Distributors are accelerating their efforts to improve the fuel economy of their transportation fleets, including training drivers on the most efficient way to operate newer types of equipment.
Fuel economy is a consistently important issue in the supermarket industry because of the millions of miles traveled every year to deliver groceries around the country.
"For us, the difference between six miles per gallon and five miles per gallon is about $800,000 in annual fuel costs," said Jim Kwakenat, transportation manager at Nash Finch, Minneapolis. Nash Finch owns 504 trucks, leases another 95 and travels 24 million to 25 million miles per year.
Industrywide, fuel efficiency increased in 1997 compared with the previous year, according to the 1997 Transportation & Fleet Maintenance Report, sponsored by Food Distributors International, Falls Church, Va., and the Food Marketing Institute, Washington. In 1997, supermarket fleets averaged 6.4 miles per gallon, up from 6.29 in 1996 and 6.27 in 1995.
This improved fuel economy is driven by driver awareness of idling and shifting patterns, as well as increased use of onboard computers, distribution executives told SN.
In addition, new engines, many of which are electronically controlled, are helping improve fuel economy. These high-tech engines can be preset to limit idle duration and control the truck's maximum speed.
But with these new engine designs, maximum power is achieved at lower revolutions per minute, so drivers need to adjust their shifting patterns.
"Shifting at lower RPMs allows for greater fuel economy, which is different than what older drivers are used to," said Chet Harkonen, vice president of distribution at Fairway Foods, a division of Holiday Cos., Bloomington, Minn. Among all its divisions, Fairway Foods has 85 tractors that travel 7.5 million miles a year.
Most drivers are used to maximizing RPMs before shifting, he explained, but with the new equipment, that practice could result in lower fuel economy.
Distributors are using a variety of educational programs, including videotapes, to train drivers to get the most efficiency out of their equipment.
Fairway has been successful with educational programs and giving feedback to drivers, said Harkonen. The company also posts a list showing drivers their fuel economy by month, average fuel economy, and high and low ranges.
"For any drivers way out of range, we try to review with them what are the reasons; whether it's driving practices, equipment, types of routes or poor tractor performance," he said.
"We communicate to the drivers what gives good fuel economy, praising them for making improvements, stressing education and using onboard computers for tracking. We emphasize to the driver those areas that really kill fuel economy," he added. "Excess idling is a huge one, and shifting in improper RPM ranges is another."
Nash Finch is also focused on education, and will be making two driving technique tapes available to all its divisions. The tapes provide information on how to drive with the new "smart" engines, equipped with variable horsepower and new transmissions.
Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City, plans to launch a fuel incentive program in early 1998, sharing any fuel cost savings with its drivers. The wholesaler estimates it can achieve $200,000 a year in fuel savings from such a program.
The basis for the program is an engine manufacturer's software that provides fuel mileage parameters. "The program tells us what fuel mileage we can expect to get within a range based on the weight we're hauling, the terrain we're traveling in and the speed we're traveling," said Darwin Dewsnup, transportation manager for Associated Food Stores.
Onboard computer systems that create reports on equipment and driver performance are an important tool in identifying the differences in fuel consumption among different drivers.
A summary report from an onboard computer system can show that two different drivers, both with the same truck, can vary in their fuel economy by as much as 0.3 to 0.4 miles per gallon, said Nash Finch's Kwakenat.
"It's really shocking, especially when you operate 24 million to 25 million miles a year and want to get everything you can out of that gallon of fuel," Kwakenat said, adding that Nash Finch averages 6.46 miles per gallon nationwide.
Supervalu's Suffield, Conn., distribution center, part of the Minneapolis-based wholesaler's New England region, plans to expand its use of onboard computer systems to increase fuel economy.
These onboard computer systems track drivers' road speed, idle time and engine RPMs as they shift, as well as time at delivery stops.
This information helps the wholesaler educate drivers about how to operate within parameters, reduce idle time and maintain a specified road speed, according to Terry Hart, transportation manager at Supervalu.