Take a closer look at the trends that defined work truck operations in 2023 and explore how they can inform our approach to fleet management in the years to come. - Photo: Work Truck

Take a closer look at the trends that defined work truck operations in 2023 and explore how they can inform our approach to fleet management in the years to come.

Photo: Work Truck

As we enter a new year, it's natural to wonder what the future holds for fleet managers. But before we gaze into the crystal ball, let's take a moment to reflect on the past. Looking back at trends in 2023 can reveal valuable insights that can help us navigate the road ahead.

From technological advancements to shifting needs, last year's developments can provide information for fleet managers looking to optimize their operations and stay competitive.

By examining these trends, we can identify areas for improvement, anticipate future developments, and position our organizations for success. So, join us as we take a closer look at the trends that defined work truck operations in 2023 and explore how they can inform our approach to fleet management in the years to come.

1. Rising Costs & Economic Uncertainty

There has been a significant increase in operating costs for fleets in 2023 due to various economic factors such as inflation, rising interest rates, and limited vehicle availability.

As a result, fleet managers are forced to adapt their strategies to cope with these increasing costs, including considering alternative vehicle makes and models, evaluating balance sheets, and developing measures to mitigate lead times.

Lisa Paul, chief strategy officer for Hub International, explained one of the top trends in 2023 directly:

“Rising costs — the highest in 15 years — impacted profitability. Nearly every line item on a fleet carrier’s budget increased, including vehicle insurance, new- and used-vehicle prices, and the cost of gas,” Paul said.  

Throughout 2023, turbulent economic conditions and inflationary pressures impacted every aspect of fleet operations.

“Whether it was rising interest rates, inconsistent supply chain performance, fuel price volatility, or higher parts and labor costs, these trends significantly increased fleet expenses, putting tremendous strain on fleet budgets,” said Ed Powell, director of consulting services for Holman.

Specifically, one major challenge noted this year was the rising costs of vehicles, which led to actual transaction prices peaking.

“The cost increases are compounded by higher interest rates, further stretching fleet budgets. Additionally, limited fleet allocation sometimes resulted in more out-of-stock purchases, making it challenging to find the right vehicles for fleets,” said Bryan St. Eve, vice president of operations at Enterprise Fleet Management.

Economic pressures drove fleet managers to be more vigilant with their budgets and consider new strategies to address rising costs.

“In response to higher vehicle prices and limited fleet allocation, we reviewed alternative makes and models that clients may not have thought of as an option in years prior. Ultimately, the uncertainty in the current economic climate continues to add complexities to fleet operations,” St. Eve added.

Driven by vehicle price increases and surging interest rates, Holman has seen monthly lease payments increase by nearly 40% since 2020. It has also seen fleet maintenance costs increase by as much as 30% due to various factors, including parts shortages, higher commodity costs, and rising labor rates.

“Now add the still somewhat limited inventory of new vehicles, which has extended lifecycles well beyond initial forecasts. You have vehicles logging more miles, requiring more maintenance, and you quickly see the perfect storm this creates to propel operating costs to near-record highs. Ultimately, the rising cost of fleet operations continues to be a major pain point for every fleet,” Powell added.

Fleets faced mounting pressure to slash operating costs against high inflation rates and economic uncertainty in 2023.

Recognizing this, Branden Harbin, executive director of global marketing at Allison Transmission, emphasized the need for “fleets to identify efficient solutions to reduce operating costs.”

Although Holman did see marginal improvement in the fourth quarter of 2023, Powell noted that global economic uncertainty is poised to continue influencing fleet costs for the next 12-24 months, further straining already stretched budgets.

“The best advice I can offer fleet operators is to embrace a macro approach to planning and budget allocation. Rather than simply planning for the year ahead, if you can forecast three to five years out, you’ll have greater financial flexibility to adjust to unforeseen challenges or have capital available to take advantage of cost-savings opportunities that may arise,” Powell shared.

