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Vocational trucks: Spec’d to the max

Jan. 8, 2015
Fleets want improved fuel economy, payload & comfort without impacting a truck’s revenue potential

One of the more tantalizing prospects in the vocational truck world has been how to craft lightweight specification packages that offer improved fuel economy, more payload capacity, and more driver comfort without sacrificing performance or longevity.  That prospect is being complicated, to a degree, by a range of options that have only recently begun making their way more broadly into the vocational space, options such as automated transmissions, low rolling resistance tires, telematics systems, and alternative fuels, especially where natural gas is concerned.

“Key trends we’re seeing involve technology, telematics, increased efficiency and fuel economy through more integrated drivetrains,” notes Kurt Swihart, marketing director at Kenworth Truck.  “We have seen these trends in the over-the-road segment for a few years now and today vocational customers also want those added benefits.”

Vocational customers are always seeking lighter trucks, he adds,  so they can haul more payload while simultaneously lowering total cost of operation.

“The biggest issue that we have seen involves the change in tires, both tread design and rolling resistance,” Swihart says. “[Such] changes can potentially impact off-road traction, so we remind customers to ask questions about the new tires to ensure they can get the best tires selected for their particular intended service.”

It is also vitally important to ask questions when the subject turns to natural gas, he points out.
“Converting your fleet to natural gas is a basic business decision, and it doesn’t always pencil out to do it,” Swihart stresses. “There is, however, a definite business case to go with natural gas in vocational segments, such as ready-mix, refuse and bulk haul, where trucks are returned to base every night.”

“Customers ideally want it all—lighter trucks, lower operating costs and a lower price—but there are trade-offs,” cautions John Felder, manager of product marketing for Volvo Trucks North America.

Managing such trade-offs is critical, he says, especially in terms of boosting vehicle productivity, which in the vocational market is still the key to generating more revenue.

That all gets factored into what David Hames, general manager of marketing and strategy for Daimler Trucks North America, calls the “real cost of ownership” or RCO, calculation in the vocational truck space.

“Productivity is the language of the vocational market, just as efficiency is the language of the over-the-road market,” he explains. “A concrete company, for instance, wants to know whether it can pour three driveways in a day instead of two.”

Stu Russoli, vocational segment product manager at Mack Trucks, notes that making specific spec’ing changes to enhance productivity—be it through more payload, better fuel economy, etc. —really occurs on a case-by-case basis for each vocational application. “But the real number one key for all of them at the end of the day is uptime; you’ve got to keep the truck up and running to make money,” he stresses. “That’s why uptime is a top TCO [total cost of operation] factor now.”

In Russoli’s view, many vocational fleets are going lighter with smaller engines in order to gain more payload capacity. “Typically, vocational trucks gross out before they cube out, so especially with [concrete] mixers we see many going to 11L versus 13L engines. Dump trucks will go [to] smaller [engines] to gain more payload if the regular route is not too demanding. But there are still a lot of 13L engines in the heavy-duty end of the market.”

When it comes to fuel efficiency, Russoli says, it’s not necessarily miles per gallon that matters, but hours per gallon.  “It comes down to the question of whether a truck can make it through its workday without refueling. Better fuel efficiency means spec’ing a 75-gal. versus an 80-gal. fuel tank yet still without having to refuel during the work shift,” he explains. “You create downtime for refueling, so avoiding that with a smaller fuel tank improves both productivity and fuel economy.”

David Hillman, general manager-vocational product line at Navistar, echoes that view. “Clearly, vocational customers do care about fuel efficiency; it’s a common misperception that they don’t,” he stresses. “But that concern varies by fleet. Fuel economy is important, but the truck still must meet basic application requirements. That’s why fuel economy falls into the customer’s prioritization of product attributes differently depending on the application.”

Russoli emphasizes that vocational fleets want to gain advantages such as better fuel efficiency yet still want to maintain a 12- to 15-year ownership cycle for their trucks.

“They are still looking at a longer ownership time frame from our perspective,” he notes. “They want to hold onto trucks longer and run them into the grave. Many also don’t want to sell them, as they believe they’ve figured out the ‘smartest specs’ for their business and don’t want competitors to figure out their ‘secret sauce’ by buying their old trucks.”

New vs. old

Mack does see a change when a fleet brings in newer trucks and finds that they save money, Russoli says, whether in terms of  better fuel efficiency, more payload, or better TCO.  “If that occurs, we tend to see a swifter trade-out,” he explains.

That’s a trend Navistar’s Hillman is starting to see as well. “The jury is still out on whether vocational fleets are really changing their buying cycles, though choices clearly are being made regarding the value proposition of newer, more advanced equipment,” he says.

“We’ve been seeing some on-highway fleets shift from four- to six-year buy cycles down to three or four, even two years, just because of the gains in fuel economy,” Hillman emphasizes. “From our perspective, it is really a question of when, not if, a similar shift starts to occur in the vocational segment.”

Charles Cook, marketing manager of vocational products at Peterbilt Motors, agrees with those sentiments to a degree. “The driving force behind our fuel consumption strategy is educating customers on the many ways available to get the best fuel efficiency from their fleet,” he explains.

“While vocational fleets have traditionally been more focused on performance, every customer is eager to save money and reduce operating costs,” Cook notes. “So, we are working with our dealer network and our customers to spec vehicles that provide maximum fuel economy for the unique applications and environments they will be operating within. We need to ensure their vocational spec meets their full range of needs in the most fuel-efficient package possible.”

