Dealing With Unexpected Expenses

guy working on truck

Independent owner-operators have an enviable life in many ways, not least of which is being your own boss. But without the stability of regular paycheck it’s harder to be ready financially for the unexpected. And when you own your own truck, “the unexpected” can mean tens of thousands of dollars in repair costs and lost revenue.

And then there’s the expenses racked up thanks to severe weather or an accident. A slump in demand for your services takes a further toll on revenue. There’s no surefire way to prevent any of these crises from happening, but you can reduce the stress, the sleepless nights and the strain on your marriage by being prepared.

Stamp Out Debt

Eliminating as much debt as possible is your first step. Credit card debt is the worst. Interest rates on this kind of debt can go above 30%, much higher than for other kinds of secured debt, like truck and home loans. With such a high rate, paying down credit card debt is that much harder. As the interest compounds, you’re paying more and more interest and less and less of the principal.

Carrying debt on credit cards “keeps you poor,” according to consumer expert Clark Howard. With the high interest rate, you’re paying that much more for everything you buy on the card. It also siphons off cash that could go into savings. When an unexpected expense arrives, you have fewer resources to fall back on and are forced to put the charge on a credit card, perpetuating the vicious cycle of charging, delaying payment and accumulating debt that compounds at 30% per year.

Build Three Different Funds

Most people can get by with an emergency fund to cover three to six months of living expenses, but when your work requires a tool as expensive as a truck, you really need three funds: an emergency fund to cover motel and rental car in case you’re stranded by weather, breakdown or an accident; a truck fund to take care of unexpected repairs; and an income reserve fund to live off in case you have to endure a dry spell in your business.

Establish a goal for each fund and begin channeling any surplus you can spare to these funds, starting with the emergency fund. Research what it would cost to rent a car from the farthest point in your range and return it in your hometown. Overdrive magazine pegs the cost of maintaining a four-year-old truck at 12 cents per mile to give you an idea what to shoot for with your truck fund. Three months’ worth of living expenses is a good rule of thumb for your income reserve fund.

Considering that severe weather emergencies come with power outages that could make your credit card useless, keep a reasonable amount of cash on hand at all times. Also, make sure your credit card’s limit is high enough to cover expenses for getting home with all of your belongings in case you’re in an accident.

Finding the Funds to Do It

According to Mint.com, it’s more about finding the discipline to do it. Most people look at their checking account and conclude they can’t afford to save, but reducing expenditures and making saving a non-negotiable expense can make the funds mysteriously appear.

Being honest with yourself about the difference between wants and needs is key. Smartphones, cable TV, dinners out – anything beyond food, shelter and basic clothing is a want. Financial experts recommend you establish a goal for monthly savings and fulfill that before spending anything on wants.

How to Make it as an Owner-Operator

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Making your way in one of the most heavily regulated industries on earth can make you wonder if it’s worth it sometimes. And the increasingly expensive equipment required to be on the road may be sapping your revenue more than ever.

But there are drivers making a good living as owner-operators. How do they do it? One common thread among successful O-Os is their tendency to be business-minded tinkerers. They’re usually trying different approaches for being more efficient and cutting costs. They’re often studying up on the latest technology or on some new way to get better fuel economy. They talk to other O-Os to see how they’re dealing with challenges like detention time, new HOS rules, or getting good loads.

Know What It Costs You to Operate

Survival depends on bringing in more income than you spend. So the foundation for managing your business well is knowing what it costs you per mile to operate, including all your expenses and your salary. On the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association’s (OOIDA) website, you can find a spreadsheet that helps you calculate that number. Once you have numbers to work with, it’s easier to evaluate a load, track your profitability after you’ve hauled it and apply what you’ve learned next time a similar opportunity arises. Over time, having accumulated that kind of data allows you to make better business decisions.

Once you know what it costs you to operate, see if there are ways to reduce that number without making yourself miserable or driving your family crazy.

Understand the Regulations and Figure Out How to Do the Best Job Within Those Bounds

Before he drove a truck, Henry Albert drove stock cars. (He tells the story in this video.) He didn’t go to college, but raced stock cars in his early 20s and says that was his college. “The parallels between trucking and stock car racing are pretty interesting,” he says. “The people that made the racing rules usually didn’t even own a race track or a race car. Many of them had never raced a day in their life.”

