The advent of new technologies such as autonomous and connected vehicles has put over-the-road fleets squarely in the national spotlight. But vocational fleets face many of the same operational issues, and they, too, increasingly are turning to new technologies and options to work more efficiently and profitability.
Some industry observers believe it will be in vocational fleets where we’ll see the first real-world tests of vehicle-to-vehicle communication, self-driving trucks, self-diagnosing powertrains and other new technologies. Volvo, in fact, recently predicted that refuse trucks working at a walking pace in residential neighborhoods may well be the general public’s first exposure to self-driving trucks.
For now, many cutting-edge medium- and heavy-duty vocational fleets are looking to more established, and often less flashy new technologies, to help them work smart and profitably. And three of those trends are gaining momentum.
1. Increased emphasis on safety
Advanced vehicle safety systems have become a common spec for over-the-road fleets. Yet vocational trucks may need them even more, says Ralph LoPriore, director of fleet assets and processes for Stoneway Concrete/Gary Merlino Construction in Seattle. His mixers and dumps spend far more time in tight city areas surrounded by passenger cars than the majority of OTR trucks. And given the increased congestion in and around Seattle, along with his younger, less experienced team of drivers, spec’ing advanced safety systems for his fleet was a no-brainer.
“I’m really working hard today to try to get as many of the same safety features on my trucks the over-the-road guys are already getting,” LoPriore says. “I’d like to spec my trucks with active driving systems, automatic braking, tire pressure management systems, as well as side-looking vehicle detection systems and human detection systems — which I consider critical for our dump and mixers working on noisy, crowded jobsites.”
But there’s a problem: They’re not all available yet for vocational trucks. “Some of these you can’t spec from the OEMs, and others just aren’t available at all. It can be frustrating,” LoPriore says.
“The amount of requests we’re getting for collision mitigation systems and other active vehicle safety systems has really blossomed in the medium-duty space,” says David Hillman, vice president and general manager for International Truck’s vocational product line. He says vocational fleets typically work in much more dynamic, fast-paced environments than long-haul trucks. As a result, more fleets are recognizing the value these systems deliver.
“It can be hard to quantify an accident that never happens,” he says. “But it is easy to see how a year with fewer accidents affects your bottom line. And active safety systems help control other costs as well, such as missed work, healthcare and insurance costs, not to mention legal fees and settlements. So as this technology has matured, and the acquisition costs have gone down, spec’ing this equipment is an easy choice for a lot of construction and delivery fleets today.”
Safety also means keeping drivers healthy and productive, says Kurt Swihart, Kenworth marketing director for vocational trucks. He says more fleets are focusing on safety-oriented ergonomics to make vehicle ingress and egress safer and to reduce injuries. “That’s led to more options that give better step heights, step surface, and grab handles that prevent slipping,” he says. “These features are great additions to any truck, especially when you consider how often vocational drivers are in and out of their trucks all day long, in sloppy off-road conditions and in inclement weather.”
LoPriore has also changed his specs to address driver ergonomics. “When we sat down and looked at injuries on our end, it was always knees and shoulders for our drivers. And those injuries were taking a toll on our most experienced guys, who we really count on.”
Digging deeper, LoPriore discovered that drivers’ injuries were almost always the right shoulder and the left knee. “We had manual concrete chutes on the back of our mixers,” he says. “Those things were heavy. And flipping those up and out of the way day in and day out — sometimes for 30 years! — took a toll on the drivers’ right shoulders.”
And those knee injuries? “Of course we used to spec manual transmissions on our trucks,” he says. “But the drivers had to maintain constant pressure on the clutch pedal, which placed an incredible amount of strain on the left knee.”
So LoPriore changed his specs to automated concrete chutes and automated manual transmissions and was pleased to see medical costs and missed work caused by those issues fall accordingly. “I’m really happy we were able to fix those particular problems,” he says. “Because those are our guys who really know what they’re doing. We really depend on them and want to keep them healthy and happy as long as we possibly can.”
2. Automatic and automated transmissions
LoPriore isn’t the only vocational fleet spec’ing automatic and automated manual transmissions. In fact, the decline in popularity of the manual gearbox, in both medium- and heavy-duty vocational applications, has been every bit as sweeping as in heavy-duty OTR fleets.
“You see almost nothing but two-pedal trucks in medium-duty fleets today, compared to the standard spec a decade or two ago,” Hillman says. “And that’s because some medium-duty applications just cry out for automatic transmissions.” Especially for applications where driving is only part of the job, as in the case of fire/rescue vehicles or many private service fleets, “an automatic transmission gives them one less thing to worry about.”
Automated and automatic transmissions are becoming more and more popular with drivers of all experience levels, says Kelly Gerdert, director of product marketing for Freightliner Trucks and Detroit Components. She says new, less-experienced drivers typically take less time to train on automated transmissions, so they can get behind the wheel and producing revenue sooner without compromising safety. “Even older, more experienced drivers benefit from the convenience of automation by keeping their eyes on the road and reducing the distractions and fatigue typically associated with clutching and shifting a manual transmission,” she adds.
