Managing and replacing fleet vehicles

by Shane Whitaker
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Walk-in or step vans have been used for more than half a century delivering bread, buns and an array of other baked foods and snacks on daily direct-store-delivery (DSD) routes to supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants.

Baking and snack companies rely on DSD to distribute fresh products to customers multiple times throughout the week, if not every day. However, because fuel costs have risen in recent years, fleet managers are more concerned with fuel economies.

Additionally, as snack producers replace their trucks and vans, they are finding that lighter-weight-rated delivery vehicles are no longer available, according to DeRay Steffensen, account manager, bakery and snacks, Utilimaster Corp., Bristol, IN. To avoid regulations by the US Department of Transportation (DOT), these companies often used trucks with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 10,000 lb or less. However, all the chassis manufacturers are eliminating the lighter-weight GVWRs, he said.

When a company moves from passenger-type vehicles to DOT-regulated fleets, its vehicles require additional safety features and pre-inspection checks, said John Marshall, Utilimaster’s senior vice-president of sales and marketing. Drivers also must have commercial driver’s licenses and comply with hours-of-service regulations. “Some fleets are experiencing that added expense associated with additional staff to review DOT regs and ensure all drivers are compliant,” Mr. Steffensen noted.

Logistics managers need to understand their costs of ownership to get the most from their fleets and to know when it’s time to replace vehicles.

Sweet spots for fleets

When purchasing new vans or trucks, fleet managers look for fuel economy, according to Rich Tremmel, director of sales, Morgan Olson, Sturgis, MI. “They want to know, ‘What is more fuel efficient?’ and, ‘How do we get greater fuel efficiency?’ ” he said.

Many parameters influence fuel efficiency, including the engine’s power source, aerodynamic design and weight.

While fuel efficiency drives many purchases, Mr. Tremmel also noted a move toward longer trucks. “They want to carry more product and bring their routes down from, say, 25 a day to 16 a day, which is typically done using a bigger truck,” he said.

As a result, bakeries are buying walk-in vans that are 22 ft in cargo length as opposed to 18 ft, the industry’s previous standard. “They are saying, ‘Let’s deploy as much product during the day as we possibly can,’ ” Mr. Tremmel noted.

In some cases, route drivers were coming back an hour earlier than expected, he explained, so the companies figured, “Let’s give them a bigger vehicle and keep them out for a full 8 to 9 hours per shift,” he said.

The top priority for fleets is to get products to customers as quickly and economically as possible, according to Gordie Taylor, product manager, commercial vehicles, Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp., Gaffney, SC. “Naturally, they are going to look at their cost of operations,” he said. “Everybody has got a sweet spot.”

Hitting that sweet spot means finding vehicles with upfront and operating costs to meet a company’s business plan, per Bryan Henke, Freightliner’s manager of product marketing.

Walk-in vans are easy to get in and out of, Mr. Taylor said, which makes them popular for DSD drivers who make numerous stops on any given day. When getting in and out of the vehicle, loading and unloading, the walk-in van configuration improves time,” Mr. Henke said. “You can be much more efficient delivering in this configuration, and also, the driver, at end of day, is not putting icepacks on his knees from jumping in and out of the back of a truck.”

To assist in delivery efforts, Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, MI, made design changes to its F-59 Super Duty commercial chassis to enable for a pullout ramp so drivers can easily roll bakery racks in and out of the vans, noted Todd Kaufman, F-Series Super Duty Chassis Cab marketing manager.

Built for safety

Driver security and safety must be a priority. As companies move to larger vehicles, Mr. Steffensen pointed out, Utilimaster adds safety features such as hand rails and gripped steps for traction when getting in and out of the van.

“Most fleets today install backup cameras because they reduce damage caused by backing into loading docks,” he added. “It will pay for itself in the long term.”

Lighting provides another major safety feature, considering that many drivers begin their routes in the morning when it’s still dark outside. “With the LED lights available today, you can really provide the driver with a lot of light; it’s as good as going out in broad daylight,” Mr. Steffensen said.

A few years ago, LED lights were more expensive. “LEDs are very affordable now and provide a lot of light for the driver,” he pointed out.

Some companies also install forward-facing cameras to help protect their drivers, according to Mr. Marshall. “The camera acts like a flight data recorder,” he said, “because it records a vehicle’s speed and direction as well as reads road signs.”

The prominent signage that customarily marks baking and snack company vehicles make them an unwelcome target by people claiming to have had accidents with their vehicles. Forward-facing cameras can protect both drivers and companies from unwarranted legal actions.

Power sources

Today the majority of delivery vehicles use gasoline engines. When Mr. Steffensen started working with the baking and snack industries more than 20 years ago, diesel engines were prevalent.

However, the lower long-term operating cost advantages diesel engines had for many years have been outweighed by the higher diesel fuel costs.

In addition, Freightliner uses the same powertrain whether a customer buys a gasoline- or diesel-powered van. “You are getting the same durability across the board,” Mr. Henke said. “It’s not like you are getting a shorter-life-expectancy chassis for gas than you would diesel.”

The Ford F-59 comes standard with a 6.8-liter, three-cylinder per valve, V-10 gasoline-powered engine. This engine also can be converted to operate on compressed natural gas (CNG) or propane, and if a customer plans to adapt to one of these alternative fuels, they would order the vehicle with a gaseous fuel prep package, Mr. Kaufman explained. As part of this package, internal engine components such as valves and the cylinder head are hardened to operate on the drier alternative fuels.

Perhaps in another 20 years, the majority of vehicles will be powered by alternative fuel sources. Fleet manufacturers offer a wide range of platforms including CNG and propane as well as hybrid electric, hybrid hydraulic and all electric.

Companies generally invest in these technologies to reduce their carbon footprints and satisfy sustainability initiatives, according to Kenn Klein, Morgan Olson’s marketing manager. “But as far as converting their entire fleets to an environmentally friendly platforms, we are not seeing that,” he added.

Mr. Tremmel said to keep an eye on is CNG because the US is a major producer of this natural resource. Ford’s Mr. Kaufman also liked the promise of CNG, noting that the cost of converting a gasoline engine to CNG has dropped considerably in recent years.

Utilimaster works with two technology partners to convert gasoline engines to CNG or propane. Mr. Marshall said bakeries can expect to see a payback of three years or less with these conversions.

Ford engineers certify Qualified Vehicle Modifiers (QVMs) to install alternate fuels on its vehicles. Mr. Kaufman said its engineers do site visits and put these companies through a series of tests before they can become a QVM.

Larger companies with an environmental engineer or director of sustainability are generally best at locating local and federal funds to offset some of the extra costs associated with alternative-fueled vehicles, and Utilimaster has aided smaller fleets in locating funding and grands, Mr. Marshall added.

With most new technologies, as time passes and more people buy into them, the price comes down. The same will likely be true with alternatively powered delivery vehicles.

Because baking companies have departments dedicated to keeping their vehicles serviced, company-owned fleets are generally better maintained. “Smart companies know the age of their fleets, and they know in a certain year they are going to replace a certain number of trucks or those trucks are going to cost them a lot more the next year,” Mr. Tremmel said.

That is smart, effective and efficient fleet management.     

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