Open any journal or website, whether it’s in the mainstream media or an industry publication, and you can’t get away from reports on the rapid pace of changing technology. Shrewd observers predict even more potentially disruptive change just over the horizon.
The challenge for fleets in a time of disruption is, on the surface, the same as it’s always been: to keep trucks properly maintained and on the road making money. But more technology, with entirely new technologies on the way, means the cost and educational demands of training technicians and investing in tools and software needed to service trucks is increasingly problematic.
But if fleet executives are unable, or unwilling, to invest in cutting-edge training and tooling for technicians, will they still have repair options outside of their own, in-house, facilities? Or will the same problems of ever-more-complex vehicles force aftermarket and independent maintenance providers out of business, leaving only dealerships with the capabilities to repair modern trucks?
“The first trend you have to consider at the moment is that OEMs are doing things to drive more support to their dealerships,” says Darry Stuart, CEO at DWS Fleet Management Services. Stuart says truck makers have long been troubled at the prospect of allowing proprietary technological repair information out into the world at large for competitive reasons. At the same time, trucks are becoming more increasingly complex and more difficult to troubleshoot and repair using traditional, “mechanical” procedures.
The result has been a sort of evolution in the way large fleets approach maintenance. “The in-house shops now tend to specialize in what I call ‘bread and butter’ maintenance,” he says. “They do oil changes, brake jobs, alternators and trailers — that sort of work. But you really don’t see many in-house shops for large fleets tearing engines apart, pulling pistons and heads and replacing them. What is happening is that the cutting-edge tech work goes to the dealers, while the more time-consuming tear-down work gets farmed out to independent shops. And the fleet’s in-house maintenance team focuses on preventive maintenance, minor issues, and keeping the trucks rolling.”
That’s because it’s not just a matter of technicians knowing how to repair high-tech trucks — it’s the time it takes, according to Gerry Mead, executive vice president of maintenance for the Hub Group.
“When I started in trucking, fleets measured downtime in days,” he explains. “Today it’s measured in hours. So the pressure is intense to get trucks turned around and out of the shop as quickly as possible.”
Mead says with a current laptop, a technician’s ability to tie into a vehicle and its diagnostic tree is not in question. “But for most fleets it’s a time issue. They want to stay away from complex and time-consuming repair issues. So it just makes good business sense to send those trucks off to a dealer or a repair shop that specializes in those issues and let your in-house technicians focus on problems that they can resolve quickly to minimize downtime.”
Kristy LaPage, business manager for Mitchell 1’s commercial vehicle group, also points to the in-house shop as “vital tool” to keep costs down. However, she says, “as technology has grown, keeping technicians educated and properly equipped has been a challenge for many of them.”
Things are changing so quickly now on the technology front, LaPage says, that it’s getting harder and harder for everyone — from OEMs down to technicians on the shop floor — to keep up with everything.
“We are in a definite state of technological flux in trucking right now,” she says. “So fleet managers are uneasy, because you have so many new advances coming at us. And we know from past experience that not all of these new systems and technologies will ultimately pan out. So, the core question for fleets now is, where do you put your financial and personnel resources today, so you can get the best return on them in terms of keeping your trucks on the road?”
Victor Cummings, vice president of service operations for megadealer Rush Enterprises, believes things will improve.
“I do think we’re going to see the gaps widening between what fleets and independent repair shops are able to handle, and what dealerships can handle,” Cummings says. “But I think the core problem is not so much new technology, as it is the integration of multiple technological systems on vehicles. Even at the dealerships, we run into challenges when trying to troubleshoot and repair different vehicle systems that are in conflict with one another. I think that as these systems become more integrated from the OEMs, it’s going to be a major factor in pushing more repair work to the dealerships.”
The case for dealers
One way around many of these problems is to simply wrap an extended warranty plan into the price of new trucks, Stuart explains.
“This is the way that large fleets that typically dispose of trucks in three to four years are increasingly dealing with advanced technology repair issues,” he says. “The dealerships are the ones with the practical experience, knowledge and latest information to help expedite repairs. A local fleet, with maybe 200 trucks, just isn’t going to be able to invest in those things in a way that’s going to allow them to troubleshoot repetitive failures and come up with the right repair. It’s just easier for them to buy the extended warranty package and take the truck to the dealer.”
Stuart says there are other advantages to this approach as well. It keeps trucks from taking up valuable shop floor space for days — or even weeks — on end. “We can’t get techs to understand batteries or charging systems on modern trucks,” he says. “And fleets don’t want their technicians troubleshooting technology issues, anyway. It just eats up far too much time when you have trucks you need to turn around. It just makes more sense from an efficiency standpoint to let those guys focus on mechanical vehicle systems and let the dealers worry about the high-tech repair work.”
Cummings, at Rush, says Stuart is absolutely correct. “A lot of these technology issues are so new that our troubleshooting steps coming down from the OEMs are changing weekly,” he says. “We’re constantly changing the ways we troubleshoot and resolve maintenance issues. It’s all we can do to keep up, at the moment.”.
Eyeing the future maintenance and technology landscape, Cummings says dealers are coming up with new options for fleets worried about keeping their increasingly complex trucks on the road.
“At Rush, we recently introduced a new contract maintenance program for fleets, specifically because our customers were telling us that their costs for tooling, technicians and training are rising by exponential amounts. We are at a point today where a single repair software program can cost $10,000. And fleets are telling us they need more consistent control over their overall maintenance budget.”
Cummings says the contract maintenance option is ideal for fleets with limited maintenance budgets or brick-and-mortar space, because the plan essentially turns all vehicle maintenance responsibilities over to the dealership.
“The beauty is we can cover all makes and models with a plan like this,” he explains. “And the agreement covers everything from oil changes all the way to the most complex powertrain repairs. It’s planned service and guaranteed repairs for the entire life of the vehicle. And it’s attractive to fleets because it eliminates the ‘how’ and ‘where’ aspect of getting trucks repaired, while delivering much more consistent expenses and pricing to the fleet’s bottom line.”
In-house maintenance and relying on warranty service at dealerships are ideal solutions for large fleets that are new-truck buyers, Stuart says. But those options aren’t always viable for second- and third-life truck owners.
“These are typically smaller fleets with limited floor space and vehicles that went out of warranty many miles, or several years, ago. This is the customer group that I think independent shops will continue to cater to.”
At the same time, Stuart believes we will see independent shops increasingly specialize, “in powertrains, transmissions or electric trucks, for example. Because not every fleet is going to be willing or able to get their trucks to a dealer when a problem arises.”
Cummings agrees, and believes that there will be a stabilization of the current tech curve. At that point, fleets and independent repair shops will have more access to the correct diagnostic and repair information they need to make even highly technical repairs on late-model trucks.
“There will be niche business opportunities out there for shops as all of this currently new technology matures,” he says.
Mitchell 1’s LaPage says she believes the evolution of the independent shops to deal with specialized systems and new technology has already begun. “We’re already seeing many independent shops beginning this transformation and taking on different competencies in different areas,” she says.
“Years ago, we saw a lot of technicians leave automotive dealerships and move into trucking because they didn’t want to deal with new technology — particularly vehicle electronics systems. You may start to see some techs move down into independent shops that focus solely on mechanical works — like engine rebuilds — for the same reason.”
But, LaPage says, new trucks will not always be new, and second and third owners will still need highly complex repairs made. “So we understand that we have to stay in front of the technology as much as possible and constantly update our tools and educational assets to provide independent shops with the ability to service those customers.”
Even as technology continues to change and fleets focus ever more on uptime, it appears fleets will have a variety of maintenance and repair options to choose from.