Vocational fleet managers and truck design engineers have always taken a hard-nosed approach to vocational truck specifications. No frills has been the hard-and-fast rule, and any new technology has to prove not only that it can pay measurable dividends in terms of safety, payload or efficiency, but also that it can withstand daily brutal daily abuse and still perform as advertised.
Here are the top four trends driving vocational vehicle design in Classes 7 and 8 today.
1. Automatics make their move
Like the rest of the trucking industry, vocational fleets are dealing with an aging truck driver workforce, and must come up with new ways to make driving trucks more appealing to a younger generation, says Kurt Swihart, Kenworth marketing director. ”We see this trend not only continuing, but also accelerating as more employees, particularly skilled drivers, retire or get closer to retirement,” he says. “So today, in vocational truck design, there’s a definite focus on maximizing driver comfort and minimizing driver fatigue and providing trucks with a comfortable, quieter environment that drivers want to drive.”
“Drivers today certainly have far more of a say-so around cab features than they did 20 or 30 years ago,” agrees Mary Aufdemberg, director of product marketing for Freightliner Trucks. There are many ways trucks can be customized to create a productive and comfortable environment, which may help with driver retention.
She points to the growing acceptance and use of automated manual transmissions (AMTs) in vocational trucking roles. “Spec’ing automated manual transmissions is a growing trend in vocational trucks for a variety of reasons,” she explains. “The technologies make drivers more productive and efficient, and features unique to this transmission architecture can provide — depending on the application and situation — a better overall experience for the driver.”
Ann Demitruk, vice president of marketing for Western Star Trucks, confirms that the same is happening there. ”We are seeing a steady shift from manual transmissions to automated and automatic transmissions because they simply appeal to a broader base of drivers,” she says, noting that today’s modern AMTs and automatics provide increased productivity and smooth, effortless shifting in both on- and off-highway applications, “even when operating over challenging terrain that used to require a manual transmission to negotiate.”
John Felder, product marketing manager for Volvo Trucks, says the ability to fine-tune AMTs through specialized programming has also contributed to this trend. He notes that Volvo recently announced a new version of its I-Shift AMT featuring low-ratio crawler gears designed to fit a wider array of vocational applications. (Mack also recently announced 13- and 14-speed versions of its mDrive HD for more appeal to vocational users.)
”The driver pool is pushing the growth of AMTs and automatic transmissions today,” says Charlie Cook, vocational product manager for Peterbilt. “And fleet managers are increasingly OK with this trend, because these units have come far in terms of dependability and durability.”
So far this year, more than 50% of all the trucks Peterbilt has built have gone out the door with either an AMT or an automatic transmission, he says. “Obviously, they’re spec’d more in some models than others, but there is no doubt this technology is rapidly gaining ground in vocational applications.”
2. Safety, safety, safety!
Traffic accidents are nothing short of major catastrophes for American truck fleets today. Legal fees, damages, insurance hikes and worker’s compensation/medical bills can skyrocket the cost of a major truck accident into six-figure sums with eye-watering rapidity. And that’s without factoring in harder-to-quantify after-effects such as bad publicity, diminished CSA scores and lost business.
So it’s not surprising to learn that increasing numbers of vocational fleets are spec’ing safety systems such as adaptive cruise control, collision avoidance, lane departure warning, tire pressure management and stability control.
Curtis Dorwart, Mack vocational products marketing manager, says new technologies – particularly increasingly powerful vehicle telematics systems – are being used to enhance operational safety for vocational fleets.
“The newest generation of telematics can easily be configured to monitor what a truck is doing, as well as ways to monitor driver behavior and the behavior of the truck’s surroundings,” he says. While not all drivers are enthusiastic about an electronic “Big Brother” watching over them, Dorwart says the practicality and effectiveness of telematics systems are simply becoming too valuable a safety tool for even vocational fleets to ignore. “There are some really strong reasons from a driver behavior aspect to use telematics to protect both companies and drivers from serious damage accident claims,” he says.