2. Sustainability & Fleet Management

There is a growing trend toward fleet electrification, driven by factors such as government regulations, organizational sustainability goals, and advances in electric vehicle technology.

Fleet managers are considering the total cost of ownership, infrastructure development, and operational adjustments when planning for electrification. There is also a heightened focus on ESG initiatives, with many organizations prioritizing sustainability and supplier diversity objectives.

But, there is also a need for adequate charging infrastructure, training, and safety equipment for in-house shops to support the transition to electric vehicles.

“In 2023, a combination of factors drove the trend toward fleet electrification. Organizations increasingly focused on reducing their carbon footprint to meet emissions reduction goals, a shift accelerated by stricter global emissions regulations. Advances in electric vehicle technology improved their viability for fleets, while economic incentives and the lower total cost of ownership made EVs more attractive. The pressure to demonstrate environmental responsibility and the increased availability of electric models supported this transition. Effective planning and management for electrification, including infrastructure development and operational adjustments, became crucial for organizations moving toward electric vehicle fleet management,” said Shay Misra, senior product marketer at Fleetio.

While an entire article could be dedicated to the topic, we dug into the top sustainability and electrification trends seen in 2023 and what was driving them:

The Rise of ESG

Fleet managers are setting ESG goals as calls for sustainability increase across the fleet industry.

"Fleet operators are starting to understand that there are business opportunities in championing decarbonization. They are also recognizing that a sustainable fleet doesn’t have to mean more costs; sustainability can help save money as it’s often related to running a more efficient fleet,” said Jim Perkins, director, Shell Fleet Solutions U.S.

The industry has a great deal of momentum to prioritize ESG initiatives.

“Today, we work with many customers with a solid ESG focus, providing significant resources and support as they strive to meet their fleet-related sustainability and supplier diversity objectives. This topic is top-of-mind for many of our customers, playing a prominent role in shaping overall fleet strategies. I anticipate these efforts will continue to expand as additional organizations follow suit,” said Powell of Holman.

With many organizations exploring strategies to meet various ESG goals, Powell noted, for fleet operators, this often means finding new, innovative ways to reduce a fleet’s carbon footprint to align with the company’s overall sustainability strategy.

“Initial efforts often focus on cutting scope 1 greenhouse gas emissions by reducing fuel consumption and maximizing efficiency. We also continue to see a growing number of fleet operators exploring the viability of adding electric vehicles or other alt-fuel units to their fleet mix,” Powell said.

With government regulations and manufacturer objectives promoting the production and sale of zero-emissions vehicles, the shift towards fleet electrification is now seen as a requirement rather than an option.

“While upfront considerations such as vehicle purchase costs, charging infrastructure, and return on investment are key, fleets should also keep post-purchase service and maintenance top of mind,” recommended St. Eve of Enterprise Fleet Management. “Factors that include the availability and proximity of EV service vendors in the local operating area and the EV training resources and new safety equipment required for in-house shops should be considered. As the transition to fleet electrification increases, these elements should be at the forefront of any fleet manager's long-term planning.”

Part of ESG is a greater emphasis on safety.

"We’re seeing fleets take safety more seriously; not only does it keep drivers safer, but it is also good for the bottom line. This again ties back to fleet efficiency: incidents that can cost upwards of $75,000 as reported by the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS)," Perkins added.

Philip van der Wilt, VP of EMEA at Samsara, also saw a heightened focus on fleet electrification and climate strategy.    

“With rising fuel costs and ambitious sustainability goals, including zero-emission vehicle programs directly impacting commercial fleets, companies faced increasing pressure to transition to electric. Transportation leaders stepped up to the challenge with comprehensive ESG policies, increasing their budgets and resources to focus on corporate climate strategies and play their part in reducing the effects of climate change,” van der Wilt said.

Alternative fuels gained momentum as a solution for fleets to reduce emissions to meet upcoming EPA emissions standards changes.

