Called the “Right Choice,” the programs, which usually last two days, give carriers the chance to go behind the scenes and see for themselves how their trucks are designed, tested, produced and supported.
Following a similar event for editors in Western Washington, Fleet Owner had the opportunity to talk with Kenworth general manager Gary Moore about the program and the issues facing fleets and their suppliers today.
(To see photos of the event, click here)
“This is a relationship business,” Moore told Fleet Owner. “Customers and prospective customers want to personally meet key OEM people and really get to know who they are working with. They are trying to make tough decisions about their businesses and their futures, and we want to help them all we can.
“The Right Choice events have been great for us,” he said. “We’ve hosted them at our Chillicothe, OH, facility as well as in Columbus, MS, and here [in Washington]. We try to keep them small enough so that there can be a lot of dialogue and Q&A. Dealers and suppliers also participate.”
According to Moore, higher freight levels have given fleets a breather and the opportunity to focus on longer-term concerns, such as making sure they are paid appropriately, replacing aging equipment and putting strategies in place to attract and retain good drivers. “Fleets are looking at the age of their equipment and at replacing the oldest trucks now, not at expanding capacity,” he said. “There is also a real driver shortage again, and carriers want to have a ‘fresh fleet’ that both promotes the company to their customers and as a great place for people to work.”
When it comes to selecting equipment, Moore noted that “fleets are really focused on the economics of running their operations today. They are looking hard at fuel efficiency, aerodynamics and total cost of ownership. They want reliability, durability, low-cost and a strong dealer body to support them.”
Vertical integration is, once again, a hot industry topic, and Moore noted that the introduction of a Paccar proprietary engine to the North American market has been a carefully considered step for the company. “What we want to do is to make sure that we get engines absolutely right,” he said. “We have to be masters of engines and engine technology.
“Our job is to work with customers to provide them with a truck that will meet their specific needs,” he added. “We have to help optimize performance for them, to try to make sure we are pushing that on their behalf. As a truck OEM, we have to be the experts and present what we know will do the best job in a particular operation. That means we are always looking at anything that can improve performance.”
The pressure to reduce fuel costs still has to be weighed against other factors, Moore added. It is not always just a simple matter of making every possible change to vehicle specs that might reduce fuel consumption. “For example, we have not seen customers moving from Class 8 to Class 7 trucks,” he said. “In fact, it has really been just the opposite. Some fleets are moving up to Class 8 even for their regional operations because a Class 8 truck allows them to handle a wider variety of freight and serve more customers with the same asset.”
While many fleets are reducing the average length of their long-haul trips, it has not resulted in a corresponding reduction in sleeper sizes. “Fleets are not downsizing sleepers because they still want to make sure their drivers have a comfortable working environment,” he observed, “even if they are on the road and away from home for fewer days than in the past.”
The same balancing act holds true for idle-reduction equipment. “Carriers still want to reduce idling,” Moore said, “but diesel-powered systems add weight, take up frame space and mean there is one more system to maintain. On the other hand, battery-based systems may not meet all their expectations, so fleets are making careful choices. For some, just having engine idle shutdown and an idling policy is enough. It is really a very application-specific decision.”
When it comes to alternative power, the decision is also very application-specific, according to Moore. “As the fueling infrastructure improves, we expect to see more LNG and CNG trucks out there,” he noted. “It all goes back to operating costs. When there are more places to fuel and the operating range stretches out, it will drive an increased interest in natural gas power for over-the-road applications
“With hybrids, the key to success is finding applications where the payback is strong enough to make financial sense for fleets without the need for outside incentives,” Moore added. “We see tremendous opportunities in medium-duty operations where there is a lot of stop-and-go activity.”
In spite of the unique challenges facing fleets and their suppliers today, Moore said that the company is bullish about 2012 and expects it to be a stronger year than 2011, with a greater demand for trucks. To meet that demand, the company is working closely with its own suppliers to help make sure they can meet growing market needs together. “We look at our supplier base every day,” he said. “We want to make sure they are prepared to keep up with our build rate.
“We have a very healthy relationship with our supplier base,” he noted. “We regularly share forecasts and other information. Everybody is trying to accomplish the same customer service goals; we are all striving for that together.
“I am very proud of Kenworth – of its people and its dealers,” Moore added. “Our market share has reached record levels, and that is a testament to [the entire team].”