How Truck Overhauls Are Saving Staples, UPS Carbon and Cash

Large companies are turning to electric and hybrid trucks in a bid for big shipping efficiencies.
Mary Catherine O'ConnorAugust 29, 2012

Without trucks, the supply chain would screech to a halt. Yet, the rising cost of fueling these workhorses, not to mention the toll truck emissions take on the environment and public health, are forcing shippers and carriers alike to retool their fleets.

How high are the costs? Many trucking and logistics firms believe that without drastic changes in their energy demands, the costs of fuel and inefficiency could drive them out of business. In the United States, the largest of the long-haul trucks make up 41% of the heavy- and medium-truck fleet, but they account for 78% of the fuel consumed by those fleets, according to the Department of Energy. That’s because these trucks have an average fuel economy of 7.9 to 9.5 miles per gallon – even less when pulling a heavy load.

Due in part to their frequent stops and high amount of idle time, the medium-duty delivery trucks found mostly in urban corridors also gulp gas ­– as much as 8 billion gallons per year, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

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Companies such as Coca-Cola, Staples, Frito-Lay, UPS, and FedEx have garnered significant attention for running pilot programs that put new electric and hybrid-electric trucks through their paces. Coca-Cola’s fleet of 750 hybrid-electric trucks reduces emissions by approximately 30% and use roughly 30% less fuel than standard delivery trucks. This is not insignificant, but these trucks only make up roughly 7% of the beverage giant’s total fleet.

That means in many ways the work is just beginning, even though Coca-Cola and many other firms have been working to make their truck fleets more sustainable for many years.

Where does the process start? What are the factors fleet managers must consider as they retool their truck fleets? “We look at various factors, but primarily whether we can get the objectives we desire, like fuel or CO2 reductions, for example, and if we can quantify the return on investment in years or less,” says Steven Saltzgiver, Coca-Cola Refreshments’ director of fleet operations.

Coca-Cola began partnering with Eaton in 2001 to test and develop beverage delivery trucks using Eaton’s hybrid electric power system. “We tested for several years until we saw the desired results and then we deployed full scale in 2007,” says Saltzgiver.

Aside from making sound business sense, alternative-fuel trucks must be matched to the ways in which they will be used. For example, a fully electric truck would not make sense for interstate routes, since electric motors are more efficient in stop-and-go, urban traffic. The weights of loads are another important consideration; Saltzgiver notes that Coca-Cola is using fully electric trucks in its service fleet rather than as delivery trucks, since the high weight of beverages would quickly deplete the battery’s charge.

Potato chips, however, are a different matter altogether. Earlier this month, Frito-Lay announced its plans to add 45 electric delivery trucks to its California fleet by the end of the year. This will boost the company’s all-electric fleet to 275, nationwide. Frito-Lay says these trucks have already been driven more than one million miles.

FedEx and UPS have also deployed electric and hybrid-electric fleets, and are looking into a range of other alternative-fuel trucks. FedEx recently announced that it has made its Fedex Express vehicle fleet 16.6% more energy efficient since 2005.

The Long Haul
But manufacturers will need to make major advances in battery design, size and capacity in order for electric motors to usurp the diesel engines that power the large, tractor-trailer trucks that inhabit truck stops and fill the interstates in large convoys, says Jason Mathers, project manager for the Corporate Partnership Program of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Instead, fleet managers of these Clydesdales of the trucking world are relying more on efficiency improvements. “There is a whole suite of technologies” to boost efficiency, he said, such as amendments like side skirts or other fairings that make the rigs more aerodynamic, or tires with low rolling resistance.

For trucks driven on multi-day journeys, the energy consumption doesn’t end when the workday does. Traditionally, drivers have relied on an idling engine to power heating and cooling systems that keep the truck’s cab comfortable for sleeping, and to power things like televisions and computers. But small, secondary engines called auxiliary power units allow drivers to remain comfortable while consuming a fraction of the fuel the truck’s main engine burns.

Driving Change
Both Saltzgiver and Mathers note that driver training is another key to improving efficiency for legacy trucks.

“Coca-Cola partnered with several firms to create the industry’s first commercial driver eco-driver training program that we call Smartdriver,” says Saltzgiver. More than 10,000 drivers have enrolled in the program, which provides instruction on things such as “anticipatory driving and how to leverage the momentum of their asset to gain advantages in fuel economies.”

The company also partnered with a telematics software provider that gave insights into how Coca-Cola trucks were being driven. This added a new level of visibility into driver behavior, and the results were good: Better practices led to a nearly 5% fuel reduction.

Bottled-water company Poland Springs used telematics software to learn that its drivers were idling trucks for up to 1,400 hours each month. “The fleet manager posted this list in the break room and said, ‘OK, this is how people are performing,’ and that alone led to idle time to drop 380 hours in two years,” says Mathers.

Who Should Take the Wheel?
Trucking means different things to different stakeholders. For carriers, trucks represent a business model. For shippers, trucks are a necessary evil. For both parties, however, improving fleet performance and reducing emissions lowers ongoing costs and puts them in the vanguard of smart transportation partners.

Fleet managers looking for help getting started can lean on the government. The Environmental Protection Agency partnered with the freight transportation industry to create SmartWay, a program aimed at helping freight shippers, carriers, and logistics companies improve fuel-efficiency and save money. The Department of Energy’s National Clean Fleets Partnership is another resource for information sharing and collaborative pilot testing.

Pooling resources and getting creative can also help. Mathers gives a great example of this. “Dal-Tile Corporation makes a very heavy product ­– ceramic tiles – and truck shipments are limited by weight. You add so many tiles and then you still have a lot of volume available on the truck,” he says. “So Dal-tile was able to work with other companies that have volume-heavy but weight-light products that could be shipped in the same trucks as the tile. This cut transportation costs by 15% per load.”

This article first appeared at and is republished here with permission.