It's easy to get excited by all the possibilities technology offers us today. It's also easy to be intimidated and concerned about the challenges increasing technology in trucks poses to the independent distributor and service provider.
Don't adopt technology for technology's sake, but so you can better serve your customers. (Photo by Jim Park)
Don't adopt technology for technology's sake, but so you can better serve your customers. (Photo by Jim Park)

But if you keep your customers' needs in mind when assessing the challenges and opportunities technology offers, you can find ways to survive and thrive in this new high-tech world of the 21st century.

Fleet issues and technology

Many of the top concerns voiced by fleets today involve technology, either as part of the problem or as part of the solution. A look at the annual survey of fleet top issues by the American Transportation Research Institute (the research arm of the American Trucking Associations) offers several areas where this is the case.

Fuel economy, for instance, is still a concern, even though diesel prices have moderated from last year's record highs. This ties in to the environment, another fleet concern, since less fuel burned also means lower greenhouse gas emissions.

There could be opportunities here to sell the latest technology in aerodynamic add-ons, fuel-efficient tires, tire pressure monitoring systems, and the like. One of the big culprits in fuel use is idling. Many fleets are retrofitting auxiliary power units and other idle-reduction technologies; there may be opportunities here for sales or service.

Environmental concerns are also driving increasing interest in alternative fuels and hybrid equipment. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are banning older, higher-polluting trucks, and other ports around the country are implementing their own clean air programs. There may be opportunities here for retrofitting diesel particulate filters. Depending on your market, you may find opportunities in dealing with hybrids or alternative fuels down the road.

Finding and keeping drivers is always a concern. Although the driver shortage has eased with the recession, there are predictions that it will roar back worse than ever when the economy starts coming back. Idle-reduction technologies can also be a factor here. Drivers who can keep comfortable and have power to use TVs, computers and other comfort and convenience devices during their off time, without idling the engine, are more likely to be happy drivers.

Fleets are also turning to new technologies to make drivers safer, such as collision warning and avoidance systems, lane departure warning, roll stability control, and navigation systems. While some of these tend to drive more technological complexity on the truck, there may also be opportunities for sales and service of aftermarket safety devices.

Government regulation is a major fleet concern, especially as government agencies look to various technologies to help regulate the trucking industry. Idling restrictions, whether on the local level or the state level (in the case of California) are driving more interest in idling reduction technology. New stopping distance regulations expected later this year will likely drive more adoption of air disc brakes and larger drum brakes, so there will be opportunities - and the necessity - to have your people trained on the latest brake technologies and have the appropriate replacement parts available. And there will be some sort of legislation regulating greenhouse gases and the industry's carbon footprint, lending more weight to the need to keep your eye on the latest "green" technologies.

While much of the debate about EPA's diesel emissions regulations for 2010 has centered around SCR vs. enhanced EGR, there's also a requirement for onboard diagnostics to monitor the emissions equipment, much as in cars. What happens when that light goes on in the cab? There may well be an opportunity to run diagnostics, especially since the OBD regs specifically require manufacturers to allow independents access to the information needed to diagnose and repair these systems.

Technology balancing act

"As technology opportunities come and they start to climb, we've got to make sure we don't lose the low-hanging fruit," says Darry Stuart, a past chairman of the ATA's Technology and Maintenance Council, whose DWS Fleet Management works with companies to improve their maintenance operations.

While we may automatically think "computers" when we think of technology, Stuart notes there are many small fleets out there who are behind the curve when it comes to older technology. An independent parts and service provider who could help them out with some of these could come out looking like a hero. If you can do it at the fleets' location, even better.

For instance, Stuart notes, he works with a fleet in Elkhart, Ind., that would love for a provider to come to their location and do air conditioning work. This same fleet, he says, will pull their automatic transmissions and send them in for service - before checking and cleaning their battery terminals.

"There's an opportunity that's not technology; it's almost basic," he says. The technology part may come in through the use of an electronic battery tester you can take to fleets for routine testing and diagnostics.

Other areas Stuart cites where smaller fleets could use help include inventory management, on-site brake service, antilock brake service, alignment services, corrosion prevention, and diagnostics of transmissions and engines.

Using the Internet

Smart use of the Internet can help your parts sales people and technicians be more productive and help them connect with customers.

Lyle Bass, president and CEO of Indiana-based Power Train Service, cites the use of online catalogs. "If the customer isn't sure which part he needs, we ask him to go online to this page and ask, is this the part that you need?" Bass says. "Otherwise, a lot of times we're sending the wrong part, or he tells us the wrong part. It saves a lot of money because we don't have those returns." And the customer is happier because he gets the right part the first time.

Another example is, an Internet-based service and repair resource from Mitchell-1, covering all makes of tractors and trailers. It offers a user-friendly and common interface that guides the mechanic through the repair process, with flags for time-saving and safety tips.

Wiring diagrams are reproduced with the same color wiring as in the truck, so a green with yellow tracer appears as such on the computer screen. A tech can click on the wire and it is highlighted through the diagram to aid in troubleshooting. A simple mouse click selection eliminates the rest of the diagram so the tech can concentrate on the circuit of interest.

There's a similar aid to diagnostics for the air brake system on heavy trucks. Clicking on a pneumatic air line shows its routing and even, if it has a colored nylon line, the color of the line on the truck. A tech can isolate the pneumatic air line and its valves by clicking and removing all the other clutter from the air system diagram.

Plugging into the truck

Of course, the biggest issue when it comes to technology is diagnostics of the various electronic control modules you find on today's trucks. Much of this work automatically goes to the dealer. But if you don't find a way to get in on it, you may find your company out in the cold. And while access to information issues do limit some of what you can do, there are still plenty of opportunities.

"In the old days, it was very easy," Bass says. "You had a mechanic, he had a toolbox, and he would crawl under a truck, find out what was wrong with it and fix it. Today you can't do that," he says.

As an Allison dealership, Power Train has the advantage of access to Allison's proprietary technology for diagnosing and servicing their automatic transmissions.

Interestingly, they have found out that about 30 percent of the trucks that come into their shops for Allison work actu