By Mike Antich

Reducing unnecessary idling is the simplest and easiest way for a fleet to reduce fuel costs. Besides wasting fuel, excess idling also causes unnecessary emissions, noise pollution, and needless engine wear-and-tear. For example, International Truck & Engine Corp. estimates a typical truck fleet burns a half-gallon of fuel for every hour a truck idles — in the process, adding the equivalent of 40 miles of engine wear-and-tear.  The amount of unnecessary idling varies by fleet, but some fleets have recorded idling as much as 35 percent of the time. Eliminating an hour of idling per day, will result in a significant savings across the entire fleet. A typical goal is to reduce engine idling time to less than 5 percent, which can be measured using telematic devices or GPS monitoring.

An anti-idling program encourages drivers to turn off their engines when not in use. The biggest challenge to implementing an anti-idling program is educating drivers. Some drivers mistakenly believe that frequently starting and stopping an engine uses more gas and/or causes additional wear and tear on the vehicle. This may have been a concern in the past, but with today's fuel injection engines, starting systems are more efficient and don't require as much fuel to start an engine.

Another common reason for excess idling is to operate an air conditioning system so a driver can stay cool in the summer or to operate a heater to stay warm in the winter. Fleet managers struggle with this form of idling because they want to reduce fuel costs, but not at the expense of driver morale. The reality is that for many employees, their vehicles are also their offices.


Using GPS to Curb Excess Idling

A growing number of fleets are turning to vehicle recorders or GPS tracking systems as the most cost-effective tool to curb excessive idling and other "fuelish" driver behavior.

For example, Genuine Parts determined its drivers were idling company trucks two to three hours per day — a pretty heavy hit in terms of fuel consumption. Drivers leave a distribution center and make 12-15 stops and deliveries per evening. They idle engines 15-20 minutes at each stop for a combination of reasons. Drivers typically want to maintain cab climate comfort, but many also fear frequent liftgate use will run down the battery. That fear was proven largely groundless. A test by the company's liftgate installer determined liftgates could actually be cycled 14 times before the battery ran down.

Another fleet (that wished to be unidentified) began a fleet-wide rollout of GPS tracking units when it was discovered in a test program that drivers were frequently sitting in their trucks, eating lunch, while running the air conditioning for up to an hour at a time. The only way to correct the problem is to find it and the most cost-effective way to do so is using a GPS system.

Verizon Inc. has successfully reduced fuel costs by curbing unnecessary engine idling. Verizon estimates that unnecessary idling costs it about $20 million. For calendar-year 2008, Verizon has targeted a 3-percent reduction in the 53 million gallons of fuel used by the company's vehicles. Most are light- and medium-duty trucks. Verizon is using a combination of GPS tracking and employee education efforts to curb unnecessary engine idling. GPS tracking systems have been installed in about 25 percent of company trucks.

Anti-idling programs are being implemented not only by private fleets, but also the public sector. A growing number of municipal fleets are looking to curb idling to reduce fuel costs and cut tailpipe emissions. One example is the city of Minneapolis, which recently passed a law limiting fleet vehicle idling to three minutes, except in traffic. Another example is Polk County in Florida. For the past three years, Bob Stanton, fleet management director for Polk County has utilized a GPS system, tracking the users of the county's 2,000 vehicles and pieces of equipment. Stanton sends an idle history report via e-mail to each division director on a monthly basis. "If the results are positive, I mention that in the e-mail. If the results are worse or need attention in a certain area, I mention that, too," he said. "My correspondence isn't judgmental; the manager must determine if, in their specific application, the idling amount was justified or requires further study."

In another example, the state of South Carolina is spending approximately $4 million for GPS units to track every move made by the state's Department of Transportation road construction vehicles, ranging from backhoes to roadside safety trucks. In addition, the state of South Carolina is also installing GPS units on all state-operated school buses. Beyond tracking vehicles, the GPS units used by the State of South Carolina will transmit data when drivers speed, idle excessively, and accelerate rapidly. The goal is to modify this driver behavior. Due to the size of the South Carolina fleet, if the GPS devices can successfully reduce fuel use by just a few gallons of gas per vehicle per day, they'll pay for themselves within a year.


Preprogrammed Engine Shut-Off

Fleets typically allowed 5-15 minutes of nonproductive engine idling time. For instance, Florida Power & Light set its limit at five minutes. If operators don't turn off the truck engine within the prescribed time limit, the computer automatically does it for them — enforcing company policy.

Trucks with an SAE standard J1939 engine protocol/ electrical BUS (typically Class 6 and up) can be computer-programmed to shut off automatically after a pre-set idling time. The computer senses when the truck engine is idling with its parking brake on and intervenes to shut it down.

Preprogrammed engine shutdowns are a fairly effective way to curb unnecessary idling; however, it is not foolproof. The J1939 protocol has an override — easy for drivers to use and understand. If a driver wants to run the engine to maintain cab comfort, he or she just has to kick up the engine RPMs to a certain level, resetting the idling shutdown clock and defeating the automatic control. Typically, a company pulls engine data from its maintenance data system and checks idle shutdown activity to discover drivers' activities. This rather cumbersome process discourages many companies from this practice.

In addition, preprogrammed shutdowns don't work with light-duty models, which lack this engine protocol. For light-duty fleets, companies use GPS or field supervisors for policy enforcement.

There are also safety issues associated with remote engine shutoff. For example, you don't want to turn off a truck's engine if it's off-road in an emergency situation with its beacon light on.


Zero MPG

The worst mileage a vehicle can get is 0 miles per gallon, which occurs when it idles. Idling for long periods of time, whether at a job site, railroad crossing, or pulling off the road to make a cell phone call, consumes gas that could be saved by simply turning off the engine. Restarting an engine uses about the same amount of gas as does an engine idling for 30 seconds. When idling for longer than 30 seconds, turn off the engine. Prolonged idling creates excess emissions and wastes fuel. However, be aware that turning off the engine may also disable safety features such as airbags. Drivers should be certain to utilize this strategy only in situations where there is no possibility of collision.

Many fleets implement anti-idling programs using the "big stick" approach. However, the best (and most effective) way to achieve sustainable long-term results is through driver education.

Let me know what you think.


Originally posted on Automotive Fleet


Mike Antich
Mike Antich

Editor and Associate Publisher

Mike Antich has covered fleet management and remarketing for more than 20 years and was inducted in the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2010.

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Mike Antich has covered fleet management and remarketing for more than 20 years and was inducted in the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2010.

View Bio