INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Reliability and safety systems are two priorities for fleets when spec’ing new trucks, according to a panel of fleet executives speaking at the FTR Transportation Conference here Sept. 11.
Robert Haag, vice-president of operations for Perfect Transportation, Andrew Martin, leasing manager with Prime Inc., and Kyle Kottke, general manager and co-owner of Kottke Trucking, all agreed uptime is paramount.
“The last five years we’ve been very concerned when equipment purchasing on the reliability of that and they life we’re going to get,” said Haag, recalling difficulties about a decade ago with reliability due to early-generation emissions aftertreatment systems. “We’re a small, family-run company, so we try to maximize our equipment as much as possible in terms of extending life.”
Martin agreed uptime is essential, not only for fleet profitability, but to keep drivers happy.
“If they’re out there on the road, they want to work,” he said of drivers. “They want the tractor up and working too. It’s not so much the repair costs – being down for two to three days is a big factor…I think some OEMs may overlook the impact of downtime.”
Martin said a Prime motto is ‘every second counts.’
“We measure downtime in seconds,” he said.
Secondary market blues
In the U.S., the market for pre-owned trucks has dried up, causing fleets to reconsider their buying cycles.
“Prices are going lower and used truck buyers are reducing their inventories,” said Martin. “They aren’t even buying. It’s a big problem when they won’t even buy.”
Those willing to buy used iron are looking for low-mileage trucks, Martin added, since they don’t want to deal with costly aftertreatment issues on older used trucks.
“The 400,000- to 500,000-mile trucks just aren’t selling as well as the other trucks out there,” he said.
“We’ve had the same experience,” echoed Haag. “We keep our equipment longer, so having higher miles puts us at an even bigger disadvantage.”
Kottke expects used truck prices will see even further price erosion. “Our cost of equipment has gone up, and our market to recoup that is nearly impossible,” he said, referring to it as a “double-edged sword.”
Investing in safety
All three fleets on the panel are investing in new safety technologies. Kottke said his fleet is spec’ing rear-end collision avoidance and lane departure warning systems. About 30% of its trucks are fitted with dual-facing cameras.
Prime also invests in collision mitigation, but has yet to deploy in-cab cameras, though it’s exploring the costs and benefits.
“Some of our concerns are the management of the data,” said Martin, noting 7,000 trucks will generate a ton of data to manage.
Perfect Transportation has invested in forward- and rear-looking cameras for the past six years.
“We lost some drivers because of it,” Haag admitted. “I’d say it was a good decision with us. I feel like we really coached some bad habits out of some of our drivers. We found that some of the drivers we thought were our safest were the ones at the most risk. They were the most productive, but there was a reason they were the most productive.”
Asked if the fleets on the panel are suffering from a shortage of technicians, all three panelists agreed it’s a major concern. Kottke said his fleet is short of technicians at all three of its locations.
“And it’s affecting us with our dealer networks not having enough technicians to turn work orders in the timeframe I find acceptable,” he added.
Martin agreed, noting his company has pressured dealers to remain open 24/7, but they simply can’t because of the lack of technicians.
Haag attributed the shortage, in part, to the way the job has evolved.
“Part of the reason is the fact, sometimes it’s not a hammer and wrench anymore,” he said. “It’s a laptop, computer programming, recognizing some electrical issues that maybe didn’t exist in the past.”
He is encouraged, however, but the emergence of programs aimed at introducing young people to the trade. “I think we are moving in the right direction,” he said.
Day cabs vs. sleepers
Perfect Transport and Prime are seeing advantages to ordering more day cabs of late. At Perfect, Haag said drivers voiced concerns about parking and safety. There were also tight pickup and delivery locations in the northeast, where drivers struggled with longer wheelbase sleeper cabs. It decided to swap out some of those sleeper cabs for day cabs.
The fleet negotiated lodging rates at hotels where drivers could get a good night’s sleep and also, usually, a free breakfast and coffee in the morning.
“We found some real success with that,” Haag said, adding it increased driver satisfaction and allowed the company to service some locations that were tough to access with the longer wheelbase sleeper cabs.
“We use it to sell weight,” Martin said of the day cabs in Prime’s fleet, noting the payload is valuable whether it be a bulk load or an additional pallet in a van trailer.
Asked about the arrival of autonomous trucks, none of the fleet managers on the panel anticipated they’d be replacing drivers anytime in the near future.
“Drivers are worried about it,” said Martin. “They talk about it all the time.”
However, he feels the companies driving the technology are marketing their solutions as being closer to reality than it is.
“The technology is not going to be the thing that holds us back,” said Haag. He said regulatory and social issues will be the bigger roadblocks.
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