Every vocational work truck fleet manager wishes they had a crystal ball to envision the future.
Fleet is far from static, with constant change and innovation coming through in spades every day.
Work Truck looked at the future of telematics, electric vehicles, upfitting, safety, and how COVID-19 has impacted thoughts of the future.
Future of Telematics
It’s safe to say, one of the most significant game-changing technologies to impact fleet in the past 20 or so years has been advances in the telematics industry.
“Telematics changed the game when it was introduced to the marketplace years ago, and the technology is about to get a significant upgrade. Connected vehicle data will flow directly from the vehicle without third-party devices, reducing entry barriers into the product. This will also increase vehicle visibility throughout the delivery process. We expect to see big leaps of actionable information at the fleet manager’s fingertips,” said Adam Secore, senior vice president, operations for Merchants Fleet.
And interest in telematics benefits is only growing.
“Between the safety risk posed by erratic driving and increasing insurance premiums endangering business health, I think we’ll see more interest from the industry about how telematics data might be used to improve driver safety and performance,” said Braden Pastalaniec, VP of Transportation and Logistics at Uptake.
Like many technology trends, Chad Heminover, president of Shyft Fleet Vehicles and Services, believes the adoption rate of telematics in the commercial truck industry will continue to expand rapidly.
“Two areas we see growing are in determining the utilization of specific vehicles within a fleet and in providing additional driver safety and accountability,” Heminover added.
Battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) are currently at the forefront of this growth.
“Capacity analytics for BEVs has enormous potential to drive the market forward. The ability to fully understand vehicle loads, fuel levels, and environmental conditions will provide insights that optimize job assignment and route planning. In addition, capacity analytics will be particularly powerful for BEVs such as the Ford F-150 Lightning, as charging infrastructure still needs to catch up to the development pace of BEVs,” said Nick Richardi, senior product manager at Zonar.
And the telematics industry is now able to look more into specific vocational needs. Wastequip, a North American manufacturer of waste handling equipment, launched its newly formed Technology Solutions division in June of 2021.
“This vendor-agnostic cloud technology solutions suite is designed for the waste and recycling industry and provides solutions for project, asset, inventory management, maintenance, service verification, and customer service,” said Christian Bremer, director of technical business development at Wastequip.
Looking ahead, Sasha Arasteh, Americas e-mobility and services manager for Shell Fleet Solutions, noted that the next big thing in telematics is focusing on turnkey solutions and leveraging companies as a consultant to develop the best comprehensive program for fleet businesses.
“As fleet managers look to transition to EVs, telematics will help. For example, trip data can be used to assess the required range of EVs to suit the fleet’s needs, enabling managers to make informed decisions and avoid ‘range anxiety.’ Fuel consumption data can help calculate the potential savings and emissions reduction that could be achieved from switching to EVs. Once the decision has been made and EVs introduced to the fleet, real-time telematics data can help them predict exactly where and when a driver should recharge, to help avoid unnecessary detours,” Arasteh added.
Electric Vehicle Insights
Electric vehicles (EVs) are one of the many directions that OEMs are moving. “The technology to deploy is already here. Truck owners should prepare to work EVs into their fleet as the inventory becomes available and incentives become clearer. This can help fleet managers stay ahead of government mandates. Additionally, Hybrid and Plug-in models should be evaluated. Work with your provider to develop a custom solution that works with your fleet’s needs,” said Secore of Merchants Fleet.
And, electric vehicles options for the vocational work truck industry are growing.
“Now that we are starting to see EVs work their way into service and work trucks, you will see more mixed fleets than ever before. Companies will look at how they deploy different fuel types depending on their service area or customer base. All major OEMs are deploying or planning multiple fuel sources for their work trucks,” said Rich Mohr, global VP Fleet at ChargePoint.
Pastalaniec of Uptake noted that compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquified natural gas (LNG) vehicles are also here.
“These vehicles paved the way for the battery-electric, hybrid, and fuel cell vehicles that are coming next. Each has their own unique challenges apart from traditional diesel when it comes to maintenance, infrastructure, and operations,” Pastalaniec shared.
