Struggles and Strategies
To some, spare vehicles are presumed to be extra units that, for the most part, sit idle and therefore have no real cost associated with them. For the unfortunate fleet managers and end users who believe this, they will inevitably find out how inaccurate they are.
A vehicle deteriorates when it sits idle for too long, and spare units kept at an end user’s location are usually idle more of the time than if they are shared with other departments. When it comes time for these vehicles to be put to work, they typically have deteriorated from lack of use – regardless of whether they are stored inside or outside – and are not functional unless serviced to avoid breakdowns. Deterioration can come in the form of rust, corrosion, component cannibalization, lack of preventive maintenance and dead batteries due to parasitic drain from new technology.
So, why would someone keep spare vehicles, particularly when many units that have been replaced with new vehicles are auctioned off, traded in or scrapped? The logic behind keeping spares is that the fleet will have properly configured extra vehicles in the event that they are needed, providing convenience and an alternative to renting units that may be costly and not fully meet the fleet’s needs.
This logic, however, is faulty. If these units were truly capable of functioning as required, why were they replaced instead of having their lives extended? Once vehicles exceed their life cycles, maintenance costs increase, making old units more costly than new ones to own and operate. If a unit has been replaced, it should be removed from service because it does not support reliability, safety or cost-efficiency.
It’s crucial for fleet needs to be reviewed on an annual basis. This assessment gives fleet personnel the opportunity to define and refine the mix of their motor pool as well as determine what units should be removed from the mix due to lack of use. These units typically should not be replaced because if they are not being used, they are not needed. At the same time, if there is an underutilized vehicle in the mix that still has some economic life left, it can replace a unit in the same vocational class that is higher in cost, and that more costly unit can be removed from the fleet inventory.
A Spare Solution
As previously stated, keeping spare units at an end user’s location can result in them being idle more often. This is not the only end user-related obstacle fleet managers run into when addressing spare vehicles.
The reality is that sometimes vehicle replacement programs have politically and culturally powerful end users at the top of the pecking order. Their influence and authority allow them to bend or even break rules that were put in place to keep the fleet running in a cost-effective manner.
As fleet managers, we support these end users who, due to their power and perceptions, still want spare vehicles even though they are idle and costly. In the face of their choices, our vehicle support personnel can only do their best to provide operating and cost information, furnish return-on-investment analyses, and support end users’ work methods in the most fiscally responsible way possible.
It is worth the time spent to educate yourself, your staff and end users about arguably the best use of true spare vehicles (not those units that have been replaced by newer, better vehicles) – making them part of the fleet’s central motor pool. The motor pool usually consists of a number of reliable light-duty and vocational units that are put into service when other, more frequently used vehicles are in need of maintenance or repair, or during peak service times when the workload is greater than usual.
Adding these reliable spare units to the pool has multiple benefits. First, since they are being added to the rotation, they will not sit idle and continue to deteriorate. This leads to lower costs of operation and ownership, as well as greater safety and reliability. Second, fleets will potentially spend less on rental units if they have more vehicles in the central motor pool. And third, if it appears they are no longer needed after three to six months, units can and should be removed from service and cost-effectively disposed of.
It is a good idea for all companies with fleets to take the time to create a written policy that details why and how the company rotates vehicles in a central motor pool, and why and how units should be removed from the fleet. The policy should be signed by the company’s chief operating officer and published for all departments to review and follow.
Changing Times, Changing Technology
Times are changing, and it’s to a fleet’s advantage to adapt to new technology and adopt the most recent best practices, including how to handle spare vehicles. Due to global competition, a vehicle manufactured today is designed to last longer and achieve more miles than one produced 20 to 25 years ago.
The lives of top maintenance and repair components – among others, tires, brakes, steering, air conditioning, starters, alternators, drivelines, engines and transmissions – have also been extended due to better technology. In turn, they are more reliable for greater periods of time in their application-specific environments. Today’s vehicle warranties are also better and longer than in the past, which is further proof the vehicle components are more reliable and last longer.
On top of all that, vehicle maintenance technicians, mechanics and related workers are more highly trained now than ever before. Their input to management continues to improve fleet best practices every day, and we’re seeing repairs we have never seen in the past. For example, it was previously unheard of to replace a vehicle’s hydraulic brake line because the brake lines used to outlive the vehicle. Now, vehicle life cycles are much longer, so many components need to be replaced or have their lives extended, which also extends the cost of the unit beyond its original purchase price.
Today’s fleet service personnel are also highly aware that young vehicles require different services than older vehicles. Mounted equipment needs are different from chassis to chassis and application to application, and usage keeps spares more reliable for longer periods of time and better controls costs.
In summary, spare units should be removed from fleets if at all possible, but if an end user insists on keeping spares, adding them to a central motor pool is the best way to prevent them from becoming idle and unduly costly. The bottom line is that chief executives, fleet personnel, and all departments need to communicate and work together to establish spare vehicle guidelines that best meet everyone’s needs.
About the Author: John Dolce is a fleet facility and maintenance specialist employed by Wendel Companies, an architectural and engineering firm. He is an active consultant, instructor and fleet manager with more than 40 years of experience in the public and private sector. Dolce has written three fleet-related textbooks and teaches fleet management courses at the University of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee and Madison campuses. He can be contacted at [email protected].