What do utility fleet managers need to keep an eye on over the next decade? What emerging trends will have the greatest impact on fleet operations? And what do fleet professionals need to have on their radar so they don’t fall behind the curve or get blindsided?
UFP recently spoke with George Survant, a former longtime fleet manager who currently serves as a consultant for Fleet Mace Consulting, and Charlie Guthro, vice president of business intelligence and analytics for fleet management company ARI (www.arifleet.com), to get their answers to these questions and insight on what the future has in store for utility fleets.
A Supply Chain Transformation
Survant said he sees a supply chain transformation in the near future as a result of technological advancements.
“We’re seeing a shift away from mechanical to electronic parts. That’s going to change the way companies like Pep Boys manage their inventory,” he said.
According to Survant, just-in-time delivery has become more common. “Fleet managers have to do a significant level of planning for just-in-case situations. They have to be more adaptable and have contingency plans that they test periodically,” he said.
Guthro agreed, noting that it’s not just a delay on the OEM side that fleets must prepare for.
“It’s everything about keeping the vehicles running, including materials,” Guthro said. “That’s a definite thing to have on your radar. We’re facing shortfalls with microchips and seat foam that change the production dates and impact if and when you’re going to get your vehicle.”
On top of supply chain disruptions, there’s also a swell in demand from fleets that postponed ordering during the pandemic.
“The only way to be at the front of the line is to get your orders in as early as possible,” Guthro explained. “People took an ordering hiatus because of COVID and tried to conserve their capital. They understood that’s not a long-term sustainable solution, so they’re back in, but now they can’t get the vehicles.”
Guthro said he has seen customers consider the stock order route only to find out the dealer doesn’t have the unit they need, and if they do, it’s priced at full retail or above. All these downstream impacts are significant, he added.
More Data-Driven Decisions
One of the big changes in the past decade that will continue to make an impact over the next decade is the amount of vehicle and equipment data that can be captured easily and effectively, both in real time and in spot downloads.
“The huge influx in data sets the foundation for moving from a reactive environment to a predictive environment, and it allows sophisticated fleet managers to make data-driven decisions,” Survant said.
But you can’t just be an “information collector,” Guthro noted.
“We’re looking for trends and opportunities to support the asset management principles of buy right, repair right, replace right and drive right – all those principles that you need to manage an optimal fleet,” he said.
Telematics helps, especially as a growing number of vehicles have devices installed on the assembly line by the OEMs.
“Telematics impacts productivity, it improves efficiency, it drives profits and, more critically, it supports safety,” Guthro said. “Through telematics, you can more precisely define maintenance intervals, and that’s significant to cost. You are moving more toward predict/prevent, which is a savings opportunity, and you minimize those catastrophic failures.”
Growing Interest in Electrification
According to Guthro, another big topic of conversation in the fleet sector is vehicle electrification. Fleet management companies are working to gather all the information their customers need – the business case, the total cost of ownership and the science to decide when it’s best to jump in.
“It’s coming, but the utility vocational fleet will likely have a slower uptake than would a sales fleet or other types of fleets that don’t have booms and attachments,” he said.
A Critical Skills Shortage
From technicians to fleet managers, Guthro sees a shortage of fleet experts in the next 10 years. Survant agreed, also noting changes in demand for personnel training and recruiting.
“The increased sophistication of equipment and technology is driving that training burden into companies that have traditionally had little to no turnover and recruited in a very different way,” Survant said.
With the shift from mechanical controls to electronic, including self-correcting systems, operating and maintenance practices are being impacted. According to Survant, this is changing the needs for mechanic education and labor management systems. Simple things like diagnostic tools have evolved enormously.
“That’s a problem not just on the shop floor, but also how to manage those types of systems and the process of repairing vehicles at the supervisory and managerial planning level,” he said. “It’s not just the technicians that have to evolve, but how managers look at the business – how they plan in the business and how they evolve as teams to deliver reliable service products to their end customers and internal customers.”
Another influencing factor sweeping through the utility sector is the changing attitude of fleet owners, according to Survant, specifically regarding the fundamental belief about what a utility company must be able to do for itself versus what it can reliably hire in the marketplace.
“Normal maintenance is now being absorbed by contract groups. That’s shifted hiring, staffing and support logistics out from under the traditional utility ownership and into the hands of the contract community,” he explained.
Fifteen to 20 years ago, utilities owned a significant amount of the mobile equipment that they needed to build, construct and maintain their service systems, lines, and transmission and distribution networks.
Today, however, utilities “are interested in the emergency and critical response needs and outsource most, if not all, construction,” Survant said. “They don’t actually own their construction assets anymore. So, it's changed both the complexity of the fleet that they own and the number of fleet vehicles.”
About the Author: Grace Suizo has been covering the automotive fleet industry since 2007. She spent six years as an editor for five fleet publications and has written more than 100 articles geared toward both commercial and public sector fleets.