These people changed the rules every year. So once a year, all the racers received the new regulations they had to follow. Albert says, “First, you decided if you wanted to keep racing with the new rules in place. If you did – it was the same rules for everyone – so you had to spend your time figuring out how you were going to make those rules work better than anyone else.”

There were always those who complained about the new rules, but other racers focused on how they could be the fastest within those boundaries. Pointing out the cleaner air we have thanks to unleaded gas, Albert says regulations have their place. “We all have to deal with the same rules. If you want to make it as an owner-operator, put your mind to work on how you can do the best job and still obey the law.”

A good place to start is to avoid the fines and delays that come from being a flashing beacon for FMCSA enforcement personnel. Click here to read How to Avoid Six Common CSA Violations

Become a Fuel Efficient Machine

Carlos Cruz, a struggling lease-operator, was ready to turn in his keys after a few months on the road. But as a last-ditch effort, he decided that on this final trip to the terminal, he’d follow all the advice about fuel efficiency he’d been hearing from trucking business gurus and see if it allowed him to recoup expenses and increase his take-home pay.
The experiment was a success, so much so that he decided to give his business another month. After 30 days his fuel mileage went from the 6.2 to 7.8 miles per gallon, a 1.6 mpg improvement that more than quadrupled his net revenue.

That was three years ago. Today Carlos continues his lease deal and can afford to live well on his income.

Details of his story are in Jim Park’s column on TruckingInfo.com, but the three habits he says make the biggest difference are:

  • Slowing down from 65 to 55 mph
  • Never idling
  • Becoming a “progressive shifting machine.”

More good info sources for boosting your fuel economy:

How to Avoid 6 Common CSA Violations

LTL CSA violations l-tread-depth

This guest blog post comes from Daren Hansen, Senior Editor – Transportation Safety for J.J. Keller & Associates. Contact him at transporteditors@jjkeller.com.  It was first published in Heavy Duty Trucking.  

“A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers,” the Greek philosopher Plato once said.

Too bad he wasn’t around when the government was coming up with CSA.

Now four years old, the safety enforcement program known as Compliance, Safety, Accountability relies on almost nothing but numbers. And as numerous studies keep telling us — and as many trucking professionals already know — those numbers are not always reliable.

At the top of the list are your CSA scores, perhaps flawed but visible to the world and used to decide if the DOT needs to pay you a visit, or at least send you a letter.

Pull the curtain on those scores and you can find a mass of interesting and (arguably) more reliable data: the raw numbers coming in from enforcement personnel on the front lines.

Besides giving insight into your CSA scores, the enforcement data can reveal important clues about your drivers and overall safety management. It can tell you where to focus your compliance efforts.

Let’s examine the top three CSA violations for both vehicles and drivers across the industry and discuss practices that can help bring the numbers down.

The Truck

Violation: Lighting

Ironically, broken lights are among the most “visible” of all violations. Maybe that’s why a whopping 28% of all roadside vehicle violations last year, out of 2.4 million inspections, dealt with lights or reflective materials.

A broken or missing light, reflector, or reflective tape is like an “Inspect Me!” sign and can result in a loss of six severity points in CSA for each violation (Three points for reflective tape).

Prevention: Drivers and maintenance personnel need to be aware that every light and reflector listed in Sections 393.11 and 571.108, even the license-plate lamp, needs to be operational at all times. The only way to verify compliance is to inspect the vehicle on a regular basis.

By conducting adequate pre-trip and post-trip inspections and reporting what they find, drivers should be able to spot violations — and get them fixed — before an inspector does. Carrying spare fuses is required, and spare bulbs can help too. Non-required lights do not have to be working, but any broken lamp can draw attention.

Violation: Brakes

One-fourth of all vehicle violations are for brakes, with over 1 million brake violations last year, each with four CSA points.

As with lights, brakes need to be inspected before and after every trip, but drivers need to be fully trained and qualified before doing any brake adjustment.

Prevention: Training is key. Make sure drivers know what to look for and when to get assistance with their brakes. The only way to find a brake adjustment problem is to carefully measure the stroke, and adjusting a brake that has an automatic adjuster won’t fix the problem (and may make it worse).

