EPA's SmartWay program, and promote the development of more productive trucks.

Fleet measures

There are plenty of opportunities for fleets to conserve fuel, plus reduce operating costs, he noted. Fleets need to take a closer look at alternative fuel options, particularly biodiesel; develop a top-down company-wide passion for reducing fuel consumption; and get drivers committed to fuel conservation effort as they “probably play the biggest role.”

Most of the fuel economy factors are under the control of the driver, Moskowitz said. “Drivers can account for a 35% differential in fuel economy.

“Everyone has heard how much it costs to lose a driver; but how much does it cost to retain drivers with poor fuel-economy habits?”

Drivers must be taught from the moment they join the company to conduct thorough pre-trip inspections, Moskowitz said. In addition to looking for safety-related problems, drivers can spot maintenance issues such as worn suspensions, irregular tire wear, and air intake restrictions — all of which impact fuel economy.

Tire inflation is another key factor, and drivers and mechanics always should use a calibrated pressure gauge to check air pressure. Improper inflation pressure can reduce fuel economy by 2% to 3%.

“Inflation pressure has the most drastic effect on tire wear of all the factors involved.”

Speed is another factor impacting fuel economy. Every one mile per hour speed increase brings a penalty of about a tenth mile per gallon, he said.

Cruise control can help drivers maintain a constant speed and improve fuel economy by up to 6%, observed Moskowitz.

The ATA has recommended speed limiters for heavy-duty trucks. If fleets set their trucks to run 65 miles per hour, Moskowitz said the industry could save 2.8 billion gallons of diesel and reduce CO2 emissions by 31.5 million tons over 10 years, and “that would be a significant savings.”