Fuel management has always been top of mind for fleets. But with inflation spiking to 6.2% last year and currently sitting at 5.4% for the first half of this year, exorbitant fuel costs are making fuel management priority number one for many fleets — especially because there’s likely no dialing back the cost of fuel.
As Rick Longobart, fleet operations manager for the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, and co-founder of Longobart-Ross Consulting says, “There's not a lot we can do to change the cost per gallon of fuel, but there are ways we can offset those costs.”
Long-held fuel management best practices include properly maintaining vehicles, using fuel cards, improving driving behavior, and route optimization, to name a few. How do you take fuel management to the next level? Experts share these six modern-day, inflation-fighting strategies.
Strategy #1: Autonomous Idling Control
Reducing fuel consumption by minimizing idling isn’t a new fuel management strategy, but technology is making it easier to implement. Autonomous idling control takes the onus off of drivers to turn a vehicle off and on by doing it for them automatically.
When John King, fleet director for Collier County, Florida, discovered the City of Columbus, Ohio, was spending significant dollars on idling police vehicles during his time as Assistant Fleet Administrator, he started to investigate the root cause and potential solutions.
King asked officers why they left their vehicles idling; he learned they needed to be able to charge electronics and maintain a comfortable temperature in the vehicle. With these requirements in mind, King explored options that could reduce idling and fuel use and meet those criteria. At that year’s NTEA show, he discovered the solution: a vehicle control system that autonomously manages fleet idling, energy consumption, and climate-control.
“The GRIP idling management system automatically shuts the engine off when a vehicle is idling, then restarts the car based on the battery’s voltage level and the temperature inside the car,” King explained. “If you’re sitting in the car running your computer, the system monitors the car’s voltage and restarts the car when it dips below the threshold. The same goes for climate controls. If you have the air conditioning set at 70 degrees, as long as the car stays at that temperature and the voltage is there, the vehicle stays off instead of idling. Once either the voltage gets lower than the parameter or the temperature gets higher, the car starts back up on its own. When it reaches those safeguards again, it will shut off.”
Autonomous idling technology reduced idle time for city of Columbus police vehicles by 35%.
Roberta Wright, fleet coordinator for the city of Lynchburg, Virginia, leverages a similar technology.
“We install shutdown timers on our larger vehicles, which shuts down the engine after 15-minutes of idling,” she said. “We’re also trying to outfit as many vehicles as possible with telematics. This has already proven reliable for excessive idling and under-utilization.”
Strategy #2: Training on Idling Myths
At the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, telematics data revealed some vehicles idled as much as 50 to 60%. Although the City has an idle reduction policy in place, Fleet Operations Manager Rick Longobart knew it would require more than a policy to be effective.
“While policy is the teeth of behavioral change, it's only as good as the people who read the policy. It's not going to change their behavior,” he said. “We need to have training and education to change the mindsets that we've been instilled with for the last 100 years — idling myths that have been going on since the 19th century. We need to educate people that, with over a century of technology, we don't need to follow those paths anymore.”
Longobart implemented an online training to dispel idling myths, like idling is ‘good for maintenance,’ or turning a vehicle off and on to reduce idling wears out the starter or shortens battery life.
Twenty-six of the city’s 4,000 employees participated in a small pilot of the training. These employees were surveyed about idling myths before and after the training. Before the training, about 90% of participants believed idling myths to be true. After, 92% (24 of 26 participants) found them to be false.
When rolled out to all fleet drivers, Longobart said pairing this training with idling reduction efforts based on telematics data is likely to result in a 50% decrease in idling that is projected to save $8 million in fuel costs.
Strategy #3: Fuel Management Systems
A fuel management system allows fleets to track key indicators that impact fuel efficiency, like idle time, average miles per gallon, and fuel consumption. Fuel management systems collect, store and analyze this data to create actionable insights.
“In some cases, public sector fleets can even benchmark these fuel efficiency metrics against other cities and departments with similar vehicles to get a broader understanding of their performance,” said Karine Gidali, Director of Product Marketing, Public Sector for fleet technology provider Samsara. “Fleet leaders can then automate and consolidate tasks and set up real-time alerts to save massive amounts of time and money. For example, engine health can be a serious contributor to fuel inefficiencies. By setting up real-time, data-driven diagnostic alerts around engine faults, managers can preemptively conduct engine maintenance and ensure their vehicles perform at maximum fuel efficiency.”
Wright said the city of Lynchburg uses its fuel management system to track fuel costs, consumption, and mileage for PM scheduling. “We also use the system for fuel access and billing our customers across departments and outside agencies,” she said. “The most important factors to look for in a fuel management system are access, being able to turn keys and users on or off, accuracy of fuel and mileage data, reporting capabilities, and the ability to integrate with multiple systems such as an FMIS, tank monitoring, and leak detection monitoring.