Violation: Tires

As with lights, bad tires are a sure-fire way to be stopped and inspected. The biggest culprit: tread depth. Overall, 11% of vehicle violations are for tires (half for tread depth), with a CSA severity of eight points.

Steer tires must have 4/32 inch of tread depth; other tires must have 2/32 inch.

Prevention: A comprehensive maintenance program that includes regular tire inspections is a must, including pre-trip and post-trip inspections. Drivers need to know how and when to check inflation (with a gauge!) and when it’s time for a replacement.

Drivers

Violation: Logs

So-called “form & manner” and “log not current” violations make up one-fourth of all driver violations at the roadside, far and above any other violation. A form/manner violation carries just one CSA point, but a log that isn’t current is worth five.

These violations are often frustratingly obvious and easily correctable.

Drivers need to fill out all required information on their logs and keep them current to the last time their duty-status changed.

Prevention: First, make sure your drivers know what’s required and what’s not required on their logs (see Sec. 395.8), and when it has to be filled in. When a driver is stopped for an inspection, the log must be current up to the time at which the driver got behind the wheel.

Make sure your policies reinforce these requirements. Review your CSA data to find the worst offenders and re-educate them on the rules.

Finally, investigate two things that can help eliminate many of these violations: pre-printing of common log entries (address, etc.), and electronic logs (which will be mandatory soon enough).

Violation: Medical Issues

One in eight driver violations is related to medical issues, often a failure to have a valid medical certificate. These carry a low CSA point value of one or two, although driving while physically ill is a 10-point violation.

Prevention: Track the expiration of your drivers’ medical cards and make sure they get updated, placed in drivers’ files, carried in the vehicle and turned in to the state licensing agency. Make sure drivers know exactly what’s required of them, and have consequences in place for those who fail to comply.

Some of these violations may go away once we have the National Registry of Medical Examiners, and once interstate CDL drivers no longer have to carry their medical cards (in Feb. 2015).

Violation: English Ability

This violation has been surging in recent years, currently at 9% of all driver violations and carrying four CSA points.

Compliance is complicated because there is no yes/no standard. Key for a roadside inspection is being able to fill out paperwork, speak with officers and answer their questions, all in English.

Prevention: Your hiring practices should filter out drivers who simply cannot meet the standard. Use training and practice to help drivers know how to respond to typical questions about their logs, their trips and cargo, their insurance, registration, license and their vehicle.

Even if you don’t pull the curtain on your CSA scores, a little training on these common violations may go a long way in improving them.

Worth It or Not? The Aerodynamics Debate

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They’re ugly. They don’t make enough difference in fuel economy to be worth it. They won’t hold up to road abuse. They don’t produce the savings I can get just by slowing down.

Drivers and fleets have plenty of reasons they’ve generally opted out of aerodynamic add-ons, and while it’s true they’re not smart for everybody, companies are getting better at making durable, effective drag reducers. If you’ve always written the things off, it might be time to re-investigate.

Henry Albert, a trucker since 1983 and a contributor to TeamRunSmart.com, drives a 2013 Cascadia Evolution and has been on a pretty well-publicized quest to achieve 10 mpg for over five years. In a recent interview, he says he’s achieved in excess of 10 mpg on many individual driving days. His truck is completely decked out, with side skirts, nose cone, a trailer tail and wheel covers.

“I have drivers tell me all the time, ‘side skirts don’t make that much difference,’ and they’re right – they only save between 2.5% and 3% in fuel cost. But they also say the same thing about the nose cone and the wheel covers and trailer tail, but cumulatively, when I put it all together, it adds up,” Albert says. The fuel savings of adding aerodynamic modifications to his truck covered his cost in six months.

On the other side of the debate are drivers who point to the weight of the add-ons and the fact that on certain routes, crosswinds in combination with accessories like trailer side skirts can actually create drag. In the comments section of this article, a driver who travels the I-80 corridor between Milwaukee and San Francisco, a route where he’s usually rolling through 25 mph crosswinds, installed side skirts. He reports no difference in fuel mileage and concludes, “There is only one way to good fuel mileage, and that is SLOW DOWN. I went from driving the 75 mph zones to driving 60 and have saved an average of 160 gallons per trip.”

