Zero Miles to the Gallon: Fleets Tackle Idling
Photo by Vince Taroc.
Stuart Aust’s fleet grew in leaps and bounds. The president and CEO of Bug Doctor founded the Paramus, N.J.-based pest- and animal-control company as a mom-and-pop operation in 1992, and he has been adding employees, vehicles, divisions and marketing territories ever since.
Today, Aust’s fleet of 30-plus pickup trucks, Ford Transit Connects and passenger cars can be found at New York landmarks such as the United Nations, Rockefeller Center and Madison Square Garden. But they won’t be found idling, at least not for more than a few minutes.
“That’s part of the protocol. You can’t run your vehicle and just sit there,” Aust says. “We’ll give them a grace period of three to five minutes after an account to fill out their paperwork.”
Setting a Policy
The policy took shape several years ago, when gas prices rose above $4 per gallon and Bug Doctor’s drivers’ bad habits began to cost the company serious money. Aust and Tim Periard, vice president of operations, invested in a telematics solution from Telogis Fleet Management, and they were shocked at the wasted fuel that showed up on their initial reports.
The abuses were rampant. Some drivers habitually idled for up to 45 minutes at a time, typically while stationed in a client’s parking lot or driveway. Once out on the road, Aust randomly noticed a Bug Doctor truck idling outside a store. The driver, who is no longer with the company, had gone inside and left the truck running with the doors unlocked. Aust was livid.
“There’s no room for vehicles idling, and when it is idling, you’d better be in the vehicle,” Aust told his staff. “If it’s idling on its own, we’ve got a problem.”
The liability issues alone were enough to convince Aust and his management team that the time had come for a comprehensive driver-education campaign. In addition to programming idling alerts into the Telogis units, Aust and Periard established rules for locking every door, drawer and vehicle cap and safety cone setup. And whenever possible, drivers are directed to complete paperwork at the client’s home or office — not in the truck.
“We tell them to maximize their face time with the client,” Aust says.
Cleaner and Greener
CleanTex COO Jacob Zahler sees anti-idling education as a key element to the company’s ongoing campaign to go green. He says the owners and employees of the Linden, N.J.-based linen rental firm pride themselves on being environmentally conscious, and Zahler tracks every resource used in the course of a day’s work, including water, power and fuel.
“We try to minimize as much outlay as possible,” he says. “Our utilities, obviously, are on a very, very high scale.”
About a year and half ago, Zahler was scouring the Internet to find ways to cut costs and reduce CleanTex’s carbon footprint when he came across Sustainable America, a Stamford, Conn., nonprofit dedicated to helping fleets reduce their fuel spend.
Zahler contacted the organization’s executive director, Jeremy Kranowitz, and the pair discussed issues ranging from hybrid vehicles and alternative fuels to idling. The latter appeared to be a dead end — after all, a typical linen delivery can take up to 30 minutes to complete, and CleanTex’s medium-duty trucks had to remain on in order to power the liftgates.
Kranowitz pointed Zahler to eNow, a company that provides solar-power solutions to the transportation industry. Jeff Flath, the company’s president and CEO, says eNow’s photovoltaic panels are used to charge batteries that can power liftgates, safety lights and HVAC and refrigeration systems. The systems have been tested by a number of fleets, auxiliary equipment manufacturers and Ohio State University’s Center for Automotive Research.
“We were very pleased with the results,” Flath says. “We believe that savings in fuel at these levels is a real game-changer and substantially impacts fleet economics.”
The technology was developed with all manner of fleets in mind, Flath adds, from light-duty trucks and vans to heavy-duty haulers. Flath says the solar panels, which can be installed on the roof of a vehicle or trailer, charge a battery pack that can be used to power equipment during the day or overnight.
“People don’t normally think about it, but you’re spending about $20 per day trying to charge those batteries from the truck engine,” he adds. “That’s $5,000 a year just to charge the batteries.”