King agrees that interoperability with other fleet systems is important. Collier County’s fuel management system connects with an automotive information module, a system that provides fuel accountability, inventory control, the ability to monitor parameters, and advanced diagnostics. King said recording odometer readings automatically rather than leaving the task to drivers improves data accuracy that informs his fuel budget.
“If my fuel management system is reliable, to where I'm not worried about wrong odometers and I have the correct information of how much fuel I'm using, I can budget correctly for the next year,” he said.
Gidali says fuel management systems help fleets connect the data dots in ways that reduce fuel use.
“The most effective fuel management system is one that provides holistic visibility across any department that could impact fuel efficiency — from idling reports to route optimization to fuel consumption. All of these factors impact fuel efficiency, so the technology must be capable of providing a full picture rather than looking at each of these metrics in a silo,” she said. “An open and integrated platform that can streamline data sharing between existing solutions is also critical to gain a more accurate assessment of fuel expenses and improve efficiency at scale.”
Strategy #4: Telematics, the Multi-Use Tech Tool
Telematics capabilities are becoming more sophisticated, accessible, and impactful for fuel management.
Chuck Cramer, Director of Fleet Services for the city of Lynchburg, cites a multitude of ways telematics can improve fuel management.
“If you don’t have data, you need it,” he said. “Implementing GPS/telematics allows you to identify idling issues, under-utilization, over-utilization, fuel efficiency, and more. It’s also a great tool to identify specific use-cases for EVs and/or hybrids, which can and usually do lead to great cost savings.”
Samsara’s Gidali notes that, working in tandem, a fuel management system and telematics platform can help fleets close the gaps in their data and find more opportunities to better manage their fuel spend. “By adopting a fuel management system and telematics platform, fleet leaders gain real-time visibility into metrics that allow them to proactively take action toward better fuel management,” she said. “Best practices and indicators to look for within your technology platform include driving behavior like idling or harsh braking, vehicle maintenance, and route efficiency to reduce fuel consumption.”
Gidali said the Solid Waste Department of Athens-Clarke County, Georgia is a prime example of how access to the right data can improve a fuel management strategy, elevate citizen services, and save taxpayer dollars.
“Their team leveraged Samsara to get a bird’s eye view of the routes that pose the biggest challenge for drivers, primarily related to unnecessary turnarounds and backup incidents,” she said. “As a result, they’ve reported a 58% increase in fuel efficiency and 19% decrease in fuel usage.”
Strategy #5: Installation-Free GPS
Using data to manage fuel doesn’t necessarily require the installation of telematics devices. King said some OEMs provide free data platforms already connected to their vehicles.
“You will be surprised at what is easily available on existing OEM platforms. As a Ford customer, I use Ford Pro free data to help with many aspects of fleet management,” King said. “The wave of the future is, vehicles are coming in with the modem already included so you don't need a piece of hardware anymore to have GPS. You just have to be able to tell the OEM if you want their system or what system you want their device to work with.”
Ford gives fleet customers free access to Ford Pro Essentials, which allows fleet managers to input a VIN or unit number and access vehicle data. This includes the odometer reading, oil life reading, and whether maintenance is due, all of which support on-time maintenance that results in better fuel economy.
Ford offers a similar platform for electric vehicles that shows metrics like the percentage of energy gain while charging, the gas gallon equivalent, and the amount of CO2 saved.
Strategy #6: EV Charging Data
Swapping ICE vehicles for EVs is another way to dramatically reduce fuel use. However, “fuel management” (in this case, charging) is nonetheless important.
The city of Raleigh’s electrification strategy is set to roll out by the end of this year and will transition all 2,500 fleet vehicles to EVs over the next 10 years. Part of this plan is to use data pulled from charging stations to manage charging costs.
“Every time a vehicle plugs in, we'll know who plugs in, when they plug in, how long they charge, whether the vehicle is fully charged, and when they need to be disconnected for another vehicle to plug in,” Longobart said. “The more important part of that software equation is when to charge.”
For example, if a driver’s day ends at 4 pm, that doesn’t mean it’s the right time to begin charging. Instead, that vehicle should be charged overnight, during off-peak hours when energy rates are lower. The city of Raleigh plans to use chargers that allow drivers to plug in at the end of their shift but delay charging until off-peak hours.
“If everybody charges during peak hours, energy rates will be higher than the petroleum costs because they started charging at the wrong time of day. Our plan is to replace our fuel management system with one that could still continue to support petroleum-based vehicles and can manage EV charging.”