Sometimes we all have short memories; it was two years ago, in 2018, that fuel pump prices skyrocketed to in excess of $4 per gallon, and fleet managers saw their fuel budgets eaten up before Thanksgiving. Whether prices are rising or falling, fleet managers must put strategies in place to manage fuel costs, now and always. Here are 9 of them that work:
It is often the first thing that crosses management’s mind when fuel costs begin to spike: “Why can’t we just use smaller cars?” It isn’t a panacea, but if done right, can be a useful weapon in fighting rising fuel prices. Look for models with both cargo and passenger carrying capacity that can handle the driver’s mission. Be very careful about dropping more than one class, however (i.e., from full-size to compact, or from 1-ton to ½-ton in a pickup truck). Once the decision is made, it’s difficult to turn back, and you’ll be stuck with vehicles that can’t properly perform the job, but will often end up costing more than those they’ve replaced. Try to grab a demo from the manufacturer, and have a driver use it for a few months. Get his or her feedback on how it performs, and if it performs well, add the selection for the balance of the current model year, or to the next one depending upon the timing. Track operating expenses carefully – not just fuel efficiency, but tire life, maintenance, and repair as well.
Rightsizing sounds like some kind of business seminar lingo, but what it refers to is the possibility of having many vehicles in your fleet. This includes redundant territories, surplus vehicles, or vehicles out of service but not sold. Not all use fuel, but some do, which adds to overall fuel expense.
Proper tire inflation is a critical component, not only in maximizing fuel efficiency, but tire life and safety as well. Under-inflated tires increase rolling resistance, and resistance forces the engine to use more fuel. Tire life can also be shortened. Under-inflated tires have difficulty “getting out of their own way” – that is, the tread can actually bunch up as the engine forces the wheel to turn faster than the tread can move out of the way. Keeping tires properly inflated can increase mileage by as much as 3 percent, equivalent to 9 cents per gallon (at $3 per gallon pump price). Equip drivers with an air pressure gauge, make it policy to check tire pressure every time a vehicle is used. (Though under-inflation robs gas mileage, over-inflation is not a solution, as it will increase tire wear besides the possibility of tire failure.)
Put in place a formal, serious preventive maintenance schedule, including regular oil changes, fluid checks, wheel alignments, cooling system flush/fill, and transmission fluid changes. Track driver compliance via reporting, and take swift action when drivers are negligent. Make certain that filters are replaced according to the manufacturer’s requirements. Air and fuel flow can be negatively impacted when filters become clogged, and don’t ignore the cooling system; anything that makes the engine work harder wastes gas and increases fuel expense.
As the saying goes, you can’t control an expense unless you know what it is. Today’s fuel merchants sell a great deal more than just fuel, and the fuel they sell provides a number of options. Unless it’s probable to control these purchases at the pump, the fleet fuel expense will inevitably rise. Fleet fuel card programs offer the Level III data needed to manage this expense after the fact, and sophisticated controls that will help manage it at the pump.
Cleaning snow and ice off your vehicles is one proven way to eliminate weight and save gas. But overall, weight is the enemy of fuel efficiency, so it’s a good idea to put the entire fleet on a diet. Excessive weight is a drag on fuel consumption; each 100 lbs. of additional weight can cut fuel efficiency by up to 2 percent. Conduct an audit of what drivers must carry in the normal course of the job, i.e., product, parts, POS material, etc. Is all of it absolutely necessary, or is some of it merely convenient, or carried simply because “we’ve always done it this way”? It should be policy that personal effects should not be loaded into or onto a vehicle. Be sure to engage field management, as well as drivers, in the effort. Get everyone in the habit of keeping any excess weight out of company vehicles.
There is nothing a fleet manager can do that is more effective in managing fuel expense than guiding driver behavior. Auto website Edmunds.com, in testing various gas-saving techniques, concluded driver behavior accounts for as much as 37 percent of fuel consumption.
Drivers often drive a regular route, or at least cover a territory. Planning trips carefully helps keep miles driven down. Make sure your sales drivers “pack” their trips – that is, don’t drive 100 miles each way to make a single sales call. Obviously, this isn’t always possible (when the “hot” lead comes in; time kills all deals, as they say), but for the most part veteran salespeople know how to make the most out of a trip.
Also, try to have drivers avoid high traffic areas and rush hours. Use alternative roads, and drive off-hours (midday, very early, or in the late evening). Traffic will force all sorts of bad driving behavior: excessive braking, idling, stop-and-go driving, all of which hurt fuel efficiency. It also contributes to aggressive or frustrated driving, a safety risk. Use routing software to find the most efficient routes for drivers who drive them. GPS devices can help drivers, particularly when they’re in an area with which they’re not familiar, or when they’re visiting someone for the first time. Reducing miles driven, and making sure that idling and stop-and-go driving are eliminated or minimized, are tried and true ways to manage fuel costs.
Fuel pump prices can vary widely within only a few miles. Buying fuel near an airport can cost as much as a dollar per gallon more than buying it from a local merchant. Most fleet fuel card programs include a merchant locator, which can help drivers know where the lower-priced fuel can be had.