Truck driver hedges costs with fuel efficiency

Photo by Johnny Jackson 
James Motes, of McDonough, said his truck-driving business has done well despite rising fuel prices. He plans to expand his five-rig business by adding more trucks and drivers to his fleet.

Photo by Johnny Jackson James Motes, of McDonough, said his truck-driving business has done well despite rising fuel prices. He plans to expand his five-rig business by adding more trucks and drivers to his fleet.

James Motes has driven from the Florida Keys to Nova Scotia, and from Fairbanks, Alaska, to San Diego.

"It's pretty cool being able to drive around the country. It's like being on vacation all the time," said Motes, a truck driver from McDonough.

For many truckers, however, that thrill of hitting the open road is muted ever-increasing fuel costs. Average diesel prices continued to climb, to $4.07 per gallon nationwide on Monday, according to AAA Auto Club South's Daily Fuel Gauge Report. The cost is still about 77 cents below the record national average of $4.84 set on July 17, 2008.

The record high fuel prices crippled many trucking companies, and caused some to go out of business in 2008, said Motes. As they faltered, Motes' newly incorporated trucking business began to thrive. "I may be a little different from most trucking companies," Motes said. "Even when that happened with the record-breaking prices, my business made money. The higher the gas prices, the more money we made. We were paying next to nothing on fuel, and fuel is supposed to be a third of your budget."

Motes, a husband and the father of two, said he is co-owner of Black Ribbon, based in Suwanee, Ga. The company has five trucks and six drivers, including Motes, and is exclusively contracted Landstar System, Inc., of Jacksonville, Fla., to do interstate transports of consumable goods and products.

The 15-year veteran truck driver started the small trucking business in March 2007, with his mother, Margaret Woodruff. "She's always dreamed of owning her own business, and it was kind of a perfect storm with the downturn of the economy," he said.

Motes said his mother, formerly a computer programmer, invested in the business as many other businesses began to realize the effects of the economic downturn. "Trucking moves America," he said. "We are the lifeblood of America, because we move everything. [But] the industry goes through ebbs and flows."

Motes said his ability to proceed, while others struggled, is partly due to chance and partly due to hard work and tenacity. He explained that his trucks are able to get eight miles to the gallon, while others get five miles to the gallon. He declared his older fleet of trucks are more fuel efficient than most because, the older trucks have not been fitted with emissions equipment like newer, more expensive models that have reduced fuel efficiency.

Motes acknowledged that properly maintaining the older trucks, so far, has proven beneficial for business. "The key is being proactive," he said. "I don't own one that's not 9 years old. I have one that's from 1999."

Being able to go three additional miles per gallon of fuel positively impacts Motes' bottom line, because "the higher the expense of the fuel, the higher the fuel surcharge."

Charging the standard fuel surcharge based on current average diesel prices, at $3.96 per gallon in Georgia, yields Motes a profit of a little more than 44-cents on the gallon. The surcharge, typically used to supplement fuel costs, covers his fuel costs.

"Back when we first started doing this, we had double the amount of customers," said Motes. "These little businesses that were making money and selling their wears shipping across the country. When the economy went south, they went out of business."

Motes said the downturn in the economy left trucking companies with fewer business opportunities and less trucking competition. "For the layman, I feel bad," he said. "Consumers feel the impact most, because it is passed along to them when they buy products."

Federal officials announced, last October, measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve fuel efficiency on heavy-duty trucks and buses, as a means to curtailing inflationary consumer costs. "I'm all for them making the manufacturers make more-fuel-efficient trucks," added Motes.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation have proposed separate gasoline and diesel truck standards, which start in the 2014 model year and achieve up to a 10-percent emissions reduction for gasoline vehicles, and a 15-percent reduction for diesel vehicles the 2018 model year.

"These new standards are another step in our work to develop a new generation of clean, fuel-efficient American vehicles that will improve our environment and strengthen our economy," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

"In addition to cutting greenhouse gas pollution," Jackson continued, "greater fuel economy will shrink fuel costs for small businesses that depend on pickups and heavy duty vehicles, shipping companies and cities and towns with fleets of these vehicles. Those savings can be invested in new jobs at home, rather than heading overseas, and increasing our dependence on foreign oil."