Trucks: New fuel-saving breakthrough discovered: The Driver

With the price of diesel an ever present concern for truck owners and fleet managers there has been no shortage of gadgets, tweaks and additives attempting to squeeze a little more mileage out of trucks. Most are snake oil, a few may help a little bit, and if you’re so inclined you can always derate an engine and trade torque or performance for fuel economy.

But the most promising fuel-saving strategy – one that requires no add ons or tradeoffs, according to Isuzu Motors – is driver training. To prove the point Isuzu invited a group of editors to take part in its Fuel Economy Challenge at its test track in northern Japan.

At the heart of Isuzu’s Fuel Economy Challenge is a diagnostic and telematics system called Mimamori that gauges how much of a lead foot you have, how well you shift and other things that affect fuel economy. (See sidebar page 57.) Mimamori is a little like sitting with your driver’s ed teacher all over again. Suddenly you’re on your very best behavior. The system has been used extensively in Japan, and Isuzu has put more than 150 fleet managers through the training in the United States since 2007.

The procedure is to let you drive the 1.7-mile course twice: the first time with no instruction – just drive like you normally would. Then they give you the training and you drive the course again to see how much you can improve your mpg.

The truck I drove for the challenge was an Isuzu NPR85AN. It’s a medium-duty, cab-over truck with a 147-horsepower/ 4-cylinder engine, six-speed manual transmission and a GVW rating of 13,650 pounds. Despite having learned my stick and clutch skills from movies starring Steve McQueen, I buzzed around the track, sailing into its two steeply banked turns and negotiating its stop-start sections as gently as grandma on a Sunday drive.

Back in the training center, I got my report card: 15.5 mpg. Specific driving skills were rated on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being perfect. I got a 3 for overall speed control, 3 for upshift timing, 2 for selection of cruising gear ratio, 5 for accelerator pedal operation, 5 for braking, 3 for engine braking and 1 for auxiliary brake use. Total grade: 72, only adding to that sinking feeling that I really was back in high school.

Next came classroom training where we were shown the ideal upshift points, how to maximize high-speed gear use, how to keep a soft foot on the accelerator and brake and how to cruise into stops rather than rush into them. Next time around the track, I scored 5s all the way across the board and 19.4 mpg – a 25 percent improvement in fuel consumption.

The trick was mostly upshifting at the prescribed rpms. But doing so often made me feel as if I was right on the edge of stalling out. Driving this way in stop-and-go town traffic might draw some ire from the people behind you. And I can’t imagine drivers in everyday traffic could boost their fuel economy 25 percent on a regular basis. But that’s not the point, says Todd Bloom, vice president, fleet operations and marketing, Isuzu Commercial Truck of America. Even if you only get a 10- or 15-percent fuel economy boost, it’s still an immediate payback and it’s available here and now, he says. Unlike hybrid designs or alternative fuels, driver training doesn’t put you in the position of paying a premium for cutting edge technology. With the Mimamori-like telematics system Isuzu plans to bring to the United States you’ll be able to follow up on training and regularly assess the quality of your drivers in real time on the web as well.

And 10-percent fuel savings is nothing to sneeze at if you’re a medium-duty truck fleet owner or manager. On a truck getting my original 15.5 mpg, a 10-percent fuel savings over 35,000 miles a year equals 262 gallons of fuel or $1,048 a year saved, times however many trucks you have in your fleet. The group of gear grinders who took the challenge with me improved their average fuel efficiency by 35.6 percent, from 13.46 to 18.25 mpg. Plug that into the formula with $4 a gallon diesel and you could be looking at a potential savings of $10,912 per truck per year.

Isuzu says even your veteran drivers don’t necessarily know how to drive for fuel efficiency. But rather than forcing drivers or dictating a strict approach to training, Isuzu suggests a respectful approach, showing drivers how they can reduce fuel consumption and sharing real-time results with the telematics. Then they recommend you set up a rewards program and share some of the savings with your most fuel-efficient drivers.

Mimamori telematics makes you better
Isuzu’s Mimamori system uses sensors placed all over the truck to precisely record fuel use, distance traveled, rpms, gear shift points, exhaust brake and auxiliary brake use. As the information is being recorded it is sent wirelessly to a computer terminal, which analyzes all the data and pops out a report card on how well you’ve done. If a driver has an accident or just stands on the brakes in an emergency, Mimamori will notice and send an alert to the fleet manager as well.

In Japan the system is being used for more than just training. Some 20,000 fleet trucks in that country are wired up to the system and fleet managers simply go to a website to see where their trucks are and how their drivers are doing. The company plans to introduce a “Mimamori-like” telematics system in the United States in 2010.