“While there is significant interest in electrification, many fleets are hesitant to adopt fully electric solutions due to limited driving range, insufficient charging infrastructure, and the purchase price of electric vehicles. As a result, commercial vehicle fleets are exploring alternative fuels, such as natural gas and hydrogen, as an alternate way to reduce emissions and meet sustainability goals in the near term,” noted Harbin of Allison Transmission.

Evolution of EV Maintenance

And as commercial fleets begin integrating electric vehicles, there are several factors they need to consider beyond the vehicles, including charge management, telematics, and service.

“Although one of the benefits of EVs is reduced required vehicle maintenance, an electric truck or van is not completely maintenance-free. Fleets will need to plan how they will maintain and service their EVs,” said Jeff Kritzer, president and CEO of BendPak, Inc.

For example, fleets may need new tools and equipment for in-house work.

“Take the popular two-post lift, for example: Because EVs are generally heavier than their corresponding ICE counterparts, fleets adding EVs may need to install higher-capacity vehicle lifts. And capacity isn’t the only concern. The battery packs on most EVs take up much of the undercarriage, forcing the lifting points to the far edges of the frame, making them challenging for some lift arms to reach. Consider lifts with low-profile arms that offer a wide range of extension and retraction to reach the OEM-recommended lifting points,” Kritzer added.

Building a Support System

More thought is going into the electric ecosystem, with one trend in 2023 being charging infrastructure.

“There is more focus on the infrastructure portion of electric vehicles. Reality is setting in regarding the cost and capabilities of these trucks,” said Grayson Kirksey, M2/SD Product Manager at Daimler Truck North America.

Another example of the infrastructure focus is Tesla, which announced several partnerships to expand its charging infrastructure to be available to more vehicles, including General Motors, Rivian, and Toyota.  

Growing EV Availability & Interest

The number of available electric and hybrid vehicle options grew in 2023 as well. One example was the launch of the 2024 Silverado EV Work Truck.

“Commercial companies are increasingly looking to add electric trucks to their fleets, specifically with the all-new 2024 Chevrolet Silverado EV Work Truck launched this year. The top purchase drivers for fleet buyers to go electric are the lower cost of ownership and less downtime for regular maintenance. We know that range is top of mind for buyers, and the 4WT offers 450 miles of range, standard 350kW fast-charging, and the ability to search on route for available chargers within the native Google Maps,” said Catherine Scales, senior manager, Chevrolet Communications.

Regarding the medium-duty truck segment, Isuzu announced an electric variant earlier in 2023 with the Isuzu N-Series electric, among several other vehicle launches.

There was a general growth in interest in EVs and understanding the technology for both the truck and charging.

“With changing emissions requirements ahead of us, the customers are starting to learn and ask about what that means for their trucks. We will learn from what California will do during 2024 and beyond along with the other states who follow the CARB rules,” said Brian Tabel, assistant vice president of marketing at Isuzu Commercial Truck of America.

Gary Schmidt, senior vice president of Motiv, noted additional challenges the fleet industry faced in 2023 when transitioning to electric vehicles.

He mentioned introducing EVs to the field, building infrastructure to support their adoption, staffing requirements for the switch, and complying with federal and state mandates on emissions, particularly in California. Additionally, Schmidt considered factors such as finding suitable EV models from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that fit specific applications and budgets.

3. Sustainability is More than EVs

Overall, fleet sustainability is more than just looking at EVs.

“Fleets are focusing on optimized routing, fuel spend, and driver safety,” said Nick Delyani, director, content marketing for Merchants Fleet.  

There has also been a continued change from diesel to gas trucks.

“Customers are moving to a longer-term emissions-compliant truck, and gas will have less change in the future, allowing customers to plan out their trucks easier than diesel or EV,” said Tabel of Isuzu Commercial Truck of America.

And, as wait times for traditional EV charging infrastructure have continued to grow, many fleet owners looking for readily available solutions turned to off-grid, propane-powered recharging infrastructure.