Although LoPriore cites driver health as a main reason for changing the transmission spec in his mixer and dump fleet, he’s quick to note other advantages. “Our drivers are just as inexperienced as long-haul drivers today,” he says. “And as we hired more rookies, our maintenance costs began to shoot up.”
But since going to Allison automatics a few years back, LoPriore says he’s never looked back. “No more burned-out clutches or broken axles,” he says, “and the dividends these transmissions pay just go on and on.”
LoPriore says he’s often asked how he can justify paying an upcharge of $10,000 for the units, but counters by saying he saves $30,000 per truck over their service lives. “We used to have to deal with at least three major clutch events over the life of a truck, and that didn’t include clutch adjustments, clutch brake replacements and other work.”
It's a theme familar to Dave Jackson, co-owner and occasional driver at Redbank Transport, a Class 8 dump truck fleet in Cincinatti, OH, who says his company switched over to Eaton UltraShift Plus AMTs in 2012. Initially, Jackson was interested in boosting his fuel economy and aiding in jobsite manuverability with AMTs, but soon noticed significant driver health benefits as well. Today, his dump trucks are logging an average of 5.67 mpg and his drivers, who once suffered from soreness issues and bad knees welcome driving trucks with no clutch pedal. "The best part about running AMTs is having so many options that allow these tranmissions to do whatever it is you want," Jackson says. "You just can't beat the versatility of these transmissions both on jobsites and on the highway."
It’s a point Hillman makes, as well. “No one thought AMTs would move into heavy-duty vehicles — much less heavy-duty trucks engaged in construction, concrete or severe-duty applications,” he says. “And their market penetration has been remarkable and has happened in a very short period of time. But the take-rate for AMTs today wouldn’t be where it is if the reliability of those transmissions wasn’t where it is. They have proven to be remarkably tough units with little or no reported maintenance issues.”
3. New power options
Spec’ing vocational truck engines has become a more involved process than ever, thanks to bridge formula laws, the need to maximize vehicle payload, fuel prices, and even environmental concerns in certain parts of the country. Fortunately, fleets today have a wide variety of power options to choose from.
“When deciding on engine displacement, the duty cycle of the vehicle needs to be carefully considered,” Kenworth’s Swihart advises. “While 350 hp can easily be achieved with a 9L engine, it may not last as long in rigorous vocational conditions as a larger 11L or 13L engine.” Swihart says fleets that run their trucks continuously throughout a workday and use a power take-off (PTO) frequently may find larger-displacement engines are worth the additional weight and cost. On the other hand, fleets running trucks that are driven to and from jobsites and shut down once they arrive may find a smaller-displacement engine works just fine.
“Because there is no one-size-fits-all solution to determining the best engine choice for different vocations and duty cycles, we do not see a specific trend for smaller or larger engine displacements,” Gerdert says. And because there are so many different vocational applications to service, she says, Daimler Trucks North America’s Detroit division has focused on offering customers as many power ratings as possible in order to meet their needs, from the 210-hp Detroit DD5 engine up to the 600-hp Detroit DD16.
On the smaller end of the vocational scale, Kevin Koester, medium-duty truck and Super Duty fleet marketing manager for Ford, says he’s seen a definite move in smaller-displacement engines away from diesel to gasoline power. “We’re seeing growing numbers of customers expand the use of gasoline engines for applications that had previously been diesel dominant,” Koester says. “And those fleets are discovering that gas engines can perform very well, without the higher acquisition costs, emissions equipment and increased maintenance requirements of diesel engines today.”
There’s also the question of alternative fuels. Natural gas, for instance, has seen adoption in the refuse world, led by fleets such as Waste Management and Republic, and Chicago-based Ozinga is pioneering natural gas in ready mix.
And then, of course, there is the newest emerging power option in medium-duty: all-electric drivetrains. International last fall announced a joint project with Volkswagen to develop a line of medium-duty electric trucks and vans. “It’s hard not to look at the automotive landscape today and see that things once considered far-fetched are mainstream today,” Hillman says. “No one looks twice when they see a Tesla car on the street today. And nothing breeds success like success.”
Outside of their obvious appeal to fleets operating in areas with tough environmental regulations or for green-focused customers, Hillman says fleet managers experimenting with electric trucks and vans today are finding they have very few moving parts and corresponding low maintenance demands.
“We’re seeing the first efforts now to scale up automotive batteries to more powerful, longer-lasting units more appropriate for trucking applications,” he says, “along with sophisticated software and battery management systems to help the trucks run productively.”
Vocational trucks work hard in tough, crowded and dangerous environments. Given these demands, it’s not surprising those fleet managers are looking for any edge to give them an upper hand in their daily grind. And increasingly, it seems, they’re turning to modern technology to do exactly that.