Zonar has seen interest in hydrogen, both as fuel cells and for combustion.
“However, the infrastructure to support this is non-existent. EVs, particularly for light-duty, can leverage existing utility networks making the transition to them more likely,” Richardi noted.
Customers at Shyft continue to talk about a variety of alternative fuels.
“But, these discussions have been surpassed by the trend toward electric delivery trucks. Electric trucks are becoming more mainstream and more technologically appealing, both from a cost and a convenience standpoint. We are poised to meet customer demand for electric truck platforms,” said Heminover of Shyft.
Scott Hanewall, general manager - commercial division for Monroe Truck Equipment, noted that CNG and LNG have been available for a while and are still growing in popularity.
“We see fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) gaining traction as more manufacturers address logistics in filling stations and other pain points. As these new technologies develop, we continue to educate our team and customers about what that means for space and logistics when upfitting vehicles with new fuel systems,” Hanewall said.
Advances in Upfitting
There have been many advances in technology and safety equipment over the past three years.
“An emerging area is the utilization of lightweight materials such as aluminum or composite over traditional steel components for bodies and shelving. Reducing vehicle weight increases fuel economy while also providing more payload capacity,” said Secore of Merchants Fleet.
Safety is also impacting upfit specifications. Forward and reverse sensing systems, in-cab driver monitoring and telematics, 360-degree and rearview camera systems, cell phone control devices, and collision avoidance systems are some examples of safety tech added to upfits.
“More fleets are outfitting trucks with aftermarket sensors, seeing how they can use more of that data to enable better asset management and drive increased reliability. Those connected components translate into better maintenance outcomes as well as safety improvements,” shared Pastalaniec of Uptake.
Richardi of Zonar noted that one factor not often discussed is the increased degree of specialization for work truck capabilities to reduce operating costs.
“Large vehicles with ‘all the tools’ are heavy, increasing operating costs, maintenance costs, and safety risks,” he said.
Also, these safety systems take up space in truck cabs.
“We have had to make, and will continue to make, readjustments in what we can upfit and where we can create space for creature comforts and additional safety features. There’s less room to mount controls and equipment in a cab these days,” said Hanewall of Monroe Truck Equipment.
Right now, Heminover of Shyft noted that delivery companies are increasingly interested in providing vehicles to their drivers with improved safety systems, especially as competition for labor has increased.
“Today’s drivers also increasingly expect safety features in their vehicles. These include backup cameras, 360-degree vision systems with bird’s eye view, collision avoidance, lane departure warnings, and even anti-theft systems they have become familiar with in their vehicles,” Heminover said.
These trends are going beyond features and technology typically characterized as “safety” features.
“Vehicles now include features aimed at keeping the driver alert and comfortable while driving. These features are as simple as better heating and cooling systems and seats that provide more comfort. Like many of today’s industry trends, this is another trend we believe will continue,” Heminover added.
When it comes to upfits, weight still matters a lot to fleets.
“We’ve seen much interest in building vehicles that keep a vehicle’s overall weight at less than 10,000-pounds gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), so it can be operated by a driver who does not require a commercial driver’s license. This is a result of the stiff competition for drivers and the need to expand the labor pool to meet demand,” Heminover said.
Growth of Safety Systems
Cameras and tech-dominated the conversation related to safety system growth over the past and into the future.
“There have been many advances with the technology currently available, but high-resolution 360-degree camera systems that support collision avoidance, driver safety, and traffic recognition systems seem to be a natural evolution point,” said Secore of Merchants Fleet.
Fleet managers will likely agree with Heminover of Shyft when he said many drivers might not want to hear this next part:
“We believe the trend toward dash cams, along with vehicle tracking and documentation, will continue. We also believe these trends benefit drivers. Here’s why: I believe drivers will appreciate the extra accountability in cases where video evidence can confirm they were not at fault in an accident,” Heminover added.
Predictive analytics has been another phrase heard more often lately.