“The technology utilizes a propane-powered generator — and in some cases wind and solar power — to recharge EVs independently of the electric grid. It has not only allowed fleet owners to implement a clean energy source but provided them with reliable solutions for their EVs,” said Tucker Perkins, president and CEO of the Propane Education & Research Council.

Volatile gasoline and diesel prices made balancing a fuel budget in 2023 difficult.

“Fleet owners took the initiative to find more stable energy options. That led many of them to consider propane autogas because propane retailers will work with fleet owners to create a mutually beneficial fuel contract that allows fleets to lock in a set price per gallon. Most fleet owners also report fuel cost savings of up to 50% compared to conventional fuels,” Perkins added.

4. Workforce Changes in Work Truck Fleets

It’s no secret that there is an aging workforce in fleet today.

“As ‘Baby Boomers’ retire, fleets face challenges replacing them. Nowhere is this challenge felt more than in the fleet maintenance department. The technician shortage of the last 20 years is only getting worse, as demand for trained automotive techs and diesel mechanics drastically outstrips supply, fewer students enroll in training programs, and existing technicians struggle to learn how to diagnose and repair increasingly sophisticated vehicle software, alternative-fuel systems, EVs, and more,” said Kritzer of BendPak, Inc.

Shop equipment can play a role in reducing the need for new technicians by helping keep a fleet’s existing technicians working safely and efficiently for longer.

“For example, improving ergonomics can reduce workplace injuries, including repetitive motion injuries that can take techs off the job. Using a vehicle lift to put a van or truck at a comfortable working height and offering mobile work seats that adjust to provide ergonomic support for a wide range of tasks can help keep technicians comfortable and productive,” Kritzer added.

In 2023, labor shortages emerged as a significant trend affecting the fleet industry.

“Public sector fleet managers have noted that maintenance technicians frequently switch jobs, lured by modest pay increases or sign-on bonuses, only to move on to the next opportunity. This high turnover adversely affects service quality, operational costs, and team morale. Additionally, there was a critical shortage of drivers holding commercial driver's licenses (CDLs), crucial for operating large trucks. Sectors like hauling, towing, and vehicle transport were particularly impacted, facing challenges in retaining existing CDL drivers and recruiting new ones. These labor shortages in maintenance and driving roles have become a prominent concern in the fleet industry,” said Misra of Fleetio.    

Fleets face budget strains due to high inflation and the ongoing technician shortage.

“Shops are raising labor rates to offer competitive wages. However, finding technicians trained in new technologies such as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and vehicle electrification adds complexity to the recruiting process. Diesel technicians also remain in high demand and low supply, leading to the continuation of hiring challenges in this area. This intensified strain on fleet budgets is expected to continue in the coming years,” said St. Eve of Enterprise Fleet Management.

5. Supply Chain Disruption & Diversification

Despite improvement in the supply chain for replacement parts since the pandemic, certain parts, such as powertrain and electronic components, continued to face delays in 2023.

“Supply chain delays and the high cost of replacement parts presented additional challenges for fleets, delaying equipment repair,” said Paul of Hub International.

This persistent strain on the supply chain impacts fleet maintenance operations, causing long wait times and delays.

“Fleet managers should anticipate potential part delays when planning maintenance schedules and consider diversifying their sources of replacement parts to minimize downtime,” said St. Eve of Enterprise Fleet Management.

The fleet industry continues to grapple with the enduring impact of disruptions in supply chains, a situation initially triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A combination of global unrest and rising interest rates has further intensified these challenges. Such factors collectively contribute to ongoing operational difficulties within the industry,” said Misra of Fleetio.  

For most of the past three-plus years, fleet operators have been challenged to navigate a severely disrupted automotive supply chain.

“Fortunately, in 2023, we saw the supply chain stabilize and begin to rebound. While the industry isn’t out-of-the-woods just yet, there’s certainly reason for optimism as we turn the calendar to 2024,” said Powell of Holman.

As we look ahead to 2024 (and beyond), Powell recommended reassessing your acquisition strategy to ensure you’re well-positioned to adapt to an evolving business environment while still adhering to tried and true best practices.

