Trucks break, it’s a fact of life. But, by definition, you can’t expect the unexpected—although advanced telematics systems are getting there.
Still, somewhere in between, there’s an owner-operator on a highway tightrope—all day, every day. He or she can do the right things to be protected and improve the odds, like holding firm to PM schedules and knowing the truck and trailer from top to bottom, front to back. And paying attention to every shake, rattle, and hum.
Complicating matters by penalizing repair procrastinators and drivers who tend to skip pretrip inspections altogether, the Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program means that even the little things—a bad bulb, a tread that’s just a little thin, a line with a rub—can’t be ignored without running the risk of a three-year ding on a driver’s DOT safety record and a nasty note from a safety manager. At least that’s what the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was thinking when it came up with the plan.
Yet something’s going to happen. No matter how many extra belts and bulbs (or LEDs) and fuses you carry, you’re going to be on the road and need parts, if not a serious repair job. So, what can a professional trucker do to lessen the pain?
“Unfortunately, probably four out of five times a repair stop is a bad experience, and two out of five times it will be horrific,” says Bryan Martin, owner of 4 State Trucks. “High-priced parts, a lot of overpriced labor, extended downtimes. Just a total unpleasant experience; not that any breakdown is ever going to be pleasant. But a lot of the times it’s just at the complete opposite end of the ruler than what a guy would hope to have.”
His Joplin, MO, business deals in accessories not repairs, so Martin has the luxury of speaking objectively, since he’s something like a plastic surgeon for trucks, as compared to an emergency room doctor taking critical cases as they come through the door. But his I-80 location and his truck experience means he’s more than familiar with what a mechanical failure means to an owner-operator.
“When a guy’s down and he’s under a load, he doesn’t have a lot of options. He’s going to be at whoever’s mercy—who can get to him, and who can get to him the fastest,” Martin continues. “In a lot of cases, they’re just going to have to hope and trust that they get treated as fairly as possible.”
A basic tool now available to truckers, though not strictly a trucking tool, is Google, Martin suggests. Whether it’s restaurants or plumbers, customer reviews are widely available on the World Wide Web. So even in the case of a breakdown, and especially for a local tow and independent repair shop, check out the business’s reputation before giving the approval to start the repair work.
“Look into their ratings: their personality, timeliness, ethics—anything that’s going to be an advantage over going in totally blind,” Martin says. “And become as familiar as you can with the workings of your truck so [the shop] won’t misdiagnose the failure or sell you more parts than you need.”
E-shopping for parts
Similarly, the Internet’s shopping tools and online retail sites have provided another parts option in a pinch.
David Seewack, CEO of FinditParts.com, explains the company was established to be an affordable alternative source for parts. And it’s as simple as typing a part number into a smartphone or tablet.
Of course, a key piece to the success of online shopping is speedy shipping; in the case of critical parts buys, next-day air makes up about 25% of FinditParts orders, compared to second-day or regular UPS Ground delivery.
“With a couple of mouse clicks, they can locate the part and select whatever freight they need,” Seewack says. “If it’s an owner-operator, that’s his livelihood. He’s got to get back out on the road.”
But the real advantage to shopping online is typically price—if a trucker can wait for shipping.
“A lot of people use us for comparative shopping; they want to know if they’re getting a good deal or not. Sometimes, people feel captive and certain items are priced so high it’s just crazy,” he says. “Fast-moving dealers can be very competitive. But in smaller areas, they’ve got the guy and they’ve got the truck, and they can charge anything they want. We have customers all the time who order parts from us and have them shipped to the dealership to be installed. And that includes some very big customers who ship to national chains.”
Other than being price-competitive, e-retailers will typically have parts that a local shop won’t. Indeed, the service desk may well “hunt and peck” for a part from the sites.
Additionally, the customer will also then receive all of the tracking information and can be confident—without having to play telephone-tag with the repair shop—that the part is coming on time.
Along with the full range of truck parts, FinditParts stocks inventory “for almost everything that moves,” Seewack adds, noting that many truckers also own farm equipment or forklifts. And customer service representatives are on duty to offer technical assistance as well.
Fix it before it breaks?