But this driver begs to differ: “I don’t subscribe to the theory that slowing down increases profits!” In the comments section of an article on the trailer Kevin Rutherford developed for owner-operators, he explains that, “when you slow down, your are also reducing your per-hour revenue.” By way of example he says that a driver averaging 70 mph and earning $2 per mile grosses $140 per hour, while someone driving an average of 60 mph at that same pay rate makes $120. Since fuel only costs $11 per hour more to run at 70 mph, the 70 mph driver is $9 per hour more profitable. His philosophy: “Revenue first, then control costs.”

One way he controls his costs is by employing an undercarriage device and nose cone to diminish aerodynamic drag. He uses an Airman undercarriage add-on, which is designed to move with the tandems, unlike the skirts that are stationary. He says, “For every slider hole you move the skirts away from the tandems, your efficiency decreases. At a certain distance, the efficiency is actually worse than no skirts at all. The 5-6% fuel savings I’m getting from skirts is only achieved at the 40-foot California setting. Utilizing both the nose cone and Airman, I am achieving 7.2-7.4 mpg running @ 75 mph in 75 to 80 mph states, usually grossing 75-80,000 lbs and am hitting 11 mpg empty.”

An option for drivers who determine trailer side skirts aren’t right for their situation are tractor wheel covers. As Mario Bravo, marketing manager for Flow Below points out in this article, one advantage of making a modification to the tractor is that you get that fuel economy benefit even when the trailer is sitting in a customer’s yard, unlike trailer side skirts. “The higher a fleet’s trailer-to-tractor ratio, the more standing time, and no aerodynamic device saves anything when the vehicle is sitting still,” he says.

His company’s AeroKit consists of panels that close the gaps between a tandem’s drive wheels, and others that guide air as it leaves the tandem area. Circular covers block wheel indentations and reduce turbulence.
The advantage of being an owner-operator vs. a fleet manager in this situation is that owner-operators many times run dedicated loads and/or routes, according to comments in this article by Mitch Greenberg with SmartTruck Systems.

He points out that they also tend “to measure their fuel mileage more consistently and run the same equipment day in and day out. Any differences that stem from aerodynamic add-on devices will more effectively and directly present themselves, Greenberg says, due to the aforementioned variables being so controlled, which is often not the case for large fleets looking to implement aero devices.”

There’s no one right answer and every driver needs to test for himself what combination of equipment, accessories and driving skills will create the best results.

Three Ways to Get the Maximum Miles Out of Your Tires

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Can you get 400,000+ miles out of your tires?

In Three Top Ways to Preserve Tire Life in the March 2014 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking, Jim Park writes about a retired maintenance specialist who accomplished this feat regularly.

Ron Szapacs, former maintenance specialist for Air Products and Chemicals, admits the goal is too ambitious for some applications but says in long-haul situations and in the service of maintenance-focused owner-operators, tires can get close to the half-million miles mark before being retired. He says there are three keys to making that happen:

1. Identity the Proper Inflation Level and Keep it There

Consult your manufacturer Load & Inflation tables to help determine precisely where your pressure should be. And it is important to settle on a precise number. The practice of over-inflating just a tad to boost gas mileage and hedge against tire damage, according to the experts interviewed in Parks’ article, does neither.

In fact, most tires function best inflated only to the L&I minimums, which allows tires to maintain a larger area of contact with the road and reduces impact damage. Herman Miller, president of HJM Fleet Maintenance, says higher pressure may produce some “small increase in fuel economy, but I could never quantify it.”

And tires that are at higher pressure “are too hard to function the way they were designed to function – that is, having enough give in the casing to absorb impacts like pot holes and road debris, having the optimum footprint or contact patch.” he says.

2. Maintain Alignment, Balance and Keep an Eye Out for Other Mechanical Threats

The way your tires are wearing can tell you a lot about your truck’s overall condition, Park explains in Extend Tire Life: Learn How to Tell When Your Trucks are Killing Your Tires.

Suspension, steering, wheel mounting studs, bearings, alignment, balance, shock absorbers – problems in all these areas will show up in tire wear.

The American Trucking Association’s “Radial Tire Wear Conditions and Causes: A Guide to Wear Pattern Analysis” offers detailed categories to identify wear and track back to possible causes.

One of the most common culprits is running a truck out of alignment, a problem that can cost up to a third or more of a tire’s life expectancy, according to Mike McCoy, national accounts sales manager at Beeline. “If you’re seeing irregular wear, don’t wait until the tires are destroyed. A $200 alignment could repay itself several times over in reduced steer and drive tire wear.”