“Engage your key fleet stakeholders; be proactive in your planning; be prepared to wait (potentially nine-plus months for units with extensive upfitting); budget accordingly; align with strong supply chain partners. This fresh look at your acquisition process will help you craft a strategy that aligns with the needs of your business today while adjusting to a still somewhat uncertain supply chain,” Powell added.

And, there is still allocation to deal with, which was a big challenge in 2023.

“Dealers and customers are only able to get a set number of trucks based on previous sales history,” said Tabel of Isuzu Commercial Truck of America.

There were also longer lead times at body companies.

“Most body companies have long lead times for building bodies, delaying customers getting their trucks finished. It is raising dealer inventory to record levels because the trucks sit at the body companies,” Tabel added.

Additionally, fostering an increasingly diverse supply chain continues to be a top strategic priority for many organizations.

“Today, your supply chain partners must provide the services and resources your business needs to maximize revenue while aligning with your corporate social responsibility philosophies. As organizations look for ways to diversify their fleet spend – often among the largest line items in the operating budget – they’re left with limited options. Holman is proud to be the first and only global fleet management provider to be a certified women-owned business enterprise (WBE). Holman’s WBE certification helps our clients establish a supplier base that’s as diverse as their customers," Powell said.

6. Focus on Driver Safety & Comfort

Safety features as a “standard” option or feature have been trending. 

“Anecdotally, we have heard many customers talking about ordering safety as a standard feature rather than an option. We are also seeing the numbers increase, validating the trend,” said Kirksey of Daimler Truck North America.

In addition, Kirskey has also seen an increase in driver comfort features being ordered this year, particularly driver/passenger upgraded seats.

“This may be to differentiate from the competition, or it might be an effort to attract drivers since there has been such a shortage in the industry,” Kirksey added.

7. Legal Woes

An ongoing trend for the past several years, 2023 was still no different when it came to legal woes faced by commercial fleets.

 “There was an influx of lawsuits targeting commercial fleets, financed by private equity firms, extended the length of litigation and reduced the likelihood of settlement. A surge in costly ‘nuclear verdicts’ compounded challenges,” said Paul of Hub International.

8. Rightsizing Efforts

Rightsizing was another buzzword for commercial fleets in 2023.

“Fleets in 2023 were buying trucks for certain routes instead of buying one or two styles of trucks, and they are making multiple purchases of and having the right powertrain and GVW for certain routes or jobs. We saw this trend a few years ago. Still, it certainly is something customers are looking closely at,” said Tabel of Isuzu Commercial Truck of America.

9. Environmental Changes

It’s getting hotter. And this impacts what drivers need and ask for in their fleet vehicles.

“Many parts of the country are seeing record high temperatures. In places where air conditioning used to be “nice to have,” keeping workers safe and comfortable is becoming necessary. For facilities where adding air conditioning would be cost-prohibitive (like a large garage, parts facility, or warehouse) or where workers work outside, portable evaporative coolers can be a solution. An evaporative cooler uses the cooling power of evaporated water to lower the surrounding temperature up to 26 degrees for about a dollar a day,” said Kritzer of BendPak, Inc.

10. Improving Fuel Management

Improving fuel efficiency continued to be a struggle for those managing vehicle fleets.

“In 2023, the emphasis on conserving fuel went beyond choosing vehicles. Fleet managers adopted strategies such as optimizing routes to reduce travel time and exploring alternative fuels. By analyzing data on fuel consumption and implementing various measures, companies could save costs, decrease their carbon footprint, and contribute to an environmentally friendly future,” said Misra of Fleetio.   

Another thing Shell noticed is that fleet card programs are sustaining their relevance and importance.

"Fleet cards remain the most popular fleet management tool for saving on fuel and keeping accurate records on fuel costs and invoices. Savings come via discounts on everyday fill-ups and through the reduction of hours spent on paperwork by administrators. We don’t see the use of fleet cards waning any time soon,” said Perkins of Shell Fleet Solutions U.S.