Shifting specs

Avariety of spec’ing aspects are coming into play where such calculations are concerned, Cook adds, ones not limited to tires, engine size, and transmission type.

One way Peterbilt is trying to further improve fuel efficiency in the vocational space is with software enhancements that provide more flexibility in power take-off [PTO] operations.

“Idle reduction technology is another area for fuel-efficiency gains,” Cook stresses. “If the truck is at a jobsite and not doing work powering a PTO, the engine can be programmed to shut down after a short period of idling to save fuel.”

Better control of such aspects of vehicle operation ties right back into what he believes remains the biggest demand driver of all in the vocational marketplace today: reliability.

“It remains an important factor in total cost of operation, as uptime has a direct and significant impact on the bottom line,” Cook stresses. “In addition to total cost of operation, we and our dealer network work closely with customers to establish the lifecycle costs of a vehicle, which include important considerations such as resale value and spec’ing a vehicle for a second and third service life.”

And like Mack’s Russoli and Navistar’s Hillman, Peter­bilt’s Cook believes that while it is still common to see vocational trucks in a 10- to 12-year lifecycle, there’s a trend to shorten that interval as customers, in his words, “increasingly want to take advantage of new truck technologies that can improve performance, uptime, and operator comfort and productivity.”

Yet using the proper specs remains a critical element towards maximizing productivity and uptime in the vocational world, especially when it comes to determining whether a set-forward or set-back axle is the right spec for the job.

Caterpillar, for example, added a set-forward axle model to its lineup of Class 8 work trucks—the CT681—back in early 2014 in part to offer customers a way to comply with restrictive load limitations on bridges and roads.

Cat Truck notes that bridge laws, first developed in the 1950s, specify how much weight any single axle or group of axles can carry based on the number of axles and overall wheel base of a truck.

“Typically, the farther apart you can spread a truck’s axles, the more payload you can carry and still meet bridge law requirements,” the company explains. “By moving the front axle forward, the overall wheel base is increased, and in many areas that allows for more payload. That’s the number one benefit of set-forward-axle trucks.”

On the other hand, though, set-back-axle models let fleets get more of the payload on the front axle, which can be useful in areas with bridge laws that don’t favor lift axles.

“Ultimately, the set-back/set-forward axle decision comes down to what’s most important for your particular application—and what will enable you to achieve the maximum allowable payload,” Cat Truck added.

Several new truck technology options for the vocational market center around telematics, safety systems, and natural gas. “Telematics...helps track asset use. Where are my trucks, which one is closest to a customer, etc.,” says Mack’s Russoli. “That kind of data helps generate revenue.”

Navistar’s Hillman echoes that view. “There are so many computers on board [a truck] today that there’s a need to consolidate all that data into reports laid out in plain English for better planning,” he says.

“On-highway fleets really started embracing telematics 10 to 15 years ago,” Hillman adds. “But now the OEMs are investing directly in telematics, so fleets, especially small operators, don’t need to build out their data management capability. This will allow small vocational fleets to take advantage of telematics-based data analysis.”

Russoli adds that collision avoidance and other safety technologies are attracting a lot of attention in the vocational segment today, particularly among safety-conscious construction and refuse fleets.

“Any kind of added safety net for their drivers will be viewed favorably and looked at,” he says.
Then there’s the question of whether or not to switch to natural gas, Russoli notes. “Waste collection is the big niche for this. This offers them the opportunity to make their own fuel from landfill gas; it’s a natural fit. Also, [refuse trucks] almost always come home to the same depot, which makes refueling easier.”

When it comes to natural gas conversions on the construction side of the vocational truck market, however, the benefits are not necessarily there. “Only the really big fleets with set depots for trucks can make it work,” he explains. “Smaller [construction] fleets shift their locations for customers. Their trucks are more nomadic, as they move around to where the work is.”

Russoli says other issues with natural gas in the vocational market include added weight, higher upfront cost, and a lack of refueling infrastructure. “Vocational fleets really need to do the math to see if it works for their fleet,” he explains. “In particular, the packaging is still hard, as [natural gas components] take up a lot of frame rail space.”

Volvo’s Felder notes that only a few vocations are migrating to natural gas, although more are looking at it.  “The refuse business is moving strongly toward alternative fuels, especially natural gas, [with] commuter buses and [concrete] mixers also transitioning into alternative fuels,” he says. “Customers in other vocations are investigating the business case for alternative fuels in light of their needs. Those with sensitivity to weight or a need for high power are so far staying with their current solutions.”

Peterbilt’s Cook says the natural gas conversion question will remain prominent in the vocational world for some time to come. “Some applications—namely refuse—made an aggressive move to adopt this technology over the last three years,” he says. “And we hear some other [vocational] fleets plan to go exclusively to natural gas in the near future.”

In particular, those operating dump trucks, concrete mixers and bulk haulers are the ones outside the refuse market seriously looking at natural gas, Cook notes.

“It really depends on examining each unique application, routes, gross weight, repair/maintenance capabilities and refueling infrastructure,” he says. “But we certainly see the future of natural gas-powered vehicles growing in the vocational market.”

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean reports and comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry -- light and medium duty fleets up through over-the-road truckload, less-than-truckload, and private fleet operations Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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