Fleet managers need to view work trucks as earning assets. To maximize the productivity of this working asset, it is necessary to optimize specifications, operating procedures, and replacement strategies. The best way to optimize truck productivity is to spec the right vehicle for the fleet application. This may sound like I am stating the obvious, but, as many truck professionals will attest, it is often not the case in the real world.

Without fully understanding the fleet application requirements and operating parameters, it is impossible to spec the best chassis, powertrain, and body necessary to optimize productivity.

Fleet managers understand how their trucks are intended to be used in the field; however, intended usage often does not match real-world usage. Consequently, the first step to correctly spec a truck is to meet and talk with the drivers or technicians who will be using the vehicle. By understanding the day-to-day application, you will be able to “build” a truck that meets their needs. If possible, schedule site visits to see firsthand how a truck is being used in the work environment. This will also give you the opportunity to confirm firsthand what is really needed as opposed to what a driver or technician may want.

Vehicle specifications should be defined by the fleet application and mission requirements. It is important to design a truck that will accommodate your operational requirements rather than trying to make your operation conform to the truck. A common mistake made by inexperienced fleet managers is that they do not know the truck’s operating parameters and payload requirements. You need to talk with the people in the field to understand what type of service the truck is expected to perform and how it will be used.

By determining the fleet application, you will determine the payload. The most important factor in truck selection is determining the payload needed to perform a particular operation. Overextending a truck’s payload capacity beyond the chassis’ weight specifications is a good way to shorten the truck’s service life.

Build the Truck to Match the Application

It can’t be emphasized enough – to properly spec a truck, you need to talk with the people in the field to understand what type of service the truck is expected to perform and how it will be used. You should solicit input from field personnel to ensure that local issues affecting the vehicle’s operation are taken into account.

The key objective of your discussions with drivers or technicians is to match the truck with the fleet application. When meeting with end-users, ask questions about their current vehicles. For example, is the powertrain right for their application? Similarly, investigate whether the gross vehicle weight is adequate for the payload carried? Or, is gross combination weight rating high enough if the vehicle will be towing a trailer?

When talking with employees who are actually using the trucks, you may discover they have problems unknown to you. It is common to discover problems with loading height, cab access, lack of bins, limited visibility when backing, or insufficient tool storage. This is your opportunity to ask a lot of questions to determine vehicle or upfit deficiencies. For instance, ask employees about passenger requirements, whether there is a high idling requirement, how the payload is distributed, whether the vehicle will be fully loaded, or operating with a diminishing load, and how they load and off-load cargo.

Look at the existing truck and investigate the maintenance records. What type of problems has this truck had, if any? This will help you determine if the current vehicle is under-spec’d. If it is, then take the necessary steps to correct it. Usually, the majority of trucks that have unscheduled maintenance problems are under-powered and overloaded, which, in addition to increased shop time, results in increased driver downtime. Your maintenance records will reveal that most of the vehicles that experience repeated mechanical failures are under spec’ed.

When you’re building a medium-duty truck, there are a number of key factors that must be spec’d correctly, or you’ll make an expensive mistake. The foremost consideration when building a truck is payload. The weight of the payload determines the engine, transmission, size of tire, frame, and just about everything else.

It is also important to understand how a vehicle will be loaded and unloaded to determine whether a liftgate or pull-out ramp should be chosen for the truck body. Ask how employees will load the payload? Do they use pallet jacks or forklifts? What are the dimensions of the payload? It is important to know the height requirements of the truck. For instance, if payload will be loaded and off-loaded at a dock, what is the dock height? If a forklift is utilized in the loading or unloading payload, it is essential to have the forklift reinforcement option included in the body specifications. Also, know where and how your drivers are securing the load? Take into consideration the height and bulk of your product to ensure the truck has the proper cargo restraint system.

After compiling the input gathered from the field, next review budgetary considerations. The type of truck your field personnel would like may not always fit the annual fleet budget. One factor that can sway the decision on which chassis to acquire is a manufacturer’s incentive program. Although initial cost is a major consideration, it is essential that maintenance and other operating costs, along with projected residual value, be factored into the selection decision, using a total cost of ownership calculation as the ultimate determinant.

Repeating Past Inefficiencies

When spec’ing vehicles, past history is important, but one outcome to using last model-year specs is repeating past inefficiencies. Fleet managers need to adopt a “clean sheet” approach to how they manage their truck fleets.

Similarly, a clean-sheet approach should also be adopted with fleet replacement cycling parameters. Avoid the error of having a single replacement policy for all work trucks. Replacement policies should be guided by lifecycle cost and history, mileage, and engine hours.

Building a truck is a complicated process. Specifying the right truck requires hundreds of decisions and choices – and each choice potentially impacts another. Where it gets tricky, is finding the balance between over-spec’ing and under-spec’ing a vehicle, each with its own unique set of consequences. Over-spec’ing a truck increases the capitalized cost of the vehicle, while under-spec’ing increases maintenance cost.

Another consequence to an under-spec’d truck is that it may require multiple trips due to limited payload capacity. When spec’ing a smaller GVWR truck than required, the tendency is to overload the vehicle. Besides accelerating replacement of wear items, such as brakes, an overloaded vehicle also increases the company’s liability exposure if it is involved in a preventable accident.