Zahler is now in the process of installing the solar panels and battery packs fleet-wide at a cost of about $900 per unit. He expects to recoup his investment within 18 months. But he stresses that the technology is only one aspect of a larger campaign. Driver education remains at the fore, he says, and no excessive idling will be tolerated.
Similar to Bug Doctor, paperwork is part of every CleanTex delivery. Zahler is investigating mobile solutions that will digitize the company’s manifests and reduce the on-site documentation process to an electronic signature.
Meanwhile, Zahler and the CleanTex management team have instituted a simple policy: Turn off the engine when parked. “We try and educate the driver to get into that habit, even on their own vehicles,” he says.
At Go Riteway — a national airport, executive and school bus transportation company based in Richfield, Wis. — David Butcher, safety director, continues to adapt and reinforce a fuel-savings campaign the company launched in 2008.
The policy depends largely on employee awareness, encouraging drivers to eliminate all unnecessary idling and to save fuel in other ways, such as starting and stopping smoothly (“Drive like there’s an egg on the roof of your vehicle, and you don’t want it to roll off,” the policy states), observing speed limits and using cruise control whenever possible.
“We followed that up with a fuel-conservation policy, several different incentive programs for our various divisions, and used technology to track and monitor progress in our motor coach division,” Butcher says, noting that drivers can earn an extra 25 cents per hour simply by complying with the fuel-conservation policy. “That policy included anti-idling, no speeding, no rapid acceleration and no ‘out-of-route’ miles. It was pretty straightforward and easy to monitor, and it produced some excellent results.”
Where Policy Meets Technology
Ryan Driscoll, marketing director for GPS Insight, has identified idling as a key selling point for his company’s telematics systems, noting that many fleet managers make back the money they spend on the technology in reduced fuel costs alone.
“Most of the time, drivers do not maliciously keep the vehicles running to waste company money,” Driscoll says, noting that drivers build up bad habits over time. “Some believe that starting the vehicle up wastes more gas than keeping it running.”
Some systems, Driscoll notes, can be programmed to send alerts directly to idling drivers. Mike Mrosko, telematics product leader at GE Capital Fleet Services, says those features allow fleet managers to act on “idling events” as they happen and directly reinforce company policy.
“Whether you have a telematics application or not, driver communication and company policy are the starting points,” Mrosko says, adding that telematics systems can help companies reduce their fuel consumption or carbon footprint by adding a layer of accountability. “You have a significant tool to measure real performance.”
But Mrosko also stresses the need to set policy based on the realities of a given fleet and the comfort and safety of its drivers, noting that fleet managers can realize savings without necessarily having to implement “zero-tolerance” policies.
GE Capital Fleet Services has clients in Minnesota, for example, that allow drivers to idle for up to three minutes to keep warm in the winter, as well as those with refrigerated trucks that need the engines to cool the trailers. “You have to pick the policy that makes the most sense,” he says.
Jeb Lopez, owner of Wheelz Up, a Washington, D.C.-based auto parts delivery service, concurs. He tracks idling “religiously” with the aid of onboard systems from FleetSharp GPS Fleet Tracking.
“It is difficult to gauge during the winter months, so we give a little bit of understanding, such as to defrost the windshield or remove snow,” Lopez says. “But there is still no excuse for warming up the vehicle, since modern vehicles don’t require warm-up time. Sometimes, it is simply the drivers idling somewhere to keep warm inside.”
In addition to producing detailed reports, the FleetSharp system sends a text alert to the entire management team when a Wheelz Up driver exceeds the company’s six-minute idling cap, and the driver is contacted immediately. The call should come as no surprise, Lopez says, since the company’s policies are outlined during training and consistently reinforced.
Bug Doctor’s Aust says the implications of his anti-idling policy extend beyond fuel savings. Bad habits reflect poorly on the company, he says, and there is too much at stake to allow them to persist.
“We’re serious about what we do,” Aust says. “There’s a lot that goes into it. You want to look the part. Clean trucks, no dents, and you can’t have a vehicle just sitting there idling.”