Balancing is also as “maintenance tough sell,” according to Park, especially since with new tires it’s rarely a problem anymore. “But what about hubs and brake drums that might be out of balance, or worn hub pilots that could cause an out-of-round condition with wheel or tire?” he asks. Plus, a new tire that starts out balanced can be knocked out of balance in as little as a month.

He recommends dynamic balancing compounds or balancing rings to help maintain balance, even where wear is already irregular.

3. Retread

Important as proper inflation and maintenance are for extending the life of your tires, nothing beats retreading to maximize your tire investment. According to Modern Tire Dealer magazine, a retread is about $140 less than the average price of a new replacement tire.

And, Park points out, “when you factor in as many as two retreads on a single casing, you’re tripling the value of that casing – but effectively getting three times the mileage from it.”

Bill Sweatman, president and CEO of Marangoni Tread North America says that using modern retread technologies from initial to final inspection is key. He says it’s important to commit to using a system that “makes the retread decisions or you and your tires based on optimizing total cost of ownership.” Do those two things and he says post-retread performance can actually be superior to original new tire life.

Three Things to Know Before Getting Your CDL

CDL school

If you want to become a truck driver, your first hurdle is getting a commercial driver’s license (CDL). You’ll need one to get commercial truck insurance and to get a job. Before you take the skills test, which includes the pre-trip inspection test, you must pass a basic knowledge test (multiple choice questions you’ll answer on a computer).

The basic requirements for CDL holders are set by the federal government but the license is issued by the state government where the applicant lives, and each state has its own additional requirements. There are three types of CDL licenses: A, B and C. They’re classified primarily by weight and you can see the breakdown here.

Those are the preliminary basics but there are other things you should know about the process of getting your CDL. You’re laying a foundation for what could be a long and productive career. These tips will help you get off on the good foot.

1. Don’t try to do it alone.

It’s been tried – an aspiring driver who’s good at studying on his own and has a friend with his CDL passes the exam, only to find out that companies won’t consider hiring him since his training wasn’t with an accredited school. It may be tempting to save the time and money and do a program of self-study to pass the CDL, but it’s not going to get you the job.

2. A private CDL school is usually a better deal for the driver than company school.

If you hire on as a newbie with a company, before you have your CDL, they’ll teach you what you need to know to pass the exam, but you’ll be in hock to them for that training. They’ll deduct it from your paycheck soon as you have some income. And even though they’ll most likely employ you (unless you really mess up), the rate they’ll pay is usually lower than what you’d get driving for a company that didn’t train you.

Also, as part of your employment agreement, you’ll have to commit to stay with the company for one or two years. If the job isn’t your cup of tea, for whatever the reason, you’re legally bound to pay the balance of what you owe.

A plus of training with your employer is they will usually put you up for the three to four weeks you’re learning. The minus is you’ll be sharing a motel room with a roommate or two who might not share your sleep or study habits.

A private CDL school course will set you back between $3,000 and $5,000, but in the long run, you’re going to have more employment options. And most companies will take inexperienced drivers with CDL training. They’ll set you up with orientation and a trainer. You might even get the money you shell out for CDL school since some companies offer tuition reimbursement as a perk. Make sure you find out what you have to do to qualify.

Plus private schools teach you on a manual shift truck – which a company may not always do. If you train on an automatic transmission and ever want to work with a truck that’s manual, it’s going to be a much tougher adjustment.
One caution though about private CDL schools: Don’t just shop on price. There are schools offering “deals” on getting your CDL, but they may not be state-accredited. They may also offer what they call “free” training, but you’re going to be on the hook for paying them back once you get a job. It’s also a good idea to find out the pass rate of any school you’re considering.

3. Finishing CDL school gets you only part way down the road.

After you finish CDL training, you’ll still need to prepare for the exam. One of the best ways to do this is by taking practice tests, preferably ones that were written relatively recently. Since rules and laws are always changing, practicing with an old test means you’re studying outdated info. Try to find a source that’s compiled from actual CDL test questions and ask when they were most recently updated.

Check your state’s DMV website for a free sample test and here are some other sources:
Crist CDL Training Center
Truckers Report CDL Practice Tests

Also, study the information booklet your testing center provides. It’s a great way to review. And download and read your state’s CDL manual here.