“The future is predictive maintenance, and in many ways, it’s already here. Fleets just need greater access to their data, either from telematics service providers or OEMs themselves,” said Pastalaniec of Uptake. “I’d also love to see a more fully digitized maintenance process — from the early flagging of an issue that brings the vehicle into the shop, followed by proactive and remote diagnostics, and a repair process where the tech has the support of on-demand manuals and augmented reality. All of that would allow fleets to address persistent challenges with maintenance, vehicle reliability, and technician shortages.”
Autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence (AI) are also two top future trends that have an impact on overall fleet and public safety.
“There will be increased adoption of AI is driven monitoring of vehicle operations. This will be driven by companies’ safety and efficiency needs as the costs of accidents, poor driving, and inefficient routes are incredibly costly,” said Richardi of Zonar.
Hanewall of Monroe Truck Equipment noted that we’re less than five years away from early production models for autonomous driving.
“Lane departures systems, 360-degree cameras, back-up sensors, and collision avoidance systems will continue to emerge. We’re going to see more requirements come from NHTSA and OEMs about what we can or can’t do as upfitters,” said Hanewall of Monroe Truck Equipment.
The connection with telematics solutions and safety also cannot be ignored.
“The latest tracking technology allows fleets to catch patterns of unsafe driving behavior before they result in accidents. Telematics turns data into actionable insights that can be used to support drivers by managing working hours, improving scheduling, and monitoring driving behaviors, helping keep them safe and efficient,” said Arasteh of Shell Fleet Solutions.
Fueling Up the Future
When it comes to fuel, the top goal for any vocational work truck fleet manager has always been to reduce expenses. Whether it’s through more efficient vehicles, more efficient routes, or through mixing up the fuel options, that goal isn’t changing.
“Telematics has already had a large and positive impact on fuel trends and fuel efficiency, and we’re only going to see it continue to increase,” said Arasteh of Shell Fleet Solutions. “Telematics will continue to help drivers find more efficient routes, improve their driving style to meet peak efficiency level, help them manage speed and overall drive greater fuel benefits for both drivers and fleet owners alike.”
Looking toward the future of fuel, it’s clear a mix of options is going to continue to be the ideal solution, but infrastructure is going to be a challenge.
“Truck fleets should be evaluating ways to increase their mileage capabilities while looking at powertrain options that best fit the application of the vehicle. In the future, fleets should aim to maximize efficiency and lower the overall weight of the vehicle through lightweight materials and equipment,” said Secore of Merchants Fleet.
Inefficient routing is another significant fuel (and time) suck.
“There are pockets of use cases for shorter and fixed routes right now, but as the infrastructure and technology for alternative fuels mature, the business case for their use only grows stronger. Maintenance and operations will need to catch up with their adoption quickly,” said Pastalaniec of Uptake.
A far more mixed fleet is becoming more common, and vocational fleets are no different. Where there were a few (yet still limited) options for a rugged alt-fuel truck option before, that is quickly changing.
“Mixed fleets will become the normal fleet in the future. Service and work will continue to purchase multiple fuel vehicles to satisfy their customer base and service area; however, we expect to see good adoption of EV work trucks with the Ford and GM products in early 2022. Overall, customers will expect to see some adoption of EV vehicles from their service providers,” said Mohr of ChargePoint.
Now, this isn’t the future for every vocational fleet.
“EVs will own the market for any operation that’s vehicles travel less than 150 miles a day. These types of vehicles have lower maintenance costs, higher torque, and cheaper fuel than traditional combustion engines. Additionally, the current presidential administration is providing various grant and stimulus packages to help eliminate any barriers to adoption,” said Richardi of Zonar.
Heminover of Shyft added that while hydrogen remains a potential option for commercial vehicles and other applications, EVs are the hot property.
“But we’re not at the point yet of mass use or deployment,” he said. “It all comes back to infrastructure. Whenever we talk about alternative fuels or even electric vehicles, the biggest challenge is refueling or recharging infrastructure.”
