The Cheap and Easy Road to Fuel Economy

We who live in California at the center of high-tech sometimes forget that the simplest solutions are often the best. Fortunately, that’s a lesson not forgotten by the technology experts at the National Research Council, who just published their recommendations on how best to improve the fuel economy of the nation’s trucks and buses—which gulp more than a quarter of all transportation fuel used in the United States.

The expert committee assigned by the NRC analyzed a host of technology and regulatory options and found some promising solutions: advanced diesel engines could potentially lower fuel consumption in tractor-trailers by 20 percent over the next decade, and hybrid power trains could improve fuel economy of transit buses and garbage trucks, which start and stop frequently, by up to a third.

The investments reviewed would break even at fuel prices ranging from $1.10 per gallon (a no-brainer) to $6.80 per gallon (a big loser).

Significantly, however, the committee concluded that “There may be more effective, less costly, and complementary approaches than vehicle fuel efficiency standards” and technology mandates.” Two in particular caught my eye: higher fuel taxes, and mandatory driver training, both of which have been subjects of discussion at NEXT100.

“Fuel taxes operate to make fuel-saving technologies more attractive and provide incentives for saving fuel in operations, while involving fewer unintended consequences than standards,” the report concluded. In addition, “a tax affects the utilization of vehicles already on the road, while fuel consumption standards typically affect only new vehicles and can be implemented only slowly over time as the vehicle fleet transitions to the more fuel-efficient vehicles.”

As smart fleet operators have discovered, training drivers how to run their vehicles more efficiently—minimizing speed fluctuations, staying in the highest practical gear, keeping tires properly inflated and avoiding wasteful engine idling—can have a big payoff. “Indications are that this could be one of the most cost-effective and best ways to reduce fuel consumption and improve productivity of the trucking sector,” the report concludes, citing case studies that show fuel savings of up to 17 percent.

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