And remember CDL school will only teach you minimum required for passing your CDL exam. But you want to do more than just pass the exam and get your first job. You want to make a decent living – not just drive a truck. With the turnover rate for first year drivers around 200% (according to Overdrive magazine) it’s going to take more preparation and education than you’ll get attending CDL school. Improve your odds of succeeding by preparing yourself not just to drive but to be a successful business person.

Find more info about the skills you need to succeed as a driver by also reading these articles on LTL.com:

Are You Cut Out to Be an Owner-Operator?

You Just Inherited a Truck. Sell it or Hire a Driver?

Driving Skills for a Smaller Fuel Bill

Are You Cut Out to Be an Owner-Operator?

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Google “How to become an owner-operator,” and there’s plenty to discourage you from considering the question for long. 

Brett Aquilla, a former company driver, says “you have to be crazy” to take on buying your own truck and becoming a business owner. He advocates the employee route and letting your employer hassle with the financial strain, licensing, permits, breakdowns, insurance, etc.

“Kick back, earn $55K, and make a killer living viewing the sites across North America in your company’s dream machine,” he says. “And if you get tired of trucking – quit. A company driver can always just quit and return later at any time.”

Some drivers, though, have been down the employee road and haven’t found it to be the walk in the park Aquilla describes. Company drivers have their own hassles including company politics, power-tripping dispatchers, and having to haul loads and run lanes that don’t suit them.

And some are just more interested in having their independence and the sense of satisfaction that comes from succeeding on their own guts, wits and hard work.

If you’re thinking about it, here are some sources for the tough questions you’ll need to ask yourself.

Make Sure You’re Doing it for the Right Reasons

Small fleet owner and radio show host Kevin Rutherford says most people considering the move to being an owner-operator will list three reasons they want to do it: First, usually is “to make more money. Then it’s more ‘freedom’, ‘less hassle’, ‘fewer rules’. If your answers sound like these,” he says, “think again before you proceed,” because you’re likely to be disappointed.

According to Rutherford there are better reasons for taking on the additional work and away-from-home hours. Drivers who transition successfully to owner-operators are usually those who do so because they want the additional responsibility and challenges of being a business owner, and want to build a business that will support better lives for them and their families. Read the list of questions Rutherford suggests you ask yourself to further test your assumptions about being an owner-operator.

It’s a Whole Lot More than “Steering and Gearing”

Truckie D is an owner-operator with 1 million+ consecutive safe over-the-road miles who blogs at TruckieD.wordpress.com. His advice, if you haven’t driven a truck before, is first to slow the heck down and get hired somewhere first, drive for a year and then see if you’re still in love with the idea of being an owner-operator.

“But”, he says, “do NOT get sucked into getting trained and buying/leasing a truck immediately. That’s a recipe for going broke quickly. Trucking as an owner-operator is a whole lot more than just ‘steering and gearing.’ The important point to remember is, you’re not buying a truck — you’re buying a business. You need experience in the trucking business, and some general business experience if you want to be successful at it.” Being able to understand a profit and loss statement and understanding how to do a cost benefit analysis of say, adding an APU to your truck, are just a couple of the business skills you’ll need to master.

See his blog post, “So, You Want to Be an Owner Operator,” for more some more sobering reality checks about owning your own truck driving business.

If You’re Still Not Scared Off…

Samuel Barradas readers through 6 steps to becoming an owner-operator on The Trucker’s Report blog. First, is a personal assessment – how much time you need at home, health considerations, career goals, etc. Next is a list of financial considerations to mull: the risks of personal debt, establishing an emergency fund and whether your credit score is going to help or hurt you. He also addresses the questions of whether to go independent or lease to a company, what types of equipment to shop and run, and what legal and accounting structures you should have in place.

Increase Your Odds of Succeeding

According to the National Assoc. of Small Trucking Cos (NASTC), the failure rate of small, start-up trucking companies is about 85%. Only 15% make it to the second year of operation. The organization offers training to help aspiring fleet owners beat the odds. On their website you can find more info about their training.

On that page you can also find a list of 20 new authority concerns, just the tip of the iceberg as far as the kind of business planning you’ll need to do: How do you plan to find freight? Where do you plan to run? How will you find insurance? How are you going to keep the books? How are you going to do log audits, fuel taxes, and driver qualification files? How are you going to manage and interpret data and information?