COVID-19 Now & Into the Future
When we speak of crystal balls, I think everyone wishes they had a working one at the start of 2020. As the year wore on, some of the anticipated challenges related to shutdowns were being seen, but trucks were still a necessity, and in many industries, work could slow down but not stop.
Work truck fleets became even more critical over the past two years.
“During the pandemic, most consumers relied heavily on the trades and services business to deliver to their homes. Work trucks were pushed harder than ever before, and with the shortage of new equipment sales, these providers had to hold vehicles longer than anticipated. We don’t see consumer behavior changing, as they have become used to the ease of home delivery. With this, we see more fleets turning to electric, as electric fleets offer less overall maintenance costs, are good for the environment, and already fall under many state and federal mandates,” said Mohr of ChargePoint.
The work-from-home practices adopted by Americans during the global pandemic also made an impact.
“As people worked from home, there was a large surge of orders for retailers and food. Delivery companies suddenly needed more delivery vehicles as their routes increased,” said Heminover of Shyft. “While these trends may fade a bit, we believe these new consumer buying trends will be permanent.”
But, a lot started changing, and the semi-conductor and other supply chain shortages have begun to impact all fleets, regardless of vocation.
“We were optimistic the 2022 model-year would be less disrupted than 2021, but unfortunately, the industry has not gotten past the supply chain challenges caused by the pandemic and microchip shortage. OEM production is dramatically reduced from pre-pandemic levels, with some manufacturers moving to allocation models that require preapproval before order submission. Additionally, delays in parts supply for upfitters continue to extend delivery times,” said Secore of Merchants Fleet.
With many OEMs delaying production and fleets pushing back their procurement, the pandemic has placed renewed value and importance on truck availability.
“Fleet managers and drivers are counting on an extended lifetime utility from their fleet. That capacity crunch has prioritized business-critical repairs and moved fleets to consider value first in the repair shop,” said Pastalaniec of Uptake. “Having the visibility into which PM intervals support better business outcomes often begins with the data that fleets are already collecting.
Uptake has started to see more fleets interested in data-backed PM intervals and predictive maintenance to pre-empt costly failures. This helps ensure fleets have the necessary reliability that way, even as they may find their shops shorthanded or their lots emptier than usual.
Chassis manufacturers cut production in response to the pandemic, and many haulers have held back on purchases.
“These actions have changed the standard output for a chassis from 60-days to a ‘new normal’ of 90- to 180-days,” said Rob Strange, director of refuse body sales for Amrep across North America.
“The pandemic led to an increase in vocational vehicles stationed at the homes of the primary operators. While it was common for some segments of the vocational market pre-COVID, the productivity gains from removing ‘depot time’ and commutes to depots each day will be hard to ignore,” said Richardi of Zonar.
The industry at large is experiencing labor shortages, fewer products, and extended wait times.
“We’ve had to make a shift away from traditional distribution channels for products, strengthened our vendor relationships, and explore new avenues for manufactured products, including a greater emphasis on EVs and alternative fuel manufacturers. Demand has not slowed down and continues to outpace supply. While price remains a focus, availability is first and foremost for our customers,” said Hanewall of Monroe Truck Equipment.
At Monroe, specifically, extended safety protocols were created for our employees and their families.
“We plan on continuing those changes for the foreseeable future and have seen the positive impact the extra measures have made in the overall health and safety of our team. As a result of the pandemic, we also had to adopt more technology to help our team communicate when offsite. Two years ago, we rarely conducted video calls, but now, Teams meetings are a regular part of our day-to-day,” said Jim Smith, director of sales - commercial division for Monroe Truck Equipment.
The pandemic forced businesses to take a deeper look into Health, Safety, Security, and Environment (HSSE) for their employees and communities.
“HSSE continues to be a driving force behind Shell’s commitment to improving its sustainability and environmental awareness. Along with putting employee health and safety at the forefront of the operation, emphasizing efficiency, lowering costs, and sustainability is not going away. Today’s fleets are under more pressure than ever to perform and compete,” concluded Arasteh of Shell Fleet Solutions.
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