It’s fun to guess at what the next fad or trend might be in commercial vehicles, just like it is to ponder what General Motors might do with the next Corvette, but there is a telling way to look at the commercial vehicle industry.

Not “what are manufacturers going to think of next?” but “what are commercial fleets going to need next?”

In the last two decades, we’ve seen fleet managers and the trades demand far more from vehicles than they have in the previous half century.  Comfort, fuel economy, and seamless integration of technology is expected from the buying public and on the other side of the equation, government and regulators also demand higher standards for efficiency and safety.

The result is twofold – vehicles that are capable of lasting longer and vehicles that cost far more than they once did, even allowing for inflation.  Both of these point to specific, actionable pieces that fleet managers are beginning to navigate and will have long term effects on the commercial vehicle industry. 

First and foremost, where once fleets and even individual contractors traded in used vehicles after only a few years, with plenty of “life” left in them, ownership periods are lengthening.  Companies and fleets purchasing vehicles for upfitting and use in the commercial sector are buying them with the clear understanding they will be in service longer.  With more miles, of course, will come more maintenance and repairs and that is where the biggest challenge lies:

After all, vehicles in the trades or a fleet are expected to earn their keep, and every day they aren’t in service is a day they aren’t making money.

Here’s where the new trends will begin to be realized – fleet managers or owners will have a decision to make in terms of what types of parts to put into a vehicle repair.  Replacement options such as new, re-manufactured, rebuilt or used will have to be considered as part of the solution or the policy. 

It might be easy to consider price as the only real consideration in this challenge, but speed of replacement will likely be a bigger worry rather than cost.  Providers that can supply the parts and/or the repair faster will get the nod to allow companies to get vehicles back to work quickly.  Even in the used parts sector, if the performance of the part doesn’t impact the reliability of the vehicle, it will remain a viable solution for many operators. 

It will be important to bear in mind, despite the viability of used parts in the market, only two replacement part options, new and re-manufactured, will likely produce parts that are fully warrantied.

Now, the unlikely impact from fleets and contractors will be to demand higher quality from the aftermarket.  Currently, there is a wide range of quality in “rebuilt” or “re-manufactured” parts and as a result, companies providing these solutions will be expected to make any repairs or replacements quickly under warranty. 

In response, as the need to get quality parts in the hands of technicians continues to rise in the coming years, both OE dealer networks and independent channels will expand to meet fleet demands.   

An unexpected component of more intense regulation will also be how materials, such as brake linings or emissions control systems, wear and must be brought back into compliance.   It’s worth noting that in some localities, emissions regulations that may not have been enforced (even if a vehicle was so equipped) may be legislated back into effect years after the fact and a truck needing new fuel injectors may have to pass tests it once did not in order to be registered. 

These, and other regulations, could raise maintenance costs for fleets as next-generation materials are used in place of traditional materials and processes.  Additionally, servicing these advanced systems will require additional technician training and experience, which could ultimately be passed along to the fleet.

One last component that is sure to be an alarming trend is the overall shortage of qualified technicians in the market or expected to arrive from technical schools in the near future.  Companies expecting to employ these technicians will be faced with higher earnings expectations as well as scheduling challenges.  However, companies that are actively designing and implementing repair programs that utilize multiple part options may be able to employ technicians with less experience that can rapidly “swap out” parts instead of repairing or rebuilding a part at the service center.

This will allow companies to get the most out of their repair staff and use more general repair technicians who understand the overall function of parts and systems instead of one particular specialty without sacrificing the quality of the repair or attention to detail.  Fleets can then better assign technician schedules and produce the same amount of work with less labor.

In any case, these trends will change how commercial vehicles are cared for and how the purchasing process will work in the decades to come. 

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