Historically, car and truck fleets have been areas of quick wins in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as most companies replace a portion of their fleets every year, offering an opportunity to downsize or change to more environmentally friendly vehicles. Changing the vehicle mix has been the fastest and most cost-effective way to achieve fleet environmental goals.

However, with the tightening economy, companies are considering holding on to their vehicles longer. The good news is organizations still can do much to improve their existing fleets' fuel economy.

Just to be clear - we are not talking about fuel additives or magnets or other types of snake oil. Instead, we mean good old driver behavior - training drivers to operate their vehicles in the most fuel-efficient manner possible.  

A recent Wall Street Journal article stated, "Drivers commonly improve their fuel economy upwards of 20 percent after deploying a handful of eco-driving techniques." This claim was further supported by a study done a few years ago by the PBS program "Motor Week," which showed driving behavior can have a 20-percent impact on a driver's fuel economy on average (in varied driving conditions). That's huge - both environmentally and financially!

Human behavior can be tough to change, and you may not get all your drivers to adopt fuel-efficient driving practices. But even small gains can make a significant difference. So, how do you motivate drivers to adopt environmentally friendly driving practices and start achieving these positive results? Any or all of the following three approaches are recommended.

1. Train Drivers on Vehicle Operation & Maintenance

Many companies are training drivers how to operate and maintain their vehicles to maximize fuel efficiency. This training can be delivered in several forms - at sales meetings, online, tips in a driver newsletter, etc.
To make the training as effective as possible, there are few keys to remember. First, the training's core messages should be repeated. Human beings rarely adopt a new behavior after hearing about it for the first time. Second, companies must ensure they do not set contradictory goals for drivers. For example, if you ask drivers to do regularly scheduled maintenance to keep their vehicles running at peak efficiency and also announce a goal of reducing vehicle maintenance costs, you are sending a mixed message to drivers.

Early results from PHH clients at the beginning stages of instituting green driving training programs reveal they have already improved fuel efficiency by up 4 percent overall, with individual drivers improving their efficiency by as much as 17 percent.

2. Contests: Cost-Effective Ways to Change Behavior

Depending on an organization's culture, contests can be an extremely cost-effective way to change behavior. The key to success is developing a contest that rewards the right behavior and does not provide incentives for people to "game" the system. Some key issues to consider when developing contests:

  • Driver driving patterns. If some drive in the city and others in the country, you might want to reward percentage improvement, not an absolute MPG.
  • Individual and team awards. If you provide awards recognizing the achievements of a particular office, drivers in that office can reinforce good behavior among co-workers.
  • Size of the prize. It should be meaningful, but not so large to negate savings from reduced fuel use or to create an incentive to "game" the system.

At PHH, we have seen organizations achieve up to a 6-percent reduction in fuel use with a contest.

3. Telematics Reveals Driver Behavior & Vehicle Performance

Telematics technology provides incredible insight into how a driver operates the vehicle and how the vehicle is performing. Depending on the specific device used, telematics can provide information on driver speeding and idling, and engine performance - all key factors impacting fuel economy.

The benefit of telematics is real-time data on what is actually happening in the vehicle. You might have a policy that prohibits vehicle idling for more than two minutes, but unless you ride along with all of your drivers, how do you know if they follow the policy? Telematics determine who is adhering to company policies, allowing you to take appropriate corrective action.

While telematics services incur costs, the technology offers major benefits (including safety and productivity - a separate topic altogether), as well as fuel-related cost savings. For example, one service fleet improved its fuel economy by more than 3 percent just by reducing idling.

These fuel-economy improvements might seem small, but they can add up to a significant total. Do the calculations: For a company with a 1,000-sedan fleet, a mere 5-percent improvement in fuel economy can mean a savings of $180,000 a year. And this calculation assumes gas prices stay low; as gas prices go up, so do the relative savings. For fleets of vans, SUVs, or trucks, the savings opportunities are even greater. In addition, these techniques are complementary - implementing two or more can lead to even greater fuel savings.

Don't let tight budgets derail your fleet environmental initiatives. Instead, focus on areas - such as driver behavior - where investment is low, but savings are real.

About the Author - Karen Healey is director of project management at PHH Arval. Her responsibilities include environmental initiatives. She can be reached at Karen.Healey@phh.com.