April 2019 The Roemer Report

Truck technologies taking the industry to new places this spring

Spring is springing and worries related to weather and flooding are melting with the snow. OK Cleveland, Ohio not so fast. Nevertheless, as the Midwest begins to thaw, drivers’ fleet owners are now simultaneously enjoying prime pothole season, and anxiously anticipating—no doubt—the blooming of concrete barriers and orange cones marking the start of another construction season.

Another sure sign of spring is the Mid-American Trucking Show (MATS) in Louisville, Kentucky, held at the end of March. The annual conference and expo is always a great place to find out what’s emerging from the fertile soil of the trucking industry. Besides all the great iron and chrome, there are always plenty of vendors offering the latest in business informatics and data analytics technologies to help fleets manage costs better and grow more profitably.

Also on exhibit is safety, that is, safety through technology that focuses on the driver’s physical safety as well as comfort. Interesting thing is, in the midst of all this it’s the driver who’s become the center of the universe for truck technology developers.

Small fleets want high-tech for big bucks

Among an array of findings from an in-house study on small fleet operations and business trends, Mary Ann Hudson, executive vice president of Bibby Transportation Finance, shared with her MATS 2019 audience fleet manager’s attitudes about the expanding role information and similar networked digital technologies will play in helping them optimize their fleets for operational success.

According to Hudson, not unlike their large fleet brothers, smaller fleet operators believe technology is an answer. The top technologies these fleets are considering she said, include predictive maintenance analytics to help keep their trucks on the road longer and routing and fleet management systems to make them more efficient while they are out there.

Apparently, the robot revolution in small-fleet trucking will not be televised this year, nor will it likely next year. Hudson said autonomous technologies barely registered if at all, with the survey’s respondents. Overall, explains Hudson, responding fleet managers in favor of using technology believe that by applying it more effectively they can drive costs down as much as 30%. “Technology is more like to be driving the books in the next couple of years rather than driving the truck,” she concluded.

Not to mention driver retention

When it comes to drivers, respondents to Bibby’s survey said the size of the fleet doesn’t seem to matter. According to 66%, finding quality drivers remains a challenge and to retain them, these fleet operators are being compelled to raise pay per mile and/or improve benefits. “They are offering benefits they’ve never offered before,” said Hudson. “I have a client in Kentucky that is now offering health care and dental care, and he’s never had to before to keep drivers, but it’s working.”

Comfier, safer cabs, cozier drivers

Speaking of driver-retaining incentives, money is not everything. Providing a comfortable and safe environment in the cab is as critical to retaining and recruiting drivers as pay and benefits. This brilliant bit of obviousness was the main conclusion from a recent roundtable discussion: “Spec’ing the Cab & Sleeper for Driver Comfort and Safety,” convened at American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC 2019) annual meeting March 19.

The panel’s conclusions and insights, were covered by media partner Transport Topics and posted March 28th. Kicking off the panel, Jeff Harris. USA Truck’s VP of Maintenance told the audience: “We have to do things as fleets to get drivers to come onboard. It’s not all about pay nowadays; it’s about what you have to offer and what kind of vehicles they’re going to be put into when they come to work for you.”

Harris explained that with a tight job market for drivers, fleets with top-of-the-line equipment and the willingness to do more to make drivers comfortable in the truck will have an advantage when it comes to hiring and retaining operators.

Drivers, noted the panel, are proving more selective as to which companies they’ll work for and what they’ll find in a fleet’s trucks is becoming an effective differentiator in recruiting. In light of fleet turnover, about 73% in 2018 for large truckload carriers (ATA data), fitting out trucks for driver safety and comfort is a good strategy.

Comforts of home

To be competitive and attract/keep drivers, panelists agreed, more trucks should be equipped with the comforts of home, including flat-screens, satellite media feeds, a refrigerator, Wi-Fi connectivity and something to hold the smart phone on the dash. Which makes a heck of a lot of sense when those features can help sell more trucks, but it’s turning out to make equal sense to those buying the trucks.

Noting that cab and sleeper berths are dominating the marketplace for new trucks, panelists explained that one of the key factors for drivers is assuring their non-driving time is both productive and comfortable. According to Transport Topics, for truck designers this means making the entire vehicle as ergonomically functional as possible. For example installing a passenger seat that swivels to a pull-down table/desk where drivers’ can eat or do paperwork in reasonable comfort. Similarly the panel said that has to include efficient, sufficient storage space to put their gear in, like a wardrobe closet with shelves and a locking door.

Home is where your driver’s heart is

“It’s a home away from home,” said Jamin Swazo, On-highway Marketing Manager for Kenworth Truck Co., who explained, “drivers don’t want to be in your truck where it is not aesthetically pleasing.” While that may sound a bit garbled, the sentiment is clear. The truck is the driver’s castle and the cab is his or her home.

Drivers also deserve some peace and quiet said Swazo. Likening it to the fatiguing noise pollution from squeaks and rattles out on the road, noise coming into the cab when a tired driver is trying to sleep at night is just one more thing to consider. “A driver that gets good rest at night” said Swazo, “is going to be more productive, attentive and safer on the road.” Amen and good night.

We want you to avoid them too

As technology matures, panelists also remarked drivers are likely to prefer vehicles equipped with the latest safety technologies including collision avoidance and side object-detection systems, adaptive cruise control, automatic transmissions, and well-integrated telematics and navigation systems.

Swazo, also (naturally) supports investment in this area by fleets. “We really think as an OEM, that a well-spec’d truck is critical,” he said, explaining if you have the right products in the truck, it will have a huge impact on the fleet’s success.

Trucking technologies are taking fleets and drivers to new places, and like the welcoming sunshine and warmth of spring, everyone seems to agree that it going to make trucking’s pastures “greener” and safer for all.