It's no news to fleets that each model year brings more technological advances to light- and medium-duty vehicles. The impetus behind many of these changes is a desire to meld truck chassis and bodies together faster and easier, making them more efficient and cost-effective work tools.
But something very important is getting lost in the mix here: the needs of the folks down in the trenches charged with maintaining and repairing these vehicles. Not only are trucks getting more complicated, their systems are being upgraded and changed at lightning speed. That's making it tough for technicians to keep up.
“If someone is going to put a lot of miles on a truck and put it through horrendous conditions, it's us,” Al Shultz, truck shop manager for Brownsville, WI-based Michels Corp. told me recently. “And if [that truck] fails, it falls in our lap; we have to get it going again.”
Michels is a family-owned business that manages a pit-and-quarry operation, manufactures aggregates and cut stone, and handles road construction operations. With projects in 48 states, Michels runs a fleet of over 1,000 vehicles.
Schultz's biggest beef is that the addition of more electronic components to a truck is not always a good thing. “With all the technology coming around today, our technicians can barely keep up,” he said. “Figuring out the root cause of an electrical system failure is very difficult, even with all the diagnostic system support we have. There are just so many more electrical components and switches now on trucks — and they can be super-sensitive.”
Carl Kirk, executive director of the Technology and Maintenance Council, said that should come as no surprise since trucks have practically become “computers on wheels” in recent years. “We think of a truck or trailer far differently that we did years ago; they are no longer simple pieces of rolling stock,” he said. “The truck has now become an information processing center with computing abilities for on-board and off-board technology capabilities.”
But as information-processing centers, trucks are now more susceptible to electronic glitches. Schultz pointed to the infamous “check engine” light as an example.
“I've often said I wish we had a reset button for that,” he explained. “If it gets damp on a morning when it's 35 degrees Fahrenheit, the emission system [on the truck] can see too much pollutant and thus set off the check-engine light. The driver, of course, thinks he has a problem and brings the truck into the shop. If we could get clear of headaches like that, we'd be better off.”
Schultz is not saying that trucks haven't improved. Far from it. In fact, he points out that the longevity of today's diesel engines makes it possible for Michels to extend replacement cycles beyond the five years they get from their gasoline-powered trucks. He's currently working on extending his fleet's oil change interval from 3,000 to 5,000 miles, a money-saving option you couldn't risk on older model trucks.
Schultz readily admits that his fleet's unforgiving work conditions make it tough to get the best performance from its trucks. “Diesel engines have to breathe clean air, and that need is compromised by a lot of the conditions we go through,” he explained.
Still, Schultz wishes the electronic systems on today's trucks — and tomorrow's for that matter — could be tested and fine-tuned even more before finding their way onto a truck. “It's almost always a switch or gizmo designed to make the truck more serviceable that doesn't quite pan out in reality,” he said. “I think more in-depth testing is needed before these systems get out into the field.”