“In response to tighter safety regulations, the use of sophisticated safety systems is becoming more commonplace, even in vocational fields,” Swihart confirms. He says more and more vocational trucks today are being spec’d with systems that simply would not have been considered for a vocational truck just a few years ago.
“Air disc brakes with advanced anti-lock braking systems are increasingly integrated with stability control and collision mitigation systems,” he says. “Some vocational truck operators are also equipping trucks with camera systems, not only to allow drivers to view blindspots to help them see what’s happening outside the truck, but also to record accident events.”
3. Engines downsize
In the past, when engine technology changed, the industry usually witnessed a mass migration of fleets to a new horsepower or displacement range. Today, however, vocational fleets have a host of options to choose from, allowing them to fine tune vehicle performance for their specific needs while optimizing weight and payload.
“There is a still a demand for high horsepower and torque, because they help productivity,” Dorwart notes. “But what we see today are very efficient 11- and 13-liter engines, which do the work of 15-liter engines but weigh less. It’s not unlike the situation in passenger cars; we all remember the large-displacement gasoline engines of yesterday. Technology has enabled smaller displacement engines to do the work of the bigger engines of the past.”
Kenworth is also seeing a trend toward smaller, lighter engines and enhanced fuel economy, Swihart says. “Not everyone out there needs a 15-liter engine. We’re seeing a growing trend of vocational customers spec’ing the 12.9-liter Paccar MX-13 engine over 15-liter power. And the addition of our new Paccar MX-11, with its ample low-end horsepower, offers an even lighter, fuel-efficient option.”
That trend holds true at Peterbilt, as well, Cook says. “These new smaller displacement diesels now put out more horsepower and torque than larger displacement engines while delivering better fuel economy. Additionally, weight optimization goes hand-in-hand with smaller displacement engines: In some cases, fleets can save as much as 400 pounds by spec’ing a smaller displacement engine.”
4. Increasingly connected trucks
Vehicle telematics systems have steadily improved and become more versatile. And more vocational fleets are adopting them today to address a wide range of productivity and safety issues. But it seems that telematics systems are merely the first step toward fully connected vehicles that will soon have the capability to transform the way vocational trucks work while exponentially increasing productivity.
Dorwart says the explosion of new technology, much of it centered around WiFi and other advanced communications systems, is accelerating the trend toward the integration of the powertrain and vehicle systems. “Powertrain integration allows for optimum performance and efficiency, and is now being combined with proactive telematics to maximize uptime,” he explains. “This combination helps owners better understand and see the value of the ‘connected truck’ and the extra value that the truck manufacturer can bring to their business.”
A recent development has been the concept of vehicle-to-vehicle, or “V2V,” communication systems, which allow vehicles in close proximity to one another to share data concerning speed, direction of travel, weight, braking and engine power, either among themselves, or with a connected infrastructure.
“V2V capabilities already exist in off-road applications and could be very transferable to a number of vocational applications,” Aufdemberg says. “However, our industry is still developing standards and subsequent hardware to take full advantage of these capabilities in on-road vocational vehicles.”
International was an early leader in telematics systems, and David Hillman, the company’s vocational products vice president and general manager, says vocational fleets will soon benefit from over-the-air powertrain updates and maintenance that will help further increase fleet uptime.
“Since these trucks go back to a yard every night, they can easily be updated or, in some cases, diagnosed and repaired overnight without being taken off duty in the daytime so a technician can attach a cable to do the work.”
Cook envisions a near-term future where dump trucks, for example, are able to “talk” to wheel loaders or asphalt spreaders. “These systems could dramatically enhance jobsite efficiency,” he says. “A dump truck will be able to ‘tell’ a wheel loader that it can handle another two buckets of gravel and still be within weight restrictions, or a mixer will upload the status of a slab being poured as it rolls onto a jobsite and be routed immediately to the area where its load of cement is needed.”
Engineers and vocational truck buyers are learning that advanced technology can pay measurable dividends and still be tough enough for the jobsite.