How truck overhauls are saving Staples, UPS carbon and cash

 Without trucks, the supply chain would screech to a halt. Yet, the rising cost of fueling these workhorses, not to mention the toll truck emissions take on the environment and public health, are forcing shippers and carriers alike to retool their fleets.

How high are the costs? Many trucking and logistics firms believe that without drastic changes in their energy demands, the costs of fuel and inefficiency could drive them out of business. In the United States, the largest of the long-haul trucks make up 41 percent of the heavy- and medium-truck fleet, but they account for 78 percent of the fuel consumed by those fleets, according to the Department of Energy. That’s because these trucks have an average fuel economy of 7.9 to 9.5 miles per gallon -- even less when pulling a heavy load.

Due in part to their frequent stops and high amount of idle time, the medium-duty delivery trucks found mostly in urban corridors also gulp gas -- as much as 8 billion gallons per year, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

Companies such as Coca-Cola, Staples, Frito-Lay, UPS and FedEx have garnered significant attention for running pilot programs that put new electric and hybrid-electric trucks through their paces. Coca-Cola’s fleet of 750 hybrid-electric trucks reduce emissions by approximately 30 percent and use roughly 30 percent less fuel than standard delivery trucks. This is not insignificant, but these trucks only make up roughly 7 percent of the beverage giant’s total fleet.

That means in many ways the work is just beginning, even though Coca-Cola and many other firms have been working to make their truck fleets more sustainable for many years.

Where does the process start? What are the factors fleet managers must consider as they retool their truck fleets? “We look at various factors, but primarily whether we can get the objectives we desire, like fuel or CO2 reductions, for example, and if we can quantify the return on investment in years or less,” says Steven Saltzgiver, Coca-Cola Refreshments’ director of fleet operations.

Coca-Cola began partnering with Eaton in 2001 to test and develop beverage delivery trucks using Eaton’s hybrid electric power system. “We tested for several years until we saw the desired results and then we deployed full scale in 2007,” says Saltzgiver.

Aside from making sound business sense, alternative-fuel trucks must be matched to the ways in which they will be used. For example, a fully electric truck would not make sense for interstate routes, since electric motors are more efficient in stop-and-go, urban traffic. The weights of loads are another important consideration; Saltzgiver notes that Coca-Cola is using fully electric trucks in its service fleet rather than as delivery trucks, since the high weight of beverages would quickly deplete the battery’s charge.

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