It is common for a company to allow budget restraints or commercial driver’s license (CDL) requirements to drive GVW decisions. For instance, there is a tendency to under-spec trucks to avoid exceeding the 26,000-pounds-GVW threshold, which requires drivers to have a CDL and triggers the need for compliance with increased regulatory requirements.

Fleet managers should keep an open mind on how vehicles should be spec’ed. You never want to overload a vehicle, but could a smaller truck with heavy-duty options accomplish the task at hand? Likewise, you do not want to underpower a truck, but a smaller engine with a higher numeric axle ratio might increase fuel economy, while maintaining the same payload.

Determining Payload Requirements

When consulting with end-users, there are three components to determining payload requirement. The first is payload weight. How much weight will the truck need to carry in its daily workload? You need to determine the maximum need, not an average. The vehicle must be able to do the job every day with the maximum load at any given time. Payload weight will also help determine if the cargo can be loaded and unloaded by hand, or whether you will need a power liftgate or some other type of assist to get it up in the body or bed.

Another determinant is in the volume or size of the payload. The truck needs to be large enough to handle the volume. And, you need to know how the payload will be loaded. Is it stackable? Can you stack it right to the ceiling? Or, can only the floor space be used? How do you secure the product? Getting any of these factors wrong can mean the vehicle will be spec’ed incorrectly.

The third component is the type of payload. Are you hauling loose gravel, pallets, or boxes of merchandise? This will determine the type of truck and body combination you need to choose.

The best way to determine actual payload is to take a normally loaded truck and weigh it on a highway scale. Another practical tip is to weigh the front and rear axle. This will tell you if you are overloading the whole truck or just one of the axles.

Overloaded trucks will cause premature tire wear, decreased fuel economy, and downtime due to engine or transmission repair. In addition, overloading results in fines and possible impoundment of the vehicle by the authorities.

You need to make sure that the truck can carry not only the payload, but also any additional equipment you put on the truck. The fleet manager needs to add the body and equipment weight to that of any tools or other material that could be stored or transported by the chassis.

To determine the correct vehicle size for the intended payload often requires a judgment call as to how much over-capacity to build into the payload capacity of the vehicle when spec’ing its requirements. Spec’ing the truck to the minimum necessary payload rating (by basing it on an average load or looking at only today’s business needs instead of trying to anticipate future needs) means that the vehicle will be operating at peak capacity most of the time, which may compromise safety and the length of its service life. Using average payload for specs means that the vehicle will sometimes be overloaded – and that means excessive wear-and-tear, higher maintenance costs, and poor fuel economy. Conversely, too much payload capacity is wasted capacity.

One of the most common mistakes is not allowing reserve GVW when spec’ing a truck. Your objective is to select a truck that offers a slight buffer in payload capacity without overkill, which would unnecessarily drive up costs.

Spec’ing Trucks to Increase Fuel Efficiency

One way to increase truck productivity is to modify specs to increase mpg, thereby reducing fuel spend. In the final analysis, the drivetrain, tires, engine, and aerodynamics of the vehicle should be properly matched to maximize fuel efficiency.

Selecting trucks with aerodynamic features can prove cost-effective. The rule of thumb is that for each 10-percent reduction in air resistance, mpg increases by 5 percent. Examples of aerodynamic modifications include specifying aerodynamic mirrors, moving air filters under the hood, and eliminating fender-mounted mirrors. When spec’ing auxiliary equipment, be cognizant of component weights. Extra weight not only increases fuel consumption, but also reduces payload capacity.

Altering tire specifications should also be investigated, such as using low-rolling resistance tires. However, the best way to reduce tire and fuel costs is to establish a process for drivers to regularly monitor tire inflation. This will increase tire wear-and-tear and reduce fuel efficiency. To control replacement tire costs, eliminate driver behaviors that decrease tire tread life, such as speeding, excessive braking, driving over curbs, and

Additional Opportunities to Increase Productivity

Fleet managers must adopt a multipronged approach to increase truck productivity. For instance, how employees drive trucks greatly impacts productivity. Driver training, in-truck displays, and telematics can be used to modify driver behaviors. Fleet productivity increases when drivers adopt more efficient driving techniques.

A controllable fuel expenditure is the elimination of unnecessary idling. Drivers should avoid idling whenever possible. If a driver leaves the truck, the employee should be instructed to turn off the engine. It is also important to keep in mind that an engine wears out twice as fast idling as under normal operation.

A growing number of fleets are also researching, piloting, and implementing telematics solutions to optimize routes and reduce idling,

Increasing productivity while managing and containing fleet costs is the central part of a fleet manager’s job. By taking a hard look at how trucks are spec’ed, along with modifying driver behavior, a fleet manager can find many additional opportunities to increase productivity and reduce costs.

Let me know what you think.

[email protected]

About the author
Mike Antich

Mike Antich

Former Editor and Associate Publisher

Mike Antich covered fleet management and remarketing for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2010 and the Global Fleet of Hal in 2022. He also won the Industry Icon Award, presented jointly by the IARA and NAAA industry associations.

View Bio