CORRECTED -- Volvo Trucks executives knew full well what a group of its customers would say about experiences with modern engines, but invited them to speak to press reporters anyway. Then the Volvo people explained what they're doing to alleviate service problems that customers have also experienced.
Remedies include expansion of dealer service capabilities and the Internet-based Volvo Assist service-records network, which originated in 2006, and rollout of the Remote Diagnostics program, begun in spring of 2012.
Remote Diagnostics uses on-board sensors and electronic controls to detect engine faults and transmit alerts to Volvo's Uptime Center, which notifies customers and dealers to prepare to deal with the problems.
In other industry meetings, Volvo and competitor manufacturers have said they are constantly correcting problems with engines built since 2007 and 2010, and claimed that their reliability records are improving.
The event yesterday was chaired by Goran Nyberg, Volvo's president of North American sales and marketing, his latest assignment since joining the company in 1992. He's been on this job for four months.
He and others from Volvo's headquarters in Greensboro, N.C., listened calmly as four Nashville-area fleet managers complained about breakdowns with low-mileage engines -- mostly Volvos but other makes, too -- and how getting them fixed properly and quickly has been challenging, in polite terms.
However, all praised the people at Nacarato Volvo Trucks, who hosted the meeting at their recently built dealership in LaVergne, Tenn. The operators said they have trouble getting quick service at distant dealers, who tend to give priority to their local customers.
Too much downtime
"I bought new trucks to avoid downtime so I could concentrate on spending time with our customers to expand the business, but that hasn't been the case," said Stan Pritchett, general manager at LaVergne-based Beacon Transport, a general commodities carrier. Beacon started business in 2000 and has since grown to 133 tractors and 360 trailers that operate in the Midwest and Southeast.
"The big challenge has been engines. I spend so much time fighting for repairs that we never had before," he said. "We were having major failures that we never had before, camshaft failures in non-Volvo engines at 275,000 miles, injector failures with Volvo engines at low miles," Pritchett continued.
"One is here in the shop now with only 30,000 miles on it. The truck and driver are at the shop and they should be on the road making money. I want to get it in here, get it diagnosed and get it back on the road.
"Unfortunately we've had some bad experiences at other dealerships with trucks in there for a week for a relatively minor repair because we don't have priority."
A similar litany was recited by Mike McFarlin, a manager at M&W Transport, Nashville, Tenn., with 95 tractors and 400 trailers.
"Aside from driver issues, it's the downtime, particularly when you break down someplace other than near your home dealership," he said. "Parts are not there. And a fault code doesn't always pinpoint the problem. You go in for work, come out and 40 miles down the road the warning light comes on again, and you go in again.
"This is not a problem unique to Volvo, it's a problem throughout the industry," McFarlin said. But "this dealership (Nacarato) has been good with support."
Taking care of 'Joe'
Kirk Rutherford, who manages Bridgestone Firestone's private fleet of 300 tractors and 700 trailers, agreed.
"A local dealership will take care of the trucks he sells," he said. "The customer is in his local community, that's the guy he goes to church with, the kids go to school with his kids. 'Joe -- I'm gonna take care of him.' There's no one looking out for our interests when it's our one truck away from home.
"Payment problems -- I have an account here and you're OK," he said to the Nacarato executives. "With some dealers, you can't get the truck out until you pay. Dealers are independent businessmen, and we understand that. But we need a network for payment. Get it out and we'll worry about paying it later."
"That's a good point," said Pete Carpenter, president of PAC Trucking, whose 23 tractors pull doubles trailers for FedEx Ground.
"I had an experience in Fontana, Calif. They repaired the truck and then wanted payment before they'd release it. They wouldn't take my credit card over the phone, and I don't do ComCheck. I couldn't get my truck. I have an account here, but not there."
"Just call us and we'll pay the bill," interjected Joe Nacarato, who heads the LaVergne dealer's parts and service operations. And special credit cards recognized by all Volvo dealers can be set up for drivers or assigned to specific Volvo trucks, he added.
