By John Kemp
LONDON, March 25 U.S. distributors and freight
hauliers have held down diesel consumption even as their
business recovers from recession by making thousands of small
changes to their operations.
Improved driver training, restrictions on idling and careful
route planning to reduce deadheads (where vehicles travel empty)
are all reducing consumption of expensive diesel while helping
companies promote their green credentials.
"In 2011, we achieved almost 69 percent improvement in fleet
efficiency over our 2005 baseline," Wal-Mart boasted in
its 2012 Global Responsibility Report. "We delivered 65 million
more cases, while driving 28 million fewer miles, by increasing
our pallets per trailer and better managing our routes."
"Our network efficiency improvement equates to avoiding
nearly 41,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, the
equivalent to taking 7,900 cars off the road," the company
In 2013, FedEx will have improved the fuel
efficiency of its U.S vehicle fleet by 22 percent compared with
2005, Chairman Frederick Smith said at CERA Week. It has
surpassed its previous goal of a 20 percent improvement by 2020
seven years early. Smith has now committed the company to an
even more ambitious 30 percent target for the global vehicle
fleet by the end of the decade.
U.S. fuel consumption
Fuel conservation programmes are being replicated at
hundreds of firms across the transportation and logistics
"The price of oil and fuel volatility is definitely a
driver, but not as much as the push to reduce carbon emissions,"
according to a consultant from PricewaterhouseCoopers quoted in
a special report published by the University of Pennsylvania's
Wharton School ("Greening the supply chain: best practices and
future trends" 2012).
In practice, what started as a carbon-saving programme
during the 2004-2008 boom has become a cost saving initiative in
the lean years that have followed.
"Adding efficiency to any part of the supply chain produces
better returns. The good thing is that much of what we do to
improve fuel economy translates to the bottom line as improved
profitability. Every bit of energy you save is money in your
pocket," according to Wharton.
The overall impact of thousands of energy saving decisions
has been enormous. The United States consumed 3.7 million
barrels of distillate fuels a day on average in 2012, down
almost 11 percent from a peak of 4.2 million barrels a day in
The drop in diesel consumption has been much sharper than
for gasoline demand, which fell just 6 percent over the same
In contrast to private passenger vehicles, which mostly run
on gasoline in the United States, diesel is mostly used in
trucks and other commercial vehicles, and has borne the brunt of
Single-unit and combination tractor-trailer trucks consumed
42 billion gallons (159 billion litres) of fuel and travelled
267 billion miles (430 billion km) in 2011, sharply down from 48
billion gallons and 311 billion miles in 2008, according to the
Federal Highway Administration's annual statistics about road
Some of the simplest ways to save fuel involve changing
driver behaviour. Many firms in the Environmental Protection
Agency's "Smartway" fuel saving programme have banned engine
idling at loading and unloading facilities, as well as truck
stops along the road. Others have instructed drivers to reduce
speeds (driving at 55 miles per hour uses up to 7 percent less
fuel than at 65 miles per hour).
Another strategy is to replace the standard set up of two
standard tires and wheels with a single wide-base tire (cutting
fuel consumption around 3 percent). Ensuring tires are inflated
to the correct pressure helps reduce drag from contact with the
In some instances, truck stops without climate control have
been refitted with heating and airconditioning to stop drivers
idling their trucks to stay warm or cool, according to the EPA.
Driver retraining has been backed up by engine-monitoring
software which can detect fuel-wasting aggressive acceleration
and violations of idling bans. In Britain, utility contractor
Skanska has fitted Isotrak monitors to its vehicle fleet which
provide detailed reporting on individual driving styles.
"We are wholly committed to our green agenda and have found
that by implementing Isotrak's tracking and telematics system we
have been able to keep in line with our fleet company policy,
significantly reducing fuel consumption and carbon dioxide
within the business, while instilling safe and efficient driving
skills into our work force," Skanska told "Fleet News" (February
The major fuel savings have come from better route planning,
which aims to ensure as many trucks as possible travel fully
rather than part-loaded, and to reduce the amount of empty
backhaul journeys which burn fuel to no purpose.
Better logistics planning to make more efficient use of the
truck fleet can cut the number of part loads and empties.
Dow Chemical uses GPS to track truck locations and plan new
routes in real time.
The "four corners" strategy implemented by many companies
(with intermediate regional distribution centres in the
northeast, southeast, northwest and southwest of the United
States) can also cut fuel consumption. Long haul journeys are
done by rail (which is up to 3.5 times more efficient) leaving
trucks to handle the shorter intra-regional journeys.
"Railroad freight cars carry cargo over long-distance
high-volume corridors. Trucks or barges move the loads between
the rail terminals and the cargo's ultimate origin or
destination," in a multimodal strategy that continues to gain in
popularity according to EPA.
Firms have started to focus on making better use of the
space in each container or truck. Wal-Mart demanded reductions
in the amount of packaging and better palletisation to reduce
the amount of unused space in its containers.
International Paper estimates federal regulations
restricting maximum truck weight to 80,000 lb mean every truck
has a 10-foot void. If it could increase every load just 1.5
percent, some 5,000 fewer trucks would be needed, according to
the Wharton School.
The company has lobbied Congress for a rise in federal
weight limits to 97,000 lb, with an extra axle to distribute the
load, something opposed by safety campaigners (HR 763 Safe and
Efficient Transportation Act 2011).
Better planning is not just about cutting deadheads and
finding the shortest route. Cutting-edge firms are starting to
take road conditions into account, including the number of
junctions and other stoppages, but most importantly gradient.
None of these changes on its own results in a major
reduction. But combined, and applied by hundreds of
long-distance transportation companies, the savings have proved
NEW TRUCK TECHNOLOGY
Most of the fuel reduction achieved so far has come from
changes in behaviour and route optimisation rather than
switching trucks to natural gas or hybrid technology.
But Wal-Mart is experimenting there, too. Forty percent of
Wal-Mart's trucks run on biodiesel to save money.
In California, the company has been testing five Westport
trucks that run on liquefied natural gas (LNG) for the last
three years. It is also working with Freightliner to develop and
test hybrid trucks that use diesel drive trains and electric
motors to recover some of the energy lost during braking.
Frito-Lay, a division of Pepsi Co, last year announced plans
to convert its entire tractor-trailer fleet to natural gas, and
reckons the payback period could be as little as 18 months.
Many smaller truck operators remain unconvinced about the
economics of switching to gas, worried about the high upfront
costs of buying natural gas tractors or retrofitting existing
ones, as well as the lack of refuelling stations open to the
But the economics look more attractive for big fleet
operators - which could take another chunk out of diesel
consumption in future if gas prices remain low compared with