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Pickup Truck Maintenance Costs

February 2000, Automotive Fleet - Feature

by Mike Antich and Paul Dexler

Annual maintenance costs for compact and full-size pickup trucks decreased by an average 8 percent per unit in 1999, according to a study conducted for Automotive Fleet by PHH Vehicle Management Services, a fleet management company headquartered in Hunt Valley, MD.

This finding is based on a 12-month study that tracked fleet costs for 12 maintenance categories ranging from brakes to suspension for 7,445 pickups operating in commercial fleet service. In addition, the study segregated maintenance expenses by seven mileage ranges and, for the first time, documented costs for light-duty trucks with mileages in excess of 96,000 miles. The study tracked all expenses in the 12 maintenance categories that were incurred between Jan. 1, 1999 and Dec. 31, 1999.

Truck Quality at All-Time High

"The primary reason for the decline in frequency of repairs for pickup trucks in the past 12 months was because the quality of trucks is at an all-time high," said Bruce Horan, maintenance product manager, card services for PHH Vehicle Management Services.

Although the cost per incident was up compared to 1998, the number of incidents per unit has been reduced by a greater margin, which has resulted in the overall reduction in operating expense per unit in this product class.

"This suggests that we are experiencing the impact of the recent emphasis by manufacturers to implement high-tech components and powertrains into pickups," said Horan. Examples of these enhancements are sequential fuel injection, direct-firing ignition systems utilizing dedicated coil packs for each cylinder, the increased use of four-wheel disk brake systems, and improved manufacturing processing that achieve more exact tolerances between moving parts. They have all helped to increase vehicle reliability and durability. Although these enhancements have helped to lower the frequency of component failures, when they do fail, the cost per repair has increased.

One trend that has increased maintenance costs is the migration of manufacturers from 15-inch to 16-inch wheel diameters as standard equipment to improve performance and ground clearance. "This has also added to the per-incident costs for tires since 16-inch replacement tires are more expensive," said Horan.

However, the entry of discount chains into the fleet market is putting more pressure on suppliers to reduce tire prices. In the past year, Bridgestone/Firestone, Michelin, and BF Goodrich/Uniroyal have all reduced prices.

One unintended consequence to the rapid development of new suspensions, brake systems, and powertrain configurations, is that aftermarket parts availability has been scarce for certain truck models. "This requires the purchase of factory parts early on in the vehicle’s service life, which typically cost more and add to the per-incident cost as well," said Horan.

Equipping Trucks to Last Longer

Many of the new-model pickups, such as the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, have four-wheel disk brake systems that have pads, which are nearly 50% thicker than standard disk pads. "Plus, a 4-wheel disk brake system inherently lasts longer than the old front disk and rear drum brake system," said Horan. "As a result, you should see the longevity of these brake systems increase substantially."

Another truck design change minimizing maintenance expense is the adoption of more rigid frames. That is especially the case with upfitted trucks that haul large amounts of weight. For these trucks, a more rigid frame helps to extend the longevity of other suspension components, by reducing unwanted movement and fatigue.

Many components today are almost maintenance-free, such as ignition systems, said Horan. "Because distributors are being replaced by distributorless ignition systems in almost all full-size pickup models, the need to replace normal wear items has been reduced significantly."

Also, more and more truck engines are equipped with platinum-tip sparkplugs, which are rated to operate for 100,000 miles without replacement. "At the moment, only about half of today’s pickups are equipped with platinum-tipped spark plugs; however, competition will put more pressure on manufacturers to offer them as standard equipment in the next two to three years," said Horan.

The enhanced capability of vehicle self-diagnostics on engines and electrical systems are becoming more intuitive. This saves labor costs through quicker diagnosis. The technology that allows for these enhanced capabilities is called multiplexing. Basically a single wire is used to transmit several different voltages to and from multiple components simultaneously. "This is a big trend in new vehicle designs," said Horan.

New vehicle technology being implemented by certain manufacturers is offering information fleet managers need to more accurately schedule maintenance. As an example, GM introduced an Oil Life Monitor System on its 1999-model Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups. This system monitors specific computer inputs such as engine revolutions, operating temperatures, actual engine run time, and other inputs to calculate when the oil should be changed.

"As on-board oil monitoring technology finds its way into more vehicles, we may very well see the manufacturers adjust their oil change interval requirements, which haven’t changed for nearly a decade," said Horan.

Extended life fluids are helping to cut down on preventive maintenance expenses. For instance, some pickups are now being cooled with long-life coolants, which do not need to be replaced until 100,000 miles of use.

Decreased Maintenance At Higher Mileages

Fleets are experiencing fewer component failures, said Horan. "Trucks are holding together much better and you are realizing the maintenance savings through all mileage bands," said Horan. "Higher-mileage vehicles are still more susceptible to component failures, but, when compared year-over-year, the cost of maintenance for higher-mileage units is decreasing."

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