Progressive fleet first in Mexico to receive Volvo I-Shift

by James Menzies

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The Mexican truck market often gets overlooked when new technologies are introduced to the industry in other parts of the world. It’s a constant frustration for Laura Mandujano Valdes, director commercial with Transportes Monroy Schiavon (TMS), a sophisticated fleet based just outside Mexico City, which is trying to elevate the professionalism of the industry here.

“The technology that arrives in Mexico is lower than what is offered in other countries,” Valdes said during a tour of the company’s facility.

But that could be about to change. Mexico represents a growing truck market, representing about 25,000 new vehicles per year, putting it on par with Canada. Truck OEMs are aware of the opportunities this represents.

Volvo has announced a new strategy for the Mexican market, which involves providing feature-laden, high-tech trucks rather than decontented, lower-cost vehicles. TMS has had its eye on the I-Shift for some time, and leapt at the opportunity to be the first Mexican fleet to place an order for VN tractors with the I-Shift transmission. It ordered 100 such trucks earlier this year, and has already taken delivery of 25 of them. So far, with nearly 300,000 kms of experience, the benefits of the I-Shift are meeting expectations.

Raul Monroy Otero said the I-Shift-equipped VNs are averaging 5% better fuel economy than similar trucks with manual transmissions, and these trucks are not yet broken in. Drivers are reporting feeling less fatigued after a day of driving, and after some initial reticence about using automated transmissions, are beginning to embrace the technology, Monroy Otero said.

The trucking industry in Mexico is facing many of the same challenges it is here in Canada, yet it also has to contend with the perception it’s a low-tech industry running shoddy equipment. That may be true of some Mexican carriers, but TMS demonstrated during a visit, a high level of sophistication and professionalism.

For example, while driver wellness has in recent years been brought to the forefront in the US and Canada, TMS has a program that would rival any you’d find north of Laredo. The company runs an on-site medical facility 24/7, and requires drivers to undergo a mini-physical before setting out on each and every trip. Things like temperature, blood pressure and vision are tested a maximum of one hour before the driver leaves the yard. Think of it as a pre-trip inspection for drivers. If medication is required, the fleet provides it free of charge on the spot.

“Through this pre-trip medical service, we check that and we follow up,” said Valdes. “The nurse will tell us if he is in the condition to make a trip. If the nurse says he’s not able to go, he won’t take the trip.”

Running close to 500 tractors and serving major customers such as Walmart and Ryder, TMS is large by Mexican standards, where only 100 carriers operate 100 trucks or more. Its nearly all-Volvo fleet averages just four years of age. TMS partners with several major US carriers, with whom it swaps trailers at the Mexico/US border for delivery into their respective countries.

Asked if TMS is interested in participating in the US pilot project that allows qualifying Mexican carriers to deliver into the States, Valdes said she prefers the current arrangement. She worries Mexican drivers would abandon their trucks and never come back, lured by the potential for greater earnings north of the border.

“We have the big risk of losing them,” Valdes said. “Every day, Mexicans are trying to cross the border into the US.”

While a life in the US may be alluring to some, drivers at TMS make a good wage, one that in some cases can exceed that earned by doctors and other professionals, Valdes said. Drivers there earn about 1.2 pesos per kilometre, or about $30,000 per year, which goes a long way in Mexico.

Still, the profession remains stigmatized, with few young people looking at truck driving as a viable career. TMS is aiming to change that. It has built a training school at its headquarters and hopes to begin developing its own drivers. Turnover at TMS is about 25%, well below US standards but still a costly problem.

TMS has an extensive hiring process, which is both costly and time-consuming, but important to weed out undesirable drivers. Valdes admitted trucking attracts some unsavory characters, including those who feel their carrier’s diesel fuel is an extension of their own wages.

“They think fuel is part of the salary and that they can steal fuel, that every trip they can take some of the fuel and sell it on the road,” Valdes said of some drivers. “We believe we cannot allow them to do that. If we allow them to steal the diesel, the second part will be the tires and at the end they’ll take the cargo.”

To avoid these issues, TMS conducts extensive background checks, numerous interviews with various departments, a road test and a mentoring program. For every 10 drivers who apply for a position, only one is selected. It takes about a month, and costs $1,000, to hire a new driver, Valdes explained.

“Sometimes this can be expensive, but we believe we need that special and professional driver to have our units, otherwise we prefer to have the unit just laying there.”

Security is not just a concern within the fleet. TMS also contends with real concerns over hijackings and stolen loads. To reduce the risk, drivers travel in convoys and must stop only at pre-authorized locations for food or fuel. Every truck is satellite-tracked and dispatchers closely monitor the movements of loads. When loads do get stolen, two-thirds of the time TMS is able to recover the cargo with the help of law enforcement.

In Mexico, hours-of-service are not yet regulated, but TMS enforces its own rules. Drivers can work just 12 hours a day (including non-driving related work). While TMS brings to the Mexican trucking industry a progressive attitude and heightened level of professionalism, it’s keenly aware that it all begins with the driver.

“We see them as our main asset,” Valdes said. “It doesn’t matter if we have the best truck or the best facility, at the end of the day it’s only one man that has everything in his hands…our daily challenge is to make our drivers believe in the importance of what they do.”

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