How to Improve Fuel Efficiency in Your Semi Truck

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Fuel costs are trending upward, putting a strain on trucking companies and owner-operators. High fuel costs can increase operating costs and result in shrinking profit margins. However, trucking companies can protect themselves from increased fuel costs by increasing their fuel surcharges on the backend, investing in fuel-efficient technologies as a hedge against future fuel price increases, and implementing programs to train drivers on the best practices for driving in a fuel-efficient way. 

Of course, the environment is another concern. New emissions technologies and regulations have been introduced in recent years, and there has never been a better opportunity to situate your company for future profitability by exploring, implementing, and embracing renewable energy sources, fuel-efficient technology, and other practices that reduce your operating costs while protecting the environment. 

This article will explore the best practices for improving fuel efficiency, current and emerging technology for fuel-efficient vehicles, and how to select the most fuel-efficient semi truck for your business. The goal is to arm you with the information you need to make your trucking company’s future successful by addressing fuel costs as a significant component of your bottom line. 

What are Some Best Practices for Improving Fuel Efficiency in a Semi Truck?

Establishing a program of best practices is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve your fleet’s fuel efficiency. We suggest a plan that engages what we call the four pillars of fuel efficiency:

  • Vehicle maintenance 
  • Driving techniques
  • Fuel-efficient route planning
  • Aerodynamic modifications

Vehicle Maintenance

One of the main cornerstones of your trucking company should always be safety, which includes regular vehicle maintenance. It’s a cost-saving measure extending to profitability, productivity, and fuel efficiency. 

  • Follow manufacturer-recommended preventative maintenance intervals
  • Do not operate semi trucks with body damage because doing so will impact the truck’s aerodynamics and lead to a decrease in fuel efficiency –  it’s more cost-effective to have any damage repaired immediately
  • Keep tires in good condition and inflated to manufacturer specifications
  • Keep a consistent schedule for oil changes and air filter replacements, as these directly affect fuel efficiency

Driving Techniques

Instructing your drivers on fuel-efficient driving techniques and developing a system of accountability to ensure they follow them is likely one of the cheapest ways to improve your fleet’s overall fuel efficiency. The techniques we suggest training on and implementing include:

  • Reducing idle times by turning the engine off anytime the truck is stopped, whether it be for a rest break, unloading, or loading. However, remember that a  semi-truck becomes hot and cold quickly according to the weather, so drivers can benefit from using auxiliary power units (APU) or idle management technology like Idle Smart
  • Instruct your drivers to use cruise control when safe to do so. Remember that certain road conditions, such as snow, ice, and rain, make cruise control unsafe. 
  • Train your drivers to accelerate and brake slowly to reduce fuel consumption and perhaps enact a company-wide speed limit policy to increase fuel efficiency and safety. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, speeding, rapid acceleration, and deceleration can decrease fuel efficiency by up to 45%. Installing speed governors on your equipment is a further step you can take to ensure your drivers remain compliant with your company’s speed limit policy. 
  • If your fleet uses equipment with manual transmissions, train your drivers to keep the truck in the highest gear possible, depending on the situation.
  • Train your drivers to use momentum as much as possible, allowing gravity to do the acceleration work whenever possible. 

Fuel-efficient Route Planning

For any given load, there will be multiple route options, and one will be the most fuel-efficient. Consider the trade-offs between operating miles and traffic congestion when planning for fuel-efficient routes. Adding a few miles to a route to avoid an area known for high traffic congestion, such as mid-route metropolitan areas, can increase fuel efficiency. Devote time to studying the routes your company frequently uses to determine the most fuel-efficient routes, then ensure your drivers are using those routes. 

To save time determining the most fuel-efficient route, you can use GPS and route planning software, such as the CloudTrucks app. When coupled with GPS, route planning software can enable drivers to make fuel-saving adjustments to their routes in real time for optimal routing. 

Aerodynamic Modifications

A fundamental way to increase fuel efficiency is to operate the most aerodynamic equipment possible. The more aerodynamic a vehicle is, the less drag it produces and the more fuel-efficient is is. Truck and trailer manufacturers now offer various aerodynamic modifications straight from the factory. Additionally, there is a strong aftermarket supply of various aerodynamic modifications for trucks and trailers that you can install on your existing equipment. 

