by Donald Dunphy
The 2020 State of the Fleet Industry General Session, which took place on the last day of NAFA's Virtual I&E, provided a high-level overview of current conditions within the fleet industry as it continues to evolve and adapt during this time of unprecedented challenge.
Moderated by Mike Antich, Editor and Associate Publisher of Automotive Fleet Magazine, the session looked at the impact of the worldwide pandemic on fleet, new protocols that are being developed, and the issues public and private sector fleet professionals must consider as they plan for an uncertain future in 2021 and beyond.
Joining Antich were Patti Earley, CAFM, NAFA President; Katie Keeton, President at Automotive Fleet & Leasing Association (AFLA) and Steve Carey, President at the Association for the Work Truck Industry (NTEA).
Major Impacts from 2020
The first question was whether budget cuts are probable in 2021 for the government and utility fleet segments, and the potential impact of such cuts. Earley predicted that cuts are probable, especially for government fleets since the COVID-19 pandemic has so negatively impacted tax revenue. She added that such fleets will likely be extending vehicle lifecycles. For utility fleets, she feels that cuts in 2021 and 2022 are also likely.
Keeton concurred, saying sales executive fleets will see further changes, and that AFLA has already seen average mile rates going down across many regions that experienced lockdowns. This change directly affected organizations and put many such fleets on pause. Further, the resulting shift to more business being conducted virtually will continue to impact fleet volume for the foreseeable future.
For Carey, the implications for commercial vehicles, particularly upfitted work trucks, align with previous estimates expecting 2020 to be softer than 2019 (by pre-COVID standard) by roughly 15%. He added that one major advance the work truck industry is experiencing is a trend towards more flexible vehicles. This flexibility enables vehicles to be multi-mission capable, easily adaptable, "lightweighted," and more amenable to large-scale change requirements.
Current Tech Trends in Fleet
Vehicle manufacturers continue to pursue fuel efficiency as they look to an electric vehicle (EV) future. Earley stated these companies are also stepping up safety equipment like lane departure monitoring, adaptive cruise control, and an influx of infotainment options. And while these advancements are good, she expressed concern that these might also contribute to distracted driving, as more equipment could pull focus away from the road.
Keeton and Carey were pleased that safety technologies are starting to migrate upward to vans and trucks. Keeton specifically called out new in-cab video monitoring which helps identify driver habits both good and bad. Carey was impressed by sensors for lockout capabilities which can prevent vehicles exceeding their rated utility values, mitigating potential damage from improper usage. Carey also noted that backup cameras for vehicles under 10,000 lbs. are gaining popularity, in some cases even being mandated.
Other Aspects of Safety
Keeton proposed that while fleets and their constituent organizations currently have to be very conservative with investments due to budget constraints, safety and sustainability measures remain necessary expenditures, as the industry revolves around total cost of ownership (TCO).
Tech and Sustainability
Electrification, said Earley, is still very important to fleet, and the rise of EV offerings from manufacturers only solidifies this belief. While it is still difficult to find vehicle class 6-8 examples in EV, it is possible and availability is changing. Making such requests for changes in a prolonged period of low-cost fossil fuel can be hard-fought, but Earley believes the TCO for alternative fuel vehicles can be competitive and even cost lower in the long run.
Keeton sees sustainability as a top-of-mind subject for the members of AFLA, and while range anxiety remains a sticking point, there is a lot of passion around sustainable vehicles, and perceptions are coming around.
These changes excite Carey, but what impresses him right now is subsystem electrification where vehicles can turn off the primary motor but still have "mission-capable" capacity. He noted that this was something which Earley, being in the utility segment, could appreciate, as bucket truck boom arms could complete tasks without the extra wear and tear on engines or increased idling.
Dealing with the Pandemic
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic remains with us, but fleet is ready to respond and remain vigilant to the needs of our times. Earley noted that in university fleets, a segment that still is dealing with underutilization as so many schools have opted to remain closed or at minimized capacity to facilitate social distancing, coronavirus safety protocols are necessary for those who are still on campus.
Earley also said that as businesses reopen, as well as their fleets, COVID-19 environment safety protocols will be of primary importance.
Keeton added that fleet managers, fleet management companies, and original equipment manufacturers alike are working in split shifts, wearing facemasks, and depending on disinfectant more than ever. Further, said Earley, organizations are relying on electronic work requests, utilizing methods that get work done but keep customers out of shops, taking temperatures at the entryways, and insisting on "disinfect going in and coming out" habits. Placing parts bins outside of facilities and doing paperless work orders also limit contact exposure.
The prevalent fear right now is that when the autumn and winter months kick in, widely forcing people back into indoor spaces, virus rates may surge. How are upfitting facilities preparing for this? Carey said that, in many ways, work truck upfitting facilities already are. Since most facilities need to handle air quality issues all year long - from exhaust fumes to powder-coating particulate in the air - filtration standards must comply with whatever that region's protocols demand.
One thing that all three associations have in common is the mission to elevate fleet both in fostering growth and excellence in the field and in solidifying its value to the C-Suite. To this end, Keeton said, "(AFLA) takes pride in training and development and becoming stronger leaders. Because of the needs of the new digital workplace, we're developing new skills and meeting new challenges - virtual webinars and virtual sessions - tapping into the most current tips and practices for members, to become nimbler and continue elevating careers."
Earley added that a nimble fleet manager is also a highly trained, well-informed professional. "Recently, NAFA's Board of Directors finished our new strategic plan, and our central mission is to keep looking for ways to quantify NAFA membership value to upper management." The purpose of this is self-evident. Fleet is facing a time of tighter budgets and uncertainties. Organizations' purse-strings will be held tighter than ever before, every investment must prove a solid return, and this evidence is what NAFA will arm each of its members with.
With the Virtual I&E now over, this commitment to fleet education continues, from Certified Automotive Fleet