For several years now, truck makers have touted the advantages of telematics, or the ability to monitor, record and relay vehicle performance data to improve operations. Likewise, sensors and wireless communication technology can report engine problems from a vehicle still on the road and streamline the repair process. The next step: to translate that data stream into uptime, to fix a truck before it’s broken—and that’s coming soon, says Friedrich Baumann, senior vice president, Daimler Trucks North America.
“We need to get very focused on all of this data that we generate. In the end, we need to be smart enough to turn our big data into predictive maintenance procedures for our customers,” Baumann says. “That will be, in my opinion, the next really big game changer in our industry.” (See the rest of Baumann’s explanation on Page 6.)
But the folks at Traffilog America say the future of predictive maintenance is, in fact, now.
“Traffilog has been doing this for the last three to five years,” Rudi Slochowski, vice president of business development, says.
The key is the proprietary algorithms to track trends, whether that’s brakes or oil temperature, gearboxes, clutches, or turbos.
Slochowski says that the company can extract that data from any CAN bus “and send it back in easy-to-use reports.”
Indeed, Traffilog is a “next-generation solution” because the platform offers not only the GPS services, driver safety monitoring, fuel management, and on-the-road diagnostics and reporting that other systems do, but advanced technology that is years ahead of the competition, according to Slochowski.
Traffilog not only tracks the driver safety events that trigger alerts, it monitors exactly how a driver drives his truck. And not just how he drives the truck, but also the atmospheric conditions at the time for additional context and more exact analysis. The company also has in-house trainers to assist with driver coaching.
“Driver mechanical behavior is probably the biggest factor in today’s industry,” Slochowski says. “Seeing how that driver operates his vehicle: Does he use the brake correctly? Does he use the clutch correctly? Does he shift gears correctly? Does he use the engine brake to slow down? That behavior leads to wear and tear—not just fuel consumption—and it leads to downtime.”
Closely monitoring pedal position has allowed Traffilog to save a bus fleet 30% on fuel and, more interestingly, has led to a 30% reduction in brake pad replacements for one of its OEM customers. Seeing a problem with turbo wear, the technology can spot drivers who aren’t giving the turbines enough time to spin up and down in turning the engines on and off. Then there’s the case of an oil pressure drop in a truck that has been regularly running the same route, and a hose leak detected because of an increase in compressor use. And the examples go on and on.
Along with real-time notifications on critical issues, Traffilog generates custom reports detailing fleet performance and driver efficiency trends.
Customers receive a predictive report called the “doctor’s note” that highlights these potential mechanical issues. Additionally, the staff will analyze the data to catch trends “before the company does.”
The next step, which is “very close,” will be for the algorithm to make the predictions and for the system to transmit them instantly and automatically, Slochowski notes.
“The game will change when a company can predict,” Slochowski says. “Preventive diagnostics is not the same as predictive, to be able to show the company ahead of time. No [competitor] can produce and extract the type of data that Traffilog can. We’ve been waiting for the opportunity to penetrate the U.S. market. We’ve had some quick success, and we look to only get stronger.”
The ‘fun stuff’
Not all parts orders are for emergency repairs. For a chrome and accessories shop like 4 State Trucks, the business is about “the fun stuff.”
And, as Martin notes, he still sees plenty of “passionate purchases.” That is, a trucker will spot an item and decide he has to have it. And some have known what they want but just haven’t gone through with a purchase.
“But they come to Joplin and they know what they want. They’ve planned for it. They’ve dreamed about it. They’ve visualized how it’s going to make their truck look better, perform better, and more comfortable,” Martin says. “They’re fired up. We see that every hour. It’s kind of like a hunter or a fisherman going to Bass Pro Shops.”
But there’s still the matter of installation on many parts. Customers looking for an upfit should plan their travel and schedule an appointment to be assured of a slot and prevent unnecessary downtime.
At 4 State Trucks, Marten says he tries to have a couple of installers “unbooked” to start each day for “drive-up” customers.
“Certainly you can try us anytime, but if you can give us two or three days’ notice, your chances are much better to get the install done than a spur-of-the-moment walk-in,” Martin says.
So in the not-too-distant future, even when technology will predict breakdowns before they happen, order the parts, and schedule a repair, truckers will still be able to imagine and accessorize their dream machines.