Some of the more effective aerodynamic modifications in use today include:

  • Shifting the fifth wheel forward to reduce the gap between the tractor cab and the nose of the trailer. While this practice can be effective, drivers should be trained appropriately in operating this configuration to avoid damage when making tight turns. According to multiple wind tunnel research studies, the gap between the truck and the trailer can create as much as 25% of the overall drag. Any gap more significant than 18 inches can increase drag, while covering this gap with a combination of sliding the fifth wheel forward and installing tractor-mounted gap reducers can reduce drag by up to 9%. 
  • Gap reduction elsewhere on the tractor-trailer can further reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency. 
  • Trailer side fairings can be installed during manufacturing or aftermarket to reduce the gap beneath the trailer from the tires to the nose 
  • Trailer rear fairings or boat tails on the rear of the trailer
  • Fuel tank/side fairings on the tractor will eliminate gaps and pockets created by the fuel tanks
  • An aerodynamic front design on a tractor can further reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency when compared to older model semi trucks with large, flat areas
  • Your approach to making your fleet more aerodynamic requires upfront investment and may strain your budget initially, but the cost savings, in the long run, can be substantial. If you cannot afford to fully upgrade the aerodynamics of your fleet, consider rolling out the modifications in phases to remain within budget while gradually maximizing your fuel efficiency regarding aerodynamics. Even a simple modification like adding trailer side fairings can be an improvement, and you can apply the savings this modification creates to fund additional modifications.
  • Ideally, as you update your fleet, you will look for the best aerodynamic packages available within your budget and make your purchases accordingly. Once complete, aerodynamic modifications will hopefully only require additional spending in the event of damage. Otherwise, they are a one-time expense for an ongoing cost-benefit.

Tire Configurations

The tire configuration of your equipment will also affect fuel efficiency. The older-style dual tires on the drive axles and trailer are less fuel efficient due to the gap between the tires. Consider modifying your equipment to use super-single tires for an additional cost advantage.  

When the four pillars of fuel efficiency are combined, you should see a substantial increase in your fleet’s overall fuel efficiency, a broader profit margin, and a more robust bottom line. 

infographic about how to improve fuel efficiency

What is the Latest Technology for Improving Fuel Efficiency?

The trucking industry now has more tools to improve fuel efficiency. If you’re looking to squeeze every advantage out of your fuel efficiency, consider the following existing and emerging technologies:

Engine modifications

  • Use advanced engine technologies like variable valve timing and direct injection to improve fuel efficiency
  • Install turbochargers and superchargers to increase power and reduce fuel consumption
  • Upgrade fuel injectors and pumps to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions

Hybrid and electric powertrains

  • Hybrid electric trucks that use both electric and diesel power to reduce fuel consumption and emissions
  • Fully electric trucks that run entirely on electric power and produce no emissions

Telematics and tracking systems

  • Monitor vehicle performance and fuel consumption to identify areas for improvement
  • Use data to optimize routes, reduce idling time, and improve driving habits

Alternative fuels

  • Use biodiesel, natural gas, or propane as alternative fuels that produce lower emissions and can be retrofitted to existing diesel engines

In addition to these technologies, it helps to stay abreast of emerging technologies, especially in electric powertrains and alternative fuels. 

How to Choose the Most Fuel-efficient Semi-Truck

While your budget will dictate your choices when making semi-truck purchases, it’s always good to look for the most fuel-efficient semi-truck you can afford. Remember that paying more upfront for greater fuel efficiency will make up for itself by reducing your long-term operating costs.

Here’s a quick list of some classifications to consider when making a purchasing decision with fuel efficiency in mind:

  • Comparison of fuel efficiency ratings for different makes and models
  • Use resources like the US Department of Energy's fuel economy guide to compare different trucks
  • Top fuel-efficient semi trucks
  • Review of the most fuel-efficient semi trucks currently available in the market
  • Best semi trucks for long-haul and regional haul applications
  • Consider factors like payload capacity, comfort, and reliability in addition to fuel efficiency

And as we discussed above, here is a recap of the factors to consider when selecting a semi-truck for fuel efficiency:

  • Engine size and power
  • Transmission type and efficiency
  • Weight and aerodynamics
  • Tires 

In the trucking industry, fuel efficiency is essential for maintaining a healthy business. To maximize your cost savings through greater fuel efficiency, keep in mind our four pillars of fuel efficiency, stay up to date on emerging technologies and trends that affect fuel efficiency, and purchase the most fuel-efficient equipment available on the market. 

If you are a trucking company owner, consider ways you can help manufacturers test and improve upon new methods for fuel efficiency by establishing deals with them. You can also partner with research firms to test their technology in exchange for acquiring the testing equipment at a deep discount. Just ensure that anything you’re testing is safe and legal. 

Another way to improve your semi truck’s fuel efficiency is to partner with CloudTrucks and take advantage of our products and services, which include fuel-efficient route planning and all the support of a trucking company without the hassle. Sign up today to see how CloudTrucks can help you and your business thrive.

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