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Operations: Cat’s cradle

Nov. 11, 2013

Operating a truck fleet has always seemed a little like a game of Cat’s Cradle.  There are so many overlapping and interdependent variables to consider all at once: available trucks and tractors and their location, customers’ pickup and delivery requirements, time and distance factors, fueling, weight, drivers’ available hours, weather and routing.  The difference between a perfectly planned and executed operation and a tangled mess can be one wrong move.

No time to rest

Over the years, regulations have added still more complexity to fleet operations, and the most recent regulations have only had a multiplier effect.  “I don’t know how fleets do it, frankly,” says Richard P. Schweitzer, general counsel for the National Private Truck Council (NPTC).  It is a sentiment echoed around the industry these days.

Changes to hours-of-service (HOS) requirements are a case in point.  With the maximum average work-hours per week reduced to 70 hours from 82, a weekly “reset” allowed if drivers rest for 34 consecutive hours with a minimum of two nights of sleep from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. and the requirement that drivers take a 30-min. rest break during the first eight hours on duty (not to mention all the special rules and exemptions for short-haul fleets, non-CDL fleets, driver salespeople and others), planners and dispatchers are finding themselves additionally constrained and challenged.  

“The new 30-min. break requirement is just another downward pressure on productivity,” observes Tom Fansler, president of  Vusion. “Some fleets are reporting that they can’t fully utilize their full legal driving day anymore.  Dry van fleets are lucky if they get seven and a half hours out of it.  Others are doing better.”

Part of the problem with the new rest break requirements, especially for carriers operating irregular routes, is the difficulty some drivers face in finding a place to safely pull off the road and rest at the required time. Realistically, it can use up an hour or even more getting to a parking place, “resting” and getting back on route again.

Drivers who return to a terminal every day face a special twist, Schweitzer notes.  If they can get back to home base before 12 hours, they can skip the 30-min. rest break; however, if it looks like they may not make it back before 12 hours have elapsed, then a 30-min. break within the first eight hours of operation is required.  That means drivers hit a decision point at the eight-hour mark: Will everything go right for the rest of the day so that they can quit on time?  No unexpected delays?  Or do they need to take a break and log it?

Scheduling concerns

Difficulties scheduling around the required 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. sleep periods have also caused more fleets to simply give up trying to dispatch drivers before 5:30 in the morning, resulting in greater highway congestion the rest of the day—arguably a productivity and safety trade-off of one kind in favor of another.  “The incentive is there to put drivers on the road outside the rest break requirements,” says Schweitzer.  “In other words, just don’t run in the 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. period.”

In a recent presentation, Schweitzer shared the results of an NPTC membership survey concerning the overall impact of the new HOS regulations: Of the 10 fleets responding, nine reported that they were adversely affected by the 34-hour reset; six noted that they were now paying drivers for rest breaks; and eight said productivity had declined.

Even when regulations are intended to make things simpler for fleets, it doesn’t always work out that way. A new proposed rule published in August would make it unnecessary for fleets to retain driver vehicle inspection reports (DVIRs) when no vehicle defects are reported by the driver.  Based on data indicating that only 5% of reports actually list any defects, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) estimates this regulatory change could save $1.7 billion annually.

No shortcut

That sounds great but beware, says Annette Sandberg, CEO of TransSafe Consulting and former administrator of FMCSA.  If an inspection uncovers maintenance issues which were not reported in a DVIR, the driver and fleet can be cited for CSA violations—and two DVIR citations and you’re out.

This has fleet operations managers and others understandably concerned about the practicalities.  “Some managers are struggling with this,” Schweitzer says. “They worry that some drivers will not do inspections if they don’t have to do reports.  It will be incumbent on managers to be sure drivers are doing vehicle inspections [because you can still be required to document that DVIRs are taking place in the event of an audit].”

Eric Manegold, head of business development for Zonar Systems, agrees.  “It sounds like a good paperwork reduction idea, but how are fleets going to document that drivers did the required inspection reports if they don’t keep all the records?” he asks.  Many fleets have already decided they will continue to require DVIR reports, defects or no, and take a pass on this cost-saving opportunity just to play it safe.

Fleet operations managers might be expected to also have some heartburn over the proposal to require speed-limiting devices that would set a top speed of 65 mph on all Class 7 and 8 commercial trucks, but that has not generally been the case, according to Schweitzer.  “We have seen no opposition, or at least very little,” he notes. “Virtually everyone agrees [that this would be a good thing for safety and to help manage fuel costs].”

Not all regulations that impact fleet operations come from expected quarters. The Environmental Protection Agency emissions regulations, which mandate diesel particulate filters (DPFs) and exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), are causing problems for many operations, especially those still running 2007 to 2010 model-year trucks.  Sudden breakdowns due to issues with emissions control systems can create havoc with scheduling and routing.  Poor performance and/or fuel efficiency showings can add cost and create driver and even customer satisfaction issues—and they have.

The continuous tightening of emissions standards has caused fleet managers to make sure they have the right asset configuration(s) to help maintain fuel efficiency, Fansler explains.  “Certainly, a lot of our clients have been having trouble with 2007 to 2010 vehicles in particular.  Some makes and models have been more prone to service failures (caused by DPF sensor failures) than others.  It can really get expensive if 5 to 10% of your trucks are under siege at any given time,” he says.

His advice to fleets is to “watch your trucks like a hawk for any sudden performance degradations.”

Where the answer lies

Melvin Kirk, vice president of maintenance and quality operations for Ryder System Inc., agrees.  “DPF is not a four-letter word but it’s close,” he told the audience during a recent webinar.  “Don’t depend on suggested DPF cleaning/replacement intervals. Let your truck tell you what your DPF cleaning interval should be.”

“Regulations are like a constantly changing Rubik’s Cube,” Fansler observes.  Rubik’s Cube or Cat’s Cradle—whatever metaphor you choose—fleet operations have never been more complex and managers have never had to be more sophisticated in their approaches and solutions.

Thank heaven for technology.  It is the not-so-secret weapon of fleet operations managers, a way to fight complexity with complexity and win.

Click for more on:

General Business: Health & taxes

Equipment: Regulatory curve

Drivers: Hot seat

Operations: Cat’s cradle

Maintenance: Double-edged sword

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