11. Focus on Uptime

Keeping vehicles on the road and reducing downtime is always important, but uptime was a big focus in 2023.

“Fleets were investing in features that improve uptime, for example, higher quality batteries and upgraded routing/clipping protection for chassis wiring,” said Kirksey of Daimler Truck North America.

As the demand for efficient and convenient fleet maintenance solutions has increased, several aftermarket service providers and OEMs are realizing the market potential for mobile service.

“Mobile service is an attractive option for fleets seeking to reduce downtime by performing maintenance outside operating hours or by eliminating the need for drivers to drop off, pick up, or wait for vehicles at brick-and-mortar maintenance facilities,” noted St. Eve of Enterprise Fleet Management.

However, mobile service solutions may not be suitable for all fleets. It can often be more beneficial for fleets with a centralized location where multiple vehicles can be serviced during one technician’s visit.

“Additionally, it is typically more beneficial for fleets that prioritize downtime over cost because travel and convenience fees are often associated with this type of service. Fleets must also consider how repairs will be authorized if maintenance is performed outside business hours. Nevertheless, the mobile service trend is here to stay, and it should be taken into account by all fleet managers looking to streamline their maintenance operations as a maintenance consideration,” St. Eve added.

12. Data Availability & Vulnerability

Also, Fleetio’s Misra noted that 2023 saw a significant leap in fleet data availability, driven mainly by advanced onboard technologies such as telematics and connected vehicle APIs.

“These technological innovations were key in enhancing data collection capabilities, offering detailed insights into various aspects of fleet management, including health, cost, performance, and return on investment (ROI),” Misra said.   

Also, transportation continued to be a heavily targeted industry by hackers.

“Cybercriminals who breach in-cab systems via ransomware can access fleet data, hijack logistics, and shut down a vehicle — all through a single access point, endangering the driver and others,” said Paul of Hub International.

Fleets are trying to understand the TCO of their assets and where they can become efficient, seeking more visibility into the lifecycle of an asset to streamline their internal processes and understand how this impacts their overall business.

"Maintenance and repair seem to be leading factors in making future decisions, focusing on cutting costs while striving for greater efficiency,” said Kyle Uhlis, director of client services - Truck & Equipment, Wheels.

There has also been increased investment and focus on AI.   

“The advent of ChatGPT in 2023 accelerated investments and innovations in generative AI across every industry. For fleets, this led to an increased interest in how AI can help accelerate time to value and boost productivity through personalized insights,” said Evan Welbourne, Head of AI and Data at Samsara. 

13. Upfitting for Versatility

As the fleet industry continues to evolve, several trends in upfitting and customization are emerging. According to Erik Nelson, general manager North American Sales & Operations at Sortimo, one notable development is the shift towards upfitting SUVs and cars instead of small vans, which are no longer available. This change is likely driven by the desire for larger, more versatile vehicles that can accommodate a variety of tasks and payload requirements.

Another trend Nelson highlighted is the emphasis on optimized upfit utilization. With the costs involved in upfitting vehicles, getting the most out of each cargo van or SUV is becoming increasingly important. This means carefully considering storage space, organizational systems, and overall design to ensure maximum efficiency and productivity. As Nelson put it, "Hyper organization!" is key.

Finally, flexibility in upfit configurations is becoming more important, particularly regarding upfit swapability. The ability to easily modify or reconfigure a vehicle to accommodate different jobs and technician needs is crucial in today's fast-paced environment. Instead of redeploying a vehicle after modifying the unit, fleet managers want the option to quickly swap out upfits as needed, allowing them to adapt to changing demands and optimize their operations.

About the author
Lauren Fletcher

Lauren Fletcher

Executive Editor - Fleet, Trucking & Transportation

Lauren Fletcher is Executive Editor for the Fleet, Trucking & Transportation Group. She has covered the truck fleet industry since 2006. Her bright personality helps lead the team's content strategy and focuses on growth, education, and motivation.

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