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They used to say two things were certain in life. Now you can add increased fuel prices. Liz Swanton investigates ways of easing the pain for businesses on the road.

Active ImageWhen the Beatles sang "Baby, you can drive my car" all those years ago, it was a popular suggestion. But not any more, especially if it means filling the tank with petrol at today’s prices.

So, understandably, any business with cars on the road is looking for ways to beat the pressure on their bottom line.

One fuel saving option is an alternative fuel that works perfectly well with your current fuel tank: ethanol. While previously regarded as a ‘no-no’, ethanol is now being embraced as a potential saviour. Expert analysis shows a blend of petrol and ethanol—comprising up to 10 percent of the fuel mix—can be used safely in most vehicles, and making the change can reduce costs by about four to five cents a litre.

Another simple way to reduce the fuel bill is to look after your tyres. Fitting valve caps and correcting tyre pressures once a month improves fuel efficiency as well as safety and handling.

If you’re not good about checking tyres, consider having them refilled with nitrogen because it doesn’t leak as quickly as air. There is a filling cost but top-ups are generally free. Specialist tyre centres can help with this.

Fleet Management

As executive director of the Australasian Fleet Managers’ Association, Marja Thompson understands the concern of businesses trying to keep fleet costs under control. Regardless of the number of cars, she says, the fleet must run the most efficient way possible.

"From talking to my members, I feel there are three ‘hot’ tips that ensure you save money on your vehicles, from the moment you purchase them, but it does require a bit of homework.

"The first is to make sure you have the right vehicle for the job. If your people are running around the city, they may not need large vehicles. If they carry loads, then yes, but if not, maybe another vehicle would be better."

The right vehicle may not be your own. Thompson says companies that operate an internal courier service between outlets may find an external courier service to be more economical—especially if they use motorbikes.

"Secondly, don’t ever be swayed because the dealer is offering a good deal that day. Do the homework. If fuel efficiency is important, compare different types of vehicles in that class and their fuel consumption figures, and you could find yourself saving $500 to $1,000 per year, one vehicle against another," Thompson says.

Road service organisations assess the most affordable cars each year on their whole-of-life costs including fuel economy, so check with NRMA or RACV for their latest figures to see what vehicles might work in your fleet.

"And my hot tip number three is to train your drivers about saving fuel!" Thompson adds. "And not just about taking the aggression out of the right foot, although that is important, but they need to be more price-conscious and know to refuel when the price is low, not wait till the car is empty."

She believes a smart business owner will watch how much fuel each driver is using and then look at ways to manage that, if it is getting out of hand. "You might limit how much fuel they are allowed at company cost, and then they pay for the rest," Thompson suggests.

One way to monitor the situation is to provide staff with a petrol card. Shell is one fuel company offering this convenient way of tracking and controlling fleet costs.

"Our Shell Card Smart Saver offer has the lowest monthly card fee in the market and allows businesses to manage their cards online and receive their reports and invoices via email," says Penny Locaso, Shell Card’s sales manager.

She says there has been increased demand from SMEs for their fuel card since petrol prices began climbing. "Company owners can activate products on the Shell Card to suit their business, and the employee. They can choose to allow certain fuel types and oils, even access to the shop, or not, as they deem appropriate.

"And they have the convenience of online management reporting so they can track those expenses. Customers can receive invoices via email and pay by direct debit, so there’s a detailed record throughout the process."

While these strategies work for the fleets you have now, there will come a time to change vehicles and, as Thompson says, that’s when you find out whether a different vehicle or power source is the answer.

Vehicle Options

Ecowash is a mobile, waterless car wash and polish service that goes to the client, wherever their car is parked. It’s a national franchise system with 30 cars currently on the fleet. For director Stewart Nicholls, running an environmentally sustainable business was one reason to ensure the company’s cars were fuel efficient. Then there were the savings.

"The Hyundai Getz recently topped the NRMA survey of running costs as being the cheapest car to run and it works really well for our business: our guys are getting 700 to 800 kilometres per tank," he says.

Active Image"That’s important in a mobile business, but so is comfort when you’re on the road all the time and we were really surprised at how many features the Getz offers.

"You also want reliability, and while the Getz is proving to be very reliable, there is that safety net of Hyundai’s five-year warranty, so we’re really pleased with our choice."

If small cars are not the answer, then alternative fuels may be. Depending on the manufacturer, you might consider liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), diesel and petrol/electric (hybrid) engines. Gas has been leading the charge.

Ford has long dominated the LPG/E-Gas market (think of taxis) but has definitely noticed increased sales of late. Even its great rival, Holden, has recently launched a dual-fuel (petrol/ LPG) Commodore.

The appeal of gas has registered with a particularly interesting fleet owner: NSW road service organisation, NRMA. A $2 million annual fuel bill convinced the NRMA to switch its 400-strong fleet to LPG and it hopes to save around 60 percent on that bill.

The Holden Rodeo trucks so familiar to NSW motorists will be replaced with Ford Falcon utilities over the next three years, and NRMA spokesman, Tony Stuart, says rocketing fuel prices forced the decision. "With the prices getting higher, the NRMA decided to set an example to other businesses by converting our fleet to a cheaper, cleaner fuel. LPG is better for the environment and works out about a third of the cost of petrol." But LPG is not the only option. Many car companies now offer diesel as a major alternative, in both large and small vehicles. Diesel offers extra pulling power in a big car and is more economical and ecologically friendly, but generally a diesel vehicle will cost more to buy than a petrol-engined version. The savings come at the pump. Volkswagen, Alfa Romeo and Citroen are reporting strong interest in their diesel-powered cars, while Mercedes Benz, Hyundai and Mitsubishi report similarly strong interest in their diesel 4WD models. Aside from LPG and diesel, there are signs of greater interest in hybrid technology, with the development and success of various vehicles powered by petrol/electric engines. While governments have led the charge towards vehicles such as Toyota’s Prius, there is steadily rising interest from private buyers. While that interest may initially have been on environmental grounds, the cynics would suggest it is easier to be green if it costs less.

Whatever the reason, hybrid cars are definitely the go. Even companie
s like BMW and Porsche have hybrids coming our way, while Citroen says there will be a hybrid version of every model in its range by 2010. Interestingly, they will be diesel/electric hybrids rather than petrol/electric. Perhaps, in a few years’ time, petrol and petrol price hikes will be the last thing on our minds.

Smart Saving Tips

Road service organisations’ websites such NRMA, RACV and RACQ suggest some of the following tips on how motorists can save money:

1. Shop around—check with the road service organisations’ websites or http://www.motormouth.com.au for the cheapest daily petrol in your area. Fill up when the price is down, not when the tank is empty.

2. Fill up early—petrol is usually cheapest early in the week. Use your supermarket shopper docket discounts.

3. Modify driving habits—smooth driving reduces fuel consumption by as much as 30 percent. Driving at 90kmh not 110kmh can also reduce consumption.

4. Lighten the load—roof-racks, bullbars, golf clubs and tools add weight and increase fuel consumption.

5. Regularly service vehicles and run tyres at the correct pressure.

6. Remember windows? If the weather is mild, turn off the air conditioner and choose real flow-through ventilation.

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