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Trucking industry a path to fuel sustainability

Trucking industry a path to fuel sustainability

The trucking industry is the engine that runs the U.S. economy.

With more than 500,000 interstate trucking companies, the industry moves just about 70 percent of all freight load in the country. Even goods that have traveled by railroad end up on trucks for the last leg of the supply chain. Moreover, close to 80 percent of the United States communities rely on trucks alone for the delivery of goods.

According to studies, transportation is responsible for 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 23 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. And in order to keep the American economy running, the trucking industry, in turn, relies mostly on diesel and gasoline fuels.

In the United States, more than 28 percent of road transportation fuel is used for commercial freight, and growth in freight trucks is expected to rise from around 75 percent to more than 150 percent through 2050. Although clean energy technologies are slowly gaining more influence within the transport sector, at the current trajectory oil will remain the backbone of an increasingly diversified fuel mix for at least the next 20 to 40 years.

Without a doubt, going green offers a wide range of benefits for big corporations and small trucking companies alike. It does not only include keeping the air we breathe cleaner, but also sets business above competition and boosts profitability opening new markets and keeping businesses ahead of regulatory changes.

As governments enact policies to curb emissions and companies strive to meet their sustainability efforts, supply chain vendors often will prefer and even pay more for over-the-road (OTR) bidders who offer green certification and accountability measures like the U.S. EPA SmartWay. Carriers that reduce emissions may also qualify for government incentives.

Green strategies vary greatly depending on the operation. For one company, natural gas or adding hybrid electric vehicles to the fleet might make sense. For others, investing in driver education and installing vehicle upgrades will suffice. Coca-Cola, FedEx, Walmart, UPS – to name a few, have been actively investing in green technologies.

FedEx was one of the first companies to add hybrid electric vehicles to its fleet, setting a new standard for the industry. The company first started using hybrid electric vehicles in 2004, and by 2009, it increased the fleet by more than 50 percent. FedEx hybrid-electric fleet logged more than 4 million miles since being introduced, reducing fuel use by 150,000 gallons and carbon dioxide emissions by 1521 metric tons, which is equivalent to removing 279 cars from the road annually.

UPS minimized fossil fuel use by switching their vehicles to run on alternative fuels like propane, GNC, hydrogen, and electricity. By 2017, the company wants to reach a cumulative 1 billion miles of package and freight movement in its alternative fuel and technology truck fleet.

And Coca-Cola’s combined “green fleet”, which includes hybrid-electric, liquid natural gas, and compressed natural gas vehicles, reducing emissions equivalent to removing 10,000 cars from the road annually.

Companies like Coca-Cola or UPS can invest in “green” vehicles because they have the resources, which is often far from true for smaller family-owned businesses or independently working truckers. And although vehicles that run on compressed natural gas or liquefied petroleum are very clean options and cost about as much as the diesel alternative, hybrids, due to cost, are really a corporate fleet.

Smaller companies operating their own fleets and independent truck drivers still have a chance in reducing their carbon footprint, but they have to plot a progressive roadmap in order to achieve sustainable results.

To start, one needs to define long and short-term goals and opportunities for change. Obviously, it is impossible in many cases to avoid using fossil fuels, but much can be done to reduce dependence on this limited source. Forward-thinking carriers continue to look for and make incremental changes to their operations that in small and effective ways reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some have been investing in side-skirts, cab extenders, aero bumpers, mirrors, and roof caps that help increase heavy haulers’ miles per gallon. These additions to the truck are not cheap but they are a long-term investment that will help save money in the long run.

There is another way to increase fuel efficiency, which a lot of times does not require hefty monetary contributions, – proper driving practices. Drivers can have a dramatic impact on vehicle efficiency and overall fuel consumption. The skill with which a truck operator controls a vehicle, the frequency of idling, and average driving speed all contribute to the overall vehicle efficiency.

Research has shown that carriers can improve fleet fuel economy by training drivers to operate vehicles more efficiently. Drivers play the key role in obtaining the best fuel efficiency possible since they control factors such as idle time, break use, vehicle speed, and route selection. As reported by the American Trucking Association, there was a 35 percent difference between the most and the least efficient drivers. The most fuel-efficient drivers were found to:

  • maintain a high but not maximum average speed
  • operate a high percent of the trip distance in top gear
  • utilize cruise control when possible
  • minimize the amount of time spent idling and
  • minimize the number of sudden deceleration and acceleration
Even small changes in driver behavior can improve fuel efficiency significantly.


The travel rate at which drivers operate their vehicles is one of the key factors in improving fuel efficiency. Every vehicle reaches its optimal fuel economy at a different speed, with fuel economy typically rapidly decreasing at speeds above 50-55 miles per hour. Compared to 75 miles per hour, traveling at 55 saves 28 percent more fuel, 65 miles per hour saves 15 percent more. All that translates into carbon emission levels being significantly reduced.

As a side bonus speed reduction brings along safety benefits: increased driver’s reaction time for braking in response to changes in traffic, road conditions, or other driving issues. Also, individual carriers can lower the maximum speeds of their entire fleet through the use of speed limiters or speed governors – devices that interact with the engine to prevent the truck from exceeding pre-defined speed.


Drivers idle their trucks’ engines for a variety of reasons including powering in-cab accessories, providing heating and air conditioning, and ensuring that the engine fuel and oil remain warm in cold weather conditions. Past researches estimated that an idling truck consumes approximately 1 gallon of fuel per hour and increases both air and noise pollution. Modern computer-controlled truck engines can be set, so the engine shuts off automatically, for example after 3 minutes of idling.

For long-haul drivers who live in their trucks and depend on the engine for heating and cooling, technologies like onboard auxiliary power units and electrified parking spaces (EPS) at truck stops around the country enable drivers to enjoy in-cab creatures comforts without idling the engine. Other idle reduction devices available on the market include auxiliary power units, cab, and engine direct-fired heaters, and thermal energy storage units.

Gear Shifting

It’s rarely necessary to use every gear, especially on highways. The quicker the driver moves up a gear the more fuel he saves. Experts say that drivers can reduce fuel consumption by 10 – 30 percent by simply moving up a gear. Whenever a driver drops a gear, the fuel consumption of a truck will increase. Therefore, it’s important for the driver to remain vigilant and look ahead to reduce excessive gear changing.

Driver education

It seems quite obvious that investing in driver education can benefit carriers by increasing fuel efficiency and reducing costs. David Strayer and Frank Drews of the University of Utah studied the fuel efficiency of drivers before and after simulator training that focused on optimization of shifting practices and techniques. The research found that after just a two-hour training course, study participants were able to increase fuel economy by an average of 2.8 percent.

Financial incentives

Trucking companies may also offer fuel bonus programs to drivers as an incentive to increase fuel economy. Such programs typically pay drivers on a per-mile basis if they reach a certain fuel economy over the course of a month. Other ways in which companies can increase fuel efficiency include proper truck maintenance and vehicle upgrades. This includes using low viscosity engine lubricants that are less resistant to flow and reduce friction and energy loss; monitoring and ensuring proper tire pressure; installing aerodynamic panels on tractors that reduce drag and improve fuel efficiency, and single wide-base tires which have proven fuel economy benefits.

Trucks are here to stay and so is increasing interest in green logistics. Therefore, even small changes in the name of sustainability will have a positive effect; and companies, big or small, aiming to reduce their carbon footprint will likely be rewarded in the end.



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