Lots to think about, but looking at it all before you leap will save you a lot of stress, debt and disappointment.

Driving Skills for a Smaller Fuel Bill

iStock_000008984856XSmallCarlos Cruz, a struggling lease-operator, was ready to turn in his keys after a few months on the road. But as a last-ditch effort, he decided that on this final trip to the terminal, he’d follow all the advice about fuel efficiency he’d been hearing from trucking business gurus and see if it allowed him to recoup expenses and increase his take-home pay.

The experiment was a success, so much so that he decided to give his business another month. After 30 days his fuel mileage went from the 6.2 to 7.8 miles per gallon, a 1.6 mpg improvement that more than quadrupled his net revenue.

That was three years ago. Today Carlos continues his lease deal and can afford to live well on his income.

Details of his story are in Jim Park’s column on TruckingInfo.com, but the three habits he says make the biggest difference are:

  • Slowing down from 65 to 55 mph
  • Never idling
  • Becoming a “progressive shifting machine.”

He also says he’s forgotten where the cruise control switch is, although other fuel efficiency experts say cruise control has its place.

For example, Detroit Diesel application engineer Chuck Blake points out in this article that cruise control gives drivers a break from active driving and may be a tad more efficient on flat roads. “A really good driver can always out-perform cruise control,” he says, “but it’s tough and it’s tiring because you’re always working.”

On the other hand, the electronic control module (ECM) is not as good at telling the difference between a hill and a headwind, Blake says. All it knows is that some external force is slowing the truck down, and it’s going to feed as much fuel to the engine as it needs to maintain the set roadspeed.

A fuel-efficient driver lightens up on the gas pedal when full power isn’t needed, like when cresting a hill. “He can see the top of the hill, and backs off the throttle as he goes over the top”, Blake says. “Sure, he gives up a few miles per hour, but the fuel savings is phenomenal.”

Running full throttle to the top of a hill means wasted fuel when you’ll only need to apply the brakes as you descend the other side. “Kick it out of cruise as you near the top, and let gravity help you,” he says. “You’ll make up the lost road speed quickly enough on the way down.”

On Land Line magazine’s website, an article on lead foot rehab says fuel efficiency starts with a visit to a reputable shop where they can check the ECM for valuable stats that help you most effectively modify your driving technique. Look for data about engine RPM, time in gear, idle time, percent fuel use, fuel used idling, load factors, PTO time, PTO fuel used, speed vs. rpm, and engine load vs. rpm. The stats may also point to programming tweaks that will help reduce fuel consumption.

Overdrive.com’s 67 Fuel Tips to Boost Fuel Economy recommends more good driving habits:

  • Avoid revving the engine between shifts. Ease into each new gear, and don’t be in a hurry to climb through them.
  • Adjust shifting patterns. Download engine data to compare your shifting behaviors – RPMs at shift point – to the optimal RPM “torque bands” for your engine. Adjusting your shifting to fit the make and model of engine can make a big difference. Every 1,000-RPM reduction in engine speed delivers a 1 percent gain in fuel economy.
  • Run in your engine’s “sweet spot.” Once you reach cruising speed, operating in the peak torque zone gives you optimum horsepower, so the engine runs most efficiently. It takes only about 200 horsepower to maintain 65 mph.
  • Lower your average highway speed. Every MPH over 55 equals a 0.1-MPG drop in fuel economy.
  • Anticipate traffic signals. If you can approach slowly and avoid a complete stop, it saves fuel and reduces equipment wear.
  • Minimize AC use. Running the air conditioner delivers a 2⁄10 to 4⁄10-MPG hit. (However, some efficiency experts say that, over 55 MPH, the drag created by open windows hurts mileage more than the AC.)
  • Use truckstops atop hills. Driving uphill toward the truckstop allows natural deceleration, and going downhill to re-enter the highway requires less fuel.

Besides driving habits, dozens of other factors impact mileage. Overdrive’s 67 tips article will give you many more ideas. Also see Caterpillar’s Tractor-Trailer Performance Guide for an even more thorough guide to troubleshooting aerodynamic issues, route selection, tires, gearing, transmission, engine cooling requirements and more.