Today, for most truck manufacturers, the relationship with a customer does not end when the truck is sold. It begins at that point. Trucks are being offered more as a service than product to owners and operators. This service includes the product (i.e. truck) and amenities such as leasing and financing, insurance, connectivity, infotainment, scheduled maintenance, etc. In fact, revenue share analysis of truck dealerships in 2019 will show that dealerships are generating more revenue from service and maintenance of trucks than from sale of new trucks.
The proliferation of distributed electronics and connected vehicle technologies have enabled vehicle manufacturers, system suppliers, and aftermarket service and maintenance providers in offering subscription-based unique services and solutions. These solutions are helping fleet owners and operators in reducing total ownership costs through greater safety enhancements and use optimization of key powertrain, chassis, and infotainment technologies. These technologies have also made trucks more complex, meaning that servicing and maintaining them requires more expertise than in the past. The two groups that work the most with these advanced trucks are drivers and technicians, and what the industry is seeing today is that there is a shortage of both occupations.
While the driver shortage has been a top-of-mind issue for several decades, the technician shortage is a ticking time bomb that can disrupt the trucking industry. Research indicates that by 2022, around 70,000 skilled technicians will be needed to replace the retired technicians, and 70,000 – 80,000 new skilled technicians will be needed to keep up with the additional truck service and maintenance demand.
More and more, trucks are resembling ‘computers on wheels’, requiring highly skilled technicians to minimize downtime and maximize their durability. In an age of next day or same day e-commerce deliveries, any equipment downtime can have a significant impact on the flow of products and freight. The pressure on technicians to reduce downtime of commercial vehicles is growing, while the technician shortage crisis is worsening at the same time.
Technicians need new skills and expertise to cover advanced powertrain technologies (e.g. natural gas engines, downsized diesel engines, automated manual transmissions, hybrid and electric powertrain systems); advanced safety technologies (e.g. ABS, ESC, TPMS, blind-spot detection systems, collision mitigation systems, lane departure warning systems); and advanced chassis technologies (e.g. pneumatic and hydraulic air disc brakes, electronically actuated suspension and steering systems).
These trucks also require knowledge of new powertrain combinations, new chassis configurations, electromechanical system performance and interfacing, as well as the latest tooling, equipment, software and certifications. All of these require a significant capital expenditure. And while businesses are making CAPEX and OPEX changes to support these vehicles, the real challenge lies in attracting skilled young technicians to this vocation.
Interestingly enough, a recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report suggested that demand for diesel vehicle service and maintenance technicians is growing at a 12% rate, which is faster than the average for all vocations. Moreover, the median wage for diesel technicians is higher than the national average, and is projected to increase in the coming years.
Then why are young technicians not embracing this vocation? The reason could be a skewed perception that truck maintenance is a dirty and greasy job that does not pay well, which is not what the statistics indicate.
The skills required to qualify as a diesel technician are more advanced today, and younger technicians tend to enjoy using advanced computer-enabled interfaces. The deep knowledge and practical experience in managing electronics-rich vehicles allows technicians to follow a much clearer career path, leading to senior leadership roles.
While industry efforts are underway to attract younger technicians to this vocation, relief is reaching the scene through the same technologies that are creating complexity. Electronics, telematics, big data analytics, and other advanced software technologies are enabling new connected vehicle and system solutions that bridge the gap.
Diagnostics technologies and applications can greatly reduce turnaround time through precise, real-time identification of issues that affect vehicle and system downtime. This enhances a technician’s ability to pinpoint problems ten times faster and offer a reliable service due to higher accuracy.
Prognostics technologies are currently under development by OEMs and tier-1 suppliers, in partnership with telematics solution providers offering big data platforms such as CONNVEX™. These solutions will enable a system in a vehicle to predict an impending failure and alert key stakeholders – the driver, fleet manager, and their dedicated service and maintenance contacts – of a possible equipment downtime.
Imagine this: Gary (truck driver) is cruising along I-90, when his transmission says that it will overheat in 200 miles, unless he gets specific seals and gaskets replaced. Mark (Gary’s fleet manager) gets the same signal on his smartphone and advises Gary to get the seals and gaskets replaced. Dave (diesel shop manager) gets the signal that Gary’s truck is coming in at 3 p.m. and requires a replacement of specific gaskets and seals. Dave gets the parts and service time ready, so that he can quickly perform the replacement task and get Gary on his way in the shortest time possible. Gary is happy (he can be on his way faster), Mark is happy (because downtime is the worst enemy of a fleet manager), and Dave is happy (he can charge a premium for this time-efficient service).
So, while a set of advanced truck technologies are causing more complexity, another set of technologies are creating solutions that are also helping the industry fight the skilled technician shortage by arming service shops with insights digitally. While OEMs and tier-1 system suppliers are embedding predictive maintenance technologies (diagnostics and prognostics) in their systems leveraging telematics, companies such as Fullbay are offering heavy-duty repair shop software, and a new crop of technicians are entering the market armed with the most important tools in the shop – laptops and tablets. Diagnostics, prognostics, automation and software technologies are changing operating conditions and realities for service and maintenance providers. Today, the challenge lies in attracting more young talent, female technicians, and other groups that see this as a rewarding career path. If done properly, it will not only solve the technician shortage challenge, but greatly enhance the speed, efficiency, and effectiveness of commercial freight mobility in the U.S., giving it a global edge in the era of smart transportation and logistics.