Since the formation of the US Environmental Production Agency (EPA) and the passing of the Clean Air Act in 1970, the transportation industry has faced considerable scrutiny. Manufacturers, end users, and environmental advocates alike have pursued solutions for better fuel economy and tools to cut transportation emissions. When the government passed the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990, the EPA’s spotlight fell on heavy-duty trucking. 

According to US government statistics, Class-8 trucks today represent the second-largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In fact, in 2010, heavy-duty vehicles composed just 4 percent of registered vehicles on US roads but accounted for roughly 25 percent of on-road fuel use and GHG emissions. The heavy-duty transportation sector first responded by focusing on reducing emissions harmful to human health. Selective catalytic reduction, diesel particulate filters, ultra-low sulfur diesel, and new engine technologies have made contributions to clean-diesel trucks and reduced their emissions by approximately 96 percent compared with 1990 models. However, clean-diesel technology had a few downsides: higher equipment and maintenance costs and a decrease in fuel economy over pre-emissions trucks.

Yet there still is a long way to go. The EPA reports that heavy-duty truck emissions have increased by 30 percent since 1990, and these emissions are expected to grow another 20 percent throughout the next 20 years. Furthermore, nearly one-third of all GHG emissions in the United States are a result of transportation sources.

New government programs and mandates are advancing the transportation industry. In 2003, for instance, the EPA introduced the SmartWay Transport Partnership Program, which focuses on sustainability initiatives. SmartWay presents opportunities to optimize transportation networks through policy options, partnerships, and education. The program’s 2,900 member companies leverage reporting opportunities to communicate sustainability advancements throughout their transportation organizations.

SmartWay’s approach is highlighted by a six-point strategy:

  1. Reduce the national speed limit to 65 miles per hour for all vehicles, and install truck governors to limit fuel consumption.

  2. Reduce idling.

  3. Increase fuel efficiency by encouraging participation in the US EPA SmartWay Transport Partnership Program.

  4. Reduce congestion by improving highways—if necessary, by raising the fuel tax.

  5. Use more productive truck combinations.

  6. Support national fuel-economy standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

Although SmartWay’s guidelines move the industry in the right direction, even more can be done to achieve greater ecological and financial impact.

Tips for transportation professionals

If the transportation industry wants to take a more active role in reducing GHG emissions, distribution companies will need to acknowledge their roles and responsibilities in enacting new measures within their organizations—beyond government mandates and low-hanging fruit. Manufacturers have been investing millions of dollars in research and development to increase fuel efficiency in new models. This, plus the reduced emissions, has the added benefit of cutting operating costs and is a common-sense strategy. However, most companies do not have the budget, analytical expertise, clean data, or time it takes to implement a process that continually incorporates new fuel economy technologies and forms long-term emissions reduction strategies. 

Understanding the financial impact of integrating never-before-available technologies that continually increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions is critical. Some fleet managers are choosing to transform their distribution operations from a support function to a competitive differentiator with quantifiable revenue-enhancement strategies aligned with corporate goals. By using these technologies and incorporating advanced analytics to monitor fuel burn, they also reduce emissions, optimize efficiencies, increase reliability and customer satisfaction, enhance fleet safety, and eliminate wasteful spending. 

To incorporate these eco-friendly technologies in your operation, measurement comes first. Start with a baseline of where you are today by calculating your true operating costs. Exclusive of driver pay and benefits, the areas to focus on are fuel, maintenance, and finance expenses, as well as the monthly cost of new trucks equipped with these technologies. Note that the actual price of new equipment does not enter into the equation—it’s not what you pay for the equipment that matters, but the cost you pay per month.

Advantage is gained by being smarter and faster than your competitors. Data supports the fact that cycling out your trucks earlier (between three to four years rather than five years, seven years, or even longer) is saving fleets millions of dollars annually in operating costs and reducing emissions of both the primary and secondary users of the equipment. In other words, operate your trucks only to the point of economic obsolescence rather than functional obsolescence—the tipping point when truck maintenance and fuel expenses are greater than the cost of a new, more fuel-efficient model. Shortening your vehicles' life cycles is the single-most-ecological and economical action a fleet manager can take to reduce emissions and control and predict operating costs.

Flexible equipment lease financing also is gaining popularity instead of traditional purchase strategy, which is testament to the environmental, economic, and social benefits that a shorter vehicle life cycle provides. A well-planned lease structure tailored to your operation’s use enables operators to seamlessly exchange older models for newer, more efficient ones—reducing millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide annually and all at a reduced monthly cost. As they turn their attention to lightweight components, parasitic drag loss, and trailer efficiencies, government mandates to further reduce emission via improved fuel economy will increase the demand for the flexibility that a lease-finance solution provides for both the tractor and the trailer. 

The transportation industry’s focus on sustainability will continue to be front and center for many years to come. With access to advanced data and analytics that track vehicle performance metrics, fleet companies can improve their sustainability strategies and bottom lines. As the future becomes reality, companies with clear knowledge of their costs, resources, and key usage data will benefit from these sustainability efforts and gain the competitive advantage.

Fran Flynn is vice president of sustainability, marketing, and community relations for Fleet Advantage, a truck fleet business analytics, equipment financing, and life cycle cost management provider. She may be contacted at fflynn@fleetadvantage.net.