With the U.S. national average for a regular gallon of gas consistently hovering above $3.50, many drivers are wincing when they see the dollar total at the pump. In some states this year, prices soared to notorious heights: Supply and distribution problems in California caused gas prices to go beyond the $4.60 mark in October. These high prices not only affect consumers but they have a big impact for large commercial truck fleets, which can consume millions of gallons of fuel annually.

The transportation sector accounts for more than 70 percent of U.S. oil consumption, and heavy-duty vehicles make up 17 percent of that use, as the EPA noted when it created the first-ever fuel efficiency and emissions standards for such trucks last year. For the past several years, companies including UPS, FedEx, Coca-Cola and Waste Management have been actively testing a variety of truck fleet strategies to reduce the impact of fuel costs while lowering their carbon footprint.

Many of these solutions involve purchasing alternative-fuel vehicles such as hybrids and electrics, but these companies are also employing more creative tactics.

Heavy-Duty Hybrids

Coca-Cola began building a hybrid fleet in 2001 and now has the largest heavy-duty hybrid electric fleet in North America. Steve Saltzgiver, Coca-Cola's group director of North America fleet operations, says alternative-fuel vehicles now make up close to 10 percent of the company's heavy duty truck holdings, and the company is on track to double this percentage in the next seven years. So far, Saltzgiver says hybrids have saved the company up to 30 percent in fuel and reduced emissions by about one third.

In a 13-month study, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) compared five of Coke's heavy-duty hybrids to five conventional diesel fuel trucks. The results? The hybrids' total cost of operation was 24 percent less than the diesel group, "which means the customer is realizing real savings with the hybrid group." That's important, since the cost of alternative fuel equipment per vehicle can range from $24,000 to $50,000, says Saltzgiver. Coca-Cola's goal for getting a return on that investment is about three years. (That timeline is markedly better than the payback time for the average consumer on an electric car.)

The U.S. government is also assisting companies in the switch to alternative fuels with its Clean Fleets Partnership, which so far is providing 18 companies (including Coca-Cola, UPS, Frito-Lay and others) with technical support and public recognition, along with online tools for comparing truck engines and finding alternative fueling stations.

A Turn in the Right Direction

Other fuel-saving methods are more subtle but no less important. UPS, which has a fleet of more than 93,000 vehicles, has gotten attention for its "right turn policy," which maps routes for drivers to minimize left turns. "I know what you may be thinking, but it really works," UPS CEO Scott Davis said during a speech about the strategy. According to the company, advanced route planning saved 8.4 million gallons of fuel in 2011.

Operators of large fleets are well aware of the power drivers have to reduce fuel consumption, and therefore emissions and costs. Driver training and telematics (onboard systems that monitor driver behaviors) are now key components of several commercial truck fleet programs. About 11,000 Coca-Cola drivers have completed its Smartdriver video training program, and by the end of the year, the company will have fully deployed a telematics system that can deliver a dashboard-style report on each driver that includes data on idling, adherence to routes, hard braking and speeding.

Bradly Paterson, senior manager of health and safety for Coca-Cola Refreshments, says "the goal is to deliver information to drivers in a positive way to collaborate on reducing emissions and fuel use." Such systems are increasingly common in the trucking industry, and Coca-Cola estimates that by altering on-the-road behavior, the driver of a conventional diesel-fueled truck can reduce fuel consumption by 10 percent. That's a potential fuel savings of $1,500 per truck per year.

One of the Smartdriver tips for truck drivers is that "slow-and-go is better than stop-and-go." If drivers maintain a long following distance and keep rolling in traffic, they can achieve a 20-percent fuel reduction. Other tips include keeping idling to a minimum, following the speed limit and checking tire pressure.

Paterson says the driver training program has gotten a positive response in the field. "A lot of people, I think, were quite surprised when they took a look at just how much of a savings they could personally be creating just by following some of these steps," he says.

The beauty of the Smartdriver program, Paterson adds, is that you don't have to be a truck driver to enjoy the benefits. "Whether I'm driving my 18-wheeler or driving my Camry down the road, the information still applies."

Though U.S. gas prices are low compared to those in Europe, where the average price for a liter of gas is $1.59 euros, or about $7.86 a gallon, these numbers are projected to be 24 percent higher in 2013 than they were in 2010, when the average was under $3. In the absence of a magic wand to bring down prices at the pump, the simplest way any driver can cope is to make a few easy changes behind the wheel.

Gas-Reducing Tips From Coca-Cola's Smartdriver Program

  • Avoid excess idling. Idling for more than 10 seconds uses more gas and emits more pollution than restarting your car.
  • Accelerate and brake smoothly. Fast starts and hard braking, often called “jack rabbit” starts and stops, use excess fuel and increase brake wear-and-tear.
  • Observe speed limits. In highway travel, driving 5 mph above the speed limit results in an average fuel economy loss of 6 percent.
  • Properly maintain your vehicle. Tune your engine, change your oil and replace air filters regularly to increase gas mileage up to 10 percent. Check your tire pressure. Fuel efficiency is reduced by 1 percent for every 3 psi that tires are underinflated.