As fleets work to improve productivity in the face of a shortage of qualified drivers, the last thing they need is to have trucks sitting for days at a dealer waiting for repairs. Truck makers are responding with an array of programs and technologies to address this issue, as was evident in announcements at interviews at the recent American Trucking Associations' annual management conference in Philadelphia.

“It’s all about uptime,” says Jeff Sass, Navistar senior VP for truck sales and marketing. “I was with a large fleet recently, and they asked me, ‘What do you think cost of ownership means to us?’ They said cost of ownership is all about driver retention. And the number one thing that retains drivers is to keep the truck on the road so they can get paid.”

One way truck makers are tackling this problem is with technology. Daimler Trucks North America announced new features for its Virtual Technician remote diagnostic system. Available first is a new portal that lets users dig deeper into the data. Down the road, for some 2017 models it will include the ability to "flash" software updates and parameter changes to the truck over the air, rather than having to take the truck in to a dealer.

"To me this is overdue," said DTNA CEO Martin Daum. "You don’t go to the Apple Store every time you update an app, so why expect it from the truck?"

Matt Pfaffenbach, director, telematics for Daimler Trucks North America, noted that fleets will also have the ability to remotely handle parameter updates, such as changing the mph limit on speed governors.

"I also hear from fleets that they want confirmation that the vehicle in operation is as it was configured, that someone has not messed with the parameters, and this technology will give them the ability to do that," he said.

Navistar, however, will actually be the first to market with the ability to remotely update a truck's software, according to Sass, as an outgrowth of its OnCommand Connection introduced last year and made standard on new International trucks this year. The target date for this capability is the first quarter of 2016.

“Two things we have to have in order to go to market, though," he explained. "It has to have security. We don’t want a 12-year-old in Nebraska reprogramming trucks.”

In addition, he said, in case there are any glitches, “We have to have 24/7/365 technical support in order to respond to any possible problems. The last thing we want is for a fleet not to be able to start their trucks the next day because it wipes their ECM.”

Other programs are addressing productivity and excellence at the dealer level.

Mack Trucks announced at ATA that it is establishing Certified Uptime Centers at its dealers that will streamline service for small repairs, such as software corrections, lighting problems and diesel particulate filter regenerations.

The system replaces the traditional first in, first out method of working on customers’ vehicles by diverting jobs that will take under four hours to special service bays with dedicated technicians. Under the traditional system, small jobs get caught behind big jobs and trucks are tied up unnecessarily for long periods, said Stephen Roy, president of Mack Trucks North America.

The process uses Mack’s Asist service management system and Guard Dog Connect telematics introduced last year, and recently announced Truck Diagnostics System.

Kenworth is rolling out a service program for its trucks at certified dealers that will provide a full diagnostic analysis and repair estimate within two hours, the company announced.

The service will be offered under the Kenworth PremierCare Gold Certified program as a way to reduce truck downtime for commercial customers. Kenworth Gold Certified dealers will provide the servive at their Kenworth PremierCare ExpressLane with dedicated technicians that can provide the quick diagnosis and estimate repair time and cost, according to Kenworth.

"The goal is to do away with trucks sitting in the queue and drivers waiting for an estimate," explained Jason Skoog, Kenworth's assistant general manager for sales and marketing. "And that's critical to our customers, especially when the repair may be very simple and can be completed within hours. Knowing what’s happening, quickly, will help customers make the decisions needed to keep their deliveries on schedule.”

Meanwhile, Navistar will take its Accelerated Service program to the next level over the next year and start “grading” dealers, according to Sass, awarding them with a star or diamond-rating based on their performance in areas such as parts availability and dwell time. “Now fleets will know they’ve got a five-diamond International dealer available.

“Our goal is to make sure they all get there. A little competition never hurt.”