Did Descartes Miss the Point in Its List of Four Things You Can Do Today To Reduce Fuel Costs?

Given that Gas Prices are Too Damn High and that this situation is not about to change anytime in the near, and even not-so-near, future, a recent white paper by Descartes on Reducing Fuel Costs: Four Things You Need to Know and Can Act on Today caught my attention. However, while their suggestions are good, I think they kind of missed the point. Going straight to the section on What You Can Do Today, Descartes suggests that you should:

  • Decrease the Total Miles/Kilometers Driven by the Fleet
    Since the vast majority of fleets still drive inefficient routes to serve their customers, this is a good suggestion on the surface, but it’s easy to take this too far. For example, while the shortest route from Birmingham, Alabama to Indianapolis, Indiana might be straight through Nashville, Tennessee, driving through there at rush hour is not the best move as the trip could take an extra 3 hours and every hour the engine is running, gas is being consumed. This requires some smarts. Sometimes longer trips are more efficient.
  • Minimize Idling
    This is a great suggestion. Not only does this burn fuel, but it harms the environment. However, when a conscientious driver is idling, it’s not when he’s making a delivery, but when he’s waiting to make a left hand turn. The right routes don’t have left turns. That’s why UPS does it’s best to eliminate them. However, this can slightly lengthen a route, which is in conflict with the last suggestion.
  • Change Driver Behaviour
    If driver behaviour is a major cause for fuel inefficiency, then this is obviously a good thing, especially if the driver is excessively speeding (well beyond the fuel efficiency zone), (too) rapidly accelerating, and hard-braking on a regular basis. But the driver’s behaviour might not be entirely his fault — it could be a fault of your training program, which might be mentor-driven by your senior drivers who have had bad habits all of their driving career and pass them on. The first step should be to check your training programs and requirements and make sure your drivers get the right behaviour day one.
  • Implement regular maintenance monitoring plans.
    Vehicles with properly inflated tires, well maintained engines, and good braking systems do maintain less fuel, but don’t go overboard with preventative maintenance. An overly aggressive maintenance plan will replace parts needlessly and eat up the savings you get in decreased fuel utilization pretty quickly. Monitor aggressively, but maintain sparingly.

In other words, it’s suggestions for what you can do today were good, but not great. However, the section on how technology can help was much better. In this section, it made four recommendations, and three of them were on the money.

  • Route Planning and Optimization
    This optimizes the routes to balance minimum driving distance and minimum run time (by adding in right turns to reduce idling and slight detours to bypass commonly congested areas) across the fleet and, as the paper notes, can result in a reduction of total route length by 5% to 30% when done properly.
  • Mobile & Tracking Solutions
    This allows you to track your trucks and know the exact location of your drivers, the routes they have taken and, most importantly, how the fleet is performing against the plan.
  • Telematics
    A constant measurement of engine data and driver performance can allow engine problems to be identified immediately and bad drivers to be singled out for training to improve their performance.

The last recommendation, not so much. Basically, the paper recommended a cloud-based solution for all the standard reasons, but clearly forgot that the cloud is not a fluffy magic box and not all of the promised advantages will materialize.

If you track, measure, and optimize, you will minimize fuel requirements while improving performance, but no one tip is going to save you and over-simplifying the problem can cause as many problems as it solves. The only way to truly save fuel is to reduce delivery requirements. Do you need as much? Do you need it as often? Can you get the product from a geographically more proximate supplier at a comparable cost? These are the real questions you need to ask!