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The Continuing Evolution Of Vocational Trucks

When it comes to commercial motor vehicle operation, vocational trucks often have the hardest jobs. Fleets of this type face the same challenges as OTR fleets, but they also have unique needs, resulting from operating in harsh environments and under tough conditions. As a result, OEMs are turning towards new technologies and options. Fleets need to ensure they remain efficient and profitable as vocational truck needs change and manufacturers are answering the call.

One such example is the range of new engine technologies that allow snow plow trucks to operate in the extreme wintery conditions we see today. Even more, with the oncoming push for semi-autonomous and connected vehicles, some wonder where that leaves vocational trucks. While others rightfully assume that OTR fleets will see the first major innovations in vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology, it may be vocational trucks that start to see the first real-world tests come to fruition.

Volvo, for instance, recently posited that the first semi-autonomous vehicles released for public consumption may be garbage trucks that operate within residential neighborhoods. Driving on known routes within neighborhoods, picking up refuse containers that are set at predetermined locations, provides the perfect testbed for vocational trucks with a specific job description.

Motor carriers operating within a vocational capacity have begun turning to established technologies to help them increase the positive impact on their bottom line and increase productivity. Let’s take a closer look at how the field is changing with the times.

How Vocational Tractors are Getting Safer

The first area vocational manufacturers are setting their sights on is the realm of safety. While OTR motor carriers are well acquainted with advanced safety systems, vocational trucks may need them more than anyone.

Take concrete mixing trucks as one example. These vehicles often spend a lot of their operational time working around passenger cars in the dead of night. With urban areas more congested than ever, concrete mixer trucks combined with less experienced truck drivers can be a deadly mix. For this reason, many companies who operate these types of commercial motor vehicles are turning to advanced safety systems to prevent the worst from happening.

Companies operating concrete mixers, refuse trucks, large utility vehicles and more, are looking at everything from active driving technologies to tire pressure management systems. Some advanced safety systems you may have never heard of are even working their way into the trucking lexicon, such as human detection systems. This technology is vital for commercial motor vehicles working on crowded jobsites or in residential areas.

Still, this doesn’t mean that motor carriers are successfully obtaining the technologies they need to increase their vehicle’s overall level of operational safety. Although vocational trucks are evolving with the times, OEMs aren’t always able to spec advanced safety technologies.

OEMs themselves report getting more requests for safety technologies by the day, especially in the medium-duty trucking space. This should not be a surprise, considering vocational trucks work in fast-paced environments with unique challenges.

While it may be hard for a company to figure out how an accident that doesn’t occur impacts their overall profitability, it is a lot easier to see how accidents that do happen harms their bottom line. From missed work, to increased healthcare and ballooning insurance costs, decreasing the chance of an accident from occurring should be every fleet’s top priority, vocational or not.

Safety and Comfort Technology for Vocational Truckers

As trucking technology improves over time, motor carriers find it increasingly easier to justify the acquisition costs associated with advanced safety technologies. And this shift goes beyond what’s happening when the truck driver is operating the vehicle. Ensuring the safety and health of the truck driver themselves is also paramount.

Whether trucking companies are looking to increase their use of step heights and more stable surfaces or grab handles and better lighting, keeping truck drivers happy, safe, and comfortable is at the front of every fleet manager’s mind, and the same holds true for vocational truck drivers. Just consider for a moment how often a vocational trucker gets in and out of their vehicle, and in many cases in poor weather conditions.

Vocational truck driver injuries almost always can be traced back to knees and shoulders. Thus, investing in ergonomic and comfort safety technologies can be a make-or-break proposition, especially in the age of the never-ending truck driver employment squeeze.

Even under-the-hood technologies can have a huge impact on a vocational truck driver’s overall level of health and comfort. Vocational trucks with manual transmissions often result in vocational truck drivers having to maintain constant pressure on the clutch pedal, which puts a lot of strain on their left knee. Moving to automated or automated manual transmissions could result in fleets seeing their healthcare costs drop by large amounts.

How Automatic and Automated Manual Transmissions Make an Impact

Beyond easing pressure on a vocational truck driver’s knees and other joints, automatic and automated manual transmissions are making a big impact across the vocational spectrum. It is no secret that manual transmissions are witnessing a decline in their overall popularity. Many medium-duty applications practically require automatic transmissions.

One area where these transmissions make a big difference is in the training of less-experienced truck drivers. New vocational operators can get behind the wheel and safely begin getting the job done with a far lower learning curve when their vehicle is equipped with an automatic or automated manual transmission.

Yet, the benefits don’t stop at new truckers. Experienced truck drivers also enjoy the convenience and additional safety benefits of operating with an automatic or automated manual transmission, if for nothing else than that it allows them to focus on safe driving techniques without having to worry about shifting. Shifting a commercial vehicle can also be closely associated with truck driver fatigued, which is reduced when truck drivers don’t have to be overly concerned about it.

Maintenance costs also tend to drop when vocational fleets shift away from manual transmission technologies. As new truck drivers attempt to learn on manual trucks, burned out clutches and broken axles become a greater problem. Although there are upcharges associated with spec’ing these technologies, fleet managers can typically justify the spend by pointing to decreased maintenance and healthcare costs. Over the long term, automatic and automated manual transmissions pay for themselves.

A short decade ago, many a vocational fleet manager would have scoffed at the idea of automatic or automated manual transmissions making their way into severe-duty commercial motor vehicles, yet the value proposition of spec’ing these technologies has increased dramatically in a short period of time. They are more resilient than many think and typically result in low maintenance costs.

The Evolution of the Engine

Vocational trucks operate within a specialized environment. Fleets utilizing vocational trucks need maximize their truck’s overall payload capacity, improve fuel performance, and keep sustainability concerns in mind. With all that to think about, fleet managers are turning to the engine for better results.

The duty cycle of vocational trucks must be kept in careful consideration when deciding on engine technology and displacement. Certain levels of horsepower/displacement combinations may work with vocational applications, but will the engine remain resilient over the long term? Although you may be able to get 300 hp out of an 8-liter engine, difficult operating conditions may require a higher displacement for the engine to stay operational over a long period of time.

It must be remembered that there is no one-size-fits-all engine for all vocational applications. Still, many medium- and small-duty trucking fleets are moving away from diesel engines towards gasoline-powered varieties. Gasoline engines can be operated successfully and with lower emissions equipment requirements and maintenance costs.

Alternative fuel options such as propane and natural gas are even seeing greater adoption by vocational fleets. With a lower environmental footprint and operational cost, natural gas-powered vocational trucks come with a far higher value proposition for fleets working within vocational operation capacities.

Even electric drivetrains are seeing increased uptake in vocational operations. With electric cars making inroads by the droves, electric vocational trucks are not far behind, with vocational applications no exception. With minimal moving parts and lower maintenance costs, electric spec’ing has moved from the realm of science fiction into the reality of science fact.

As battery technology improves, companies operating in the vocational environment can scale up without problems. Longer-lasting batteries and advanced software systems are reshaping the vocational trucking landscape.

The fact is, trucking companies operating within a vocational capacity have specific needs and requirements. When a commercial motor vehicle operates in a difficult, crowded, and potentially dangerous environment, it should be no surprise that trucking companies are looking for better ways to give their company an edge while still focusing on truck driver and vehicle safety.

As modern trucking technology evolves, it isn’t just OTR and regional trucking companies that benefit from new applications. Vocational fleets also need new ways to increase profitability while improving safety and efficiency. The evolution of the vocational application is providing them with just that.

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