Hours of service, the driver shortage and challenges with adopting new technology are major hurdles facing the industry, according to a panel of fleet executives at the Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association’s 2014 Heavy Duty Dialogue conference in Nashville this week.
Panelists included Lee Long, director of fleet services for Southeastern Freight Lines; Kirk Altrichter, vice president of maintenance for Crete Carrier Corp.; Dave Manning, president of TCW, Inc.; and Aaron Tennant, president and CEO of Tennant Truck Lines.
Manning says the new hours-of-service rules that took effect last year are affecting drivers more than fleets, acting as a disincentive to new entrants to the market and chasing good drivers out of the business. “When a driver takes a 30-minute break it takes earning power away,” says Manning. “That equates to a 3.5 to 5 percent reduction in pay. Drivers don’t think HOS changes make them safer, it just makes them frustrated. Our second-shift drivers lose the ability to work on Saturday and only work 50 to 60 hours per week rather than 60 to 70 hours per week.”
Tennant also sees HOS negatively impacting recruiting and retention. “We are seeing frustration from driver base,” he says. “We are working hard to repair the image of the truck driver and we see drivers are getting more frustrated because they can’t get home and can’t take their restart like they used to. It definitely hurts recruiting and makes it hard to bring people into the industry with mounting regulations.”
Fleets are faced with the challenge of improving utilization to offset the loss of productivity as a result of the new HOS rules. “We look at fueling time and maintenance in shops to get them out quicker to allow more time on the road,” says Altrichter. “You also have to set yourself up for success in spec’ing the truck correctly so drivers are more productive.”
On the subject of the driver shortage, Tennant says the current deficit is as bad as he’s ever seen, sharing a story about his recruiting director that looked at 300 driver candidates over the course of a week and couldn’t hire any of them. “It’s not just a driver shortage but a qualified driver shortage,” says Tennant. “We have to find new demographics to pull from and improve our image so folks want to come into our industry.”
“The emphasis has to be on retention,” adds Altrichter. “It boils down to how well you treat them and how you spec the truck. They expect certain amenities on the truck and if you don’t have it they will go somewhere else. That is playing a bigger part in the recruitment effort.”
Southeastern Freight Lines enjoys a 6 percent turnover rate in its fleet that is comprised of over-the-road team operations, regional haul and pickup and delivery. “The key is taking care of drivers and giving them what they need to be productive,” says Long.
Part of that strategy includes equipment replacement cycles.
“We let our trucks get older during the downturn, as the economy picked back up maintenance costs ate us alive,” says Manning. Currently TCW replaces trucks on a 450,000-mile, 42-month trade cycle. He said TCW will replace about half of its fleet this year as it sheds some older power units.
Tennant Truck Lines, which averages 120,000 miles per year per tractor, also replaces its tractors on a 42-month cycle. “We believe that it is more efficient and effective to keep tractors under warranty and trade it out, and a lot of that strategy is also because of the driver issue,” says Tennant.
Advancements in technology are allowing fleets to become more productive and better utilize equipment and control fuel costs, but panelists shared frustration with how they receive the data from the truck and what to do with it in the front office.
“The key for us with technology is it would be much better if you could buy that already installed so you didn’t have additional time and wires to put tech on your truck,” Manning said to the audience of industry suppliers.
Altrichter agrees. “We just want one platform on the truck and the telematics companies need make that happen,” he says. “That has been a struggle. Certain OEMs have been active in getting their own devices out there. But the challenge is fleets getting their data and doing with it what they want to.”
All four of the fleets on the panel are already experimenting with in-cab cameras to assist in driver coaching when a safety-critical event occurs. Southeastern Freight Lines began putting in-cab cameras on sleeper units last year, but Long says they haven’t received any data since the drivers are more careful because they know they are being monitored. “It’s better off to have [in-cab cameras] in the truck because it protects us. Drivers who were originally resistant now look at it as assurance that they weren’t at fault in the event of an accident.”