Today’s Truck Spec’ing
Given the complexity of today’s trucks, it may be natural for the uninitiated to assume that spec’ing a truck well has become more difficult. But, the opposite is the case, industry executives said.
The availability of detailed operational and performance data, better data sharing between buyers and manufacturers, sophisticated configuration programs, and even the increasing use of preconfigured, application-specific trucks, have made the chances of really screwing up a spec more difficult.
Fleet managers and original equipment manufacturers said that the truck-spec’ing model hasn’t changed all that much over the years. Optimally, fleet buyers usually are looking for the best combination of components to give them power, performance and fuel economy, a truck that is profitable, doesn’t kill them with high maintenance costs and has a decent resale value.
What has changed is access to much more performance and operational data than before and the ability of fleets and the OEMs to massage those data to develop more precise specifications.
“Back in the day, we did what everyone else did, [spec’d] big bore engines with lots of [horsepower] and stuck it on the road,” said Joel Morrow, director of research and development with Ploger Transportation, an Ohio-based 40-truck regional carrier. “A lot of times it was more about how the truck looked than how it ran. It certainly attracted drivers. But that model doesn’t work so well anymore.”
An executive with Metropolitan Trucking says he liked the ability of Detroit Diesel's spec'ing program to build simulated trucks. (Metropolitan Trucking)
Ploger has changed specs to smaller, more-efficient 11-liter engines in its new trucks, 2x6 Volvo VNRs with a lift axle. Some of the direction for the new specs came from the performance data Morrow said he gleaned from PedalCoach, an in-cab app from LinkeDrive that calculates the optimal fuel rate during trips.
“The program allows me to see what is happening with that data in real time,” he said, noting they can then “adjust something on next spec that helps the driver.”
Penske Truck Leasing, similar to other leasing and truck rental companies, has a unique perspective because it is both a large fleet (270,000 units) that must spec its own units and a vehicle supplier that must develop precise specs for its leasing customers. To do this Penske uses an in-house configuration program that includes any spec that may go into a Penske truck, said Paul Rosa, senior vice president of procurement and fleet planning.
“It’s basically the spec’ing systems of all spec’ing systems,” Rosa said. “We link everything together with appropriate rules that allows a vehicle to be built. It mirrors what OEMs are doing. Ours just happens to be inclusive of all makes and brands.”
Wayne Beaudry, vice president of fleet maintenance with Metropolitan Trucking based in Bloomsburg, Pa., said he liked the ability of Detroit Diesel’s SpecManager program to build simulated trucks, and try different gear ratios, tire sizes and more. “You get an idea in what direction you want to push the trucks,” Beaudry said.
“That’s what’s changed from five years ago,” Penske’s Rosa said. “Technology has allowed things to be a lot clearer and simpler. Customers can click on a hyperlink and see a demo of how that truck might be, how a collision-avoidance system will work.”
Manufacturers' online configuration programs can give prospective buyers a visual image of different spec'ing options, such as interior trim packages. (Volvo Trucks North America)
Johan Agebrand, director of product marketing for Volvo Trucks North America, said Volvo makes available “a tremendous amount” of logged vehicle data, real operational data, for fleets through its dealer network. “We can identify power units operating under conditions very similar to those of the inquiring fleet, whether it’s road speed, geographic area, etc.,” Agebrand said.
Nevertheless, it is still easy to spec an inefficient truck.
“The biggest barrier to utilizing these [specification] tools and data to the fullest is that some fleets remain hesitant to break away from traditional one-size-fits-all methods and specs and embrace new technologies and better ways to spec their fleet based on how the trucks are actually being used,” Agebrand said.
Aaron Peterson, chief performance engineer for the heavy product platform for International Trucks, said that in their ordering system, “we guide fleets through rear-axle ratios, tire sizes, everything. We prevent them from building vehicles that are not going to meet their performance expectations.” International is a truck brand of Navistar Inc.
“Building a Class 8 truck is obviously not as simple as building a passenger car,” said Stu Russoli, highway product manager with Mack Trucks. “With Class 8 trucks there are far more decisions to make: the axles, the engine size and horsepower, the transmission, the axle ratio, the tire brand, size and tread, fuel tank sizes, wheelbase, hundreds of items,” he said, adding that Mack builds trucks designed for the work they do.
Meanwhile, as a result of the driver shortage, Kurt Swihart, Kenworth marketing director, said that fleets “are paying more attention to driver amenities that support recruitment and retention efforts. For example, fleets are choosing the drawer-style refrigerator, swivel passenger seat, swivel table, premium audio system, TV mount and 1800-watt for the Kenworth T680 on-highway flagship,” Swihart said, noting the high-end T680 Driver’s Studio package of options bundles these features and more.”
Want to play around with basic options? Every OEM also offers an online configuration program that serves as a simple simulation for prospective truck buyers. These online configurators are essentially marketing tools to let prospective buyers look at colors, common options, etc. Buyers can print out their fantasy trucks or opt to send it to a dealer where the real spec’ing takes place.
Freightliner’s program, for example, lets visitors select exterior options such as color, fairing and trim levels, basic drivelines and interior options like cabinets and features, said Kelly Gedert, director of product marketing for Freightliner Trucks and Detroit Components. But, Gedert noted, “the online configurator is not designed to fully spec a vehicle, but rather provide visual guidance.”
“We work closely with our customers to ensure we are helping them select the right specs that are best suited for their specific business needs,” Gedert said. Freightliner is a truck brand of Daimler Trucks North America.
The online build tools can be useful early in the buying process, Mack’s Russoli said. “It helps people visualize what their truck might look like from the get-go. But it takes trained salespeople to help customers navigate through putting a truck spec and quote together.”
Another change in today’s spec’ing process is the questions buyers and dealers ask of each other.
Regulations, driver retention, optimal fuel economy — conversations about these topics that every buyer and truck maker is having today weren’t happening years ago, Penske’s Rosa noted. “Today, it’s let’s understand what you’re using the vehicle for,” Rosa said. “It comes down to making it easier rather than more challenging as it was in years past. That’s what changed in our world.”
International’s Peterson said if there are more efficient trucks on the road than a few years ago, part of the reason may be a better-educated buyer.
“It basically took one buying cycle, but customers have listened to OEMs, bought the specs we recommended, saw them perform and now, the second time around, they’re more open to suggestions,” Peterson said. Buyers “are shifting to being less interested in specific details of the components and leaning more heavily on the vehicle OEMs to put the right package together for them.”
Trucks Ready To Go
All of the OEMs, in some form or other, have used the operational data they’ve collected to configure a complete set of ready-to-go specs for almost any application.
Ploger Transportation has changed specs to smaller, more efficient 11-liter engines in its new trucks. (Ploger Transportation)
International calls its spec sets “strategic prototypes.” Some units will be configured for fuel efficiency, others for lightweight operations and others for cube, Peterson said. It depends on what the fleet needs.
Mack has more than 30 application recommendation specs programmed in their dealer sales tool, Russoli said. “The ARs are fully spec’d trucks based on our knowledge of what works well in different applications. And, although these specs are essentially ready-to-order trucks, the main purpose of ARs is to give a salesman and customer a starting point. From this point they can customize a truck to their needs.”
These prepackaged spec sets are becoming more popular, especially with newer buyers, said International’s Peterson.
“There are a lot of new folks in trucking, in all different capacities. The guys buying and maintaining trucks today are different than 10 years ago. We are seeing a changing of the guard there, just as we are seeing in the driver population. The buyers and dealers use these as a starting point,” he said.