Carpenter and his wife, who started as owner-operators and now stay home to manage the small fleet, praised their Volvo 670s and 780s for their comfort, which is important in retaining drivers, and solidness, with several now having run 1.2 million miles and their cabs are as tight as new. But they're not without problems.
Four tractors are spares to back up failures of those on steady runs, most within a 500-mile radius of Nashville, so drivers can switch vehicles without too much trouble.
"We're expedited, everything's critical, and yeah, they break down," Carpenter said of his operation, freight and trucks. "My first new Volvo engine on the first trip, the turbo blew oil and it got into the catalytic converter and the truck almost started on fire. I had it towed back here, and this dealer treated me wonderfully."
Information is sometimes more important than the truck itself, he said.
"I want to know when it will be done. If it's three days before you can get the parts, fine, tell me, then I know. I keep spare trucks and can make arrangements. But I need to know."
On the complaint that out-of-town trucks are treated poorly, Mike Nacarato, the dealer's president, commented, "That's not our policy. We try to treat everyone well."
The Nacaratos said their organization originated in 1952 when their father began selling Peterbilts and GMCs. They began selling Volvo trucks in 1986. The new complex opened in late 2011 and includes 28 service bays, large parts stockage, and a clean, modern body and paint shop with a pair of downdraft painting and drying booths.
The multi-million-dollar facilities occupy 17 acres with big paved lots for the many fleet trade-ins awaiting resale, and there are 92 acres total. It sells 40 used trucks at retail every month, one salesman said.
Volvo has been working hard the last few years to improve its dealership network.
Volvo spokesman Brandon Borgna said that in the last year, the company and its dealer partners have expanded locations from 343 to 347. That includes 20% growth in bay capacity, and parts inventory has grown by 60%. The population of Volvo master technicians has grown from 13% to 22% of all mechanics working at the dealerships.
In 2005, Volvo began quizzing customers about their experiences with dealers and service complaints, said David Pardue, vice president of aftermarket solutions. This process continues, and meanwhile several programs aimed at improving service and parts availability have been implemented.
For example, Volvo customers today can purchase parts anytime over the Internet from dealers' inventories, with catalogs showing parts for specific customer trucks. Many dealers have implemented this, and some have added delivery trucks to take parts to customers, he said.
Remote Diagnostics uses fault codes and on-board capabilities to sense problems, determine what's wrong, and decide when it must be fixed, said Conal Deedy, Volvo product manager, communications and electronics.
When a fault code pops up, Volvo's Uptime Center is automatically notified via an AT&T cellular link, and it alerts the truck's owner by prearranged methods, usually email or phone calls.
Customers decide where the truck should go for repairs, whether to a remote dealership close to the truck or, if possible, when the truck returns home for attention at a more familiar dealer's shop.
Then the appointed dealer's service department gets a message about the situation, and it orders parts and assigns work to a technician. Parts on-hand is confirmed before the truck comes in, and when it does, the service writer and technician are ready for it.
Because troubleshooting and diagnostics are already done, work proceeds rapidly, and according to prepared fix-it instructions. This saves time and speeds the repairs.
Diagnostic time is cut by 71% and repair time by 25%, Deedy said. Average uptime improvement is one day per event.
"This is a proven service," he said. "We've been working with customers and dealers for some time," and testing included 1,300 VNs prior to the system's introduction.
Remote Diagnostics capability has been installed on all new Volvo-powered VNs since last May, said Deedy. The service is standard for two years, and continues under extended warranties or by subscription.
More information on Volvo service products is available at Volvo dealers or at VolvoTrucks.com.
Corrected to reflect an error in the name of the fleet, M&W out of Nashville, Tenn., not N&W as previously and erroneously reported, and correct the spelling of J.D. Marshall's first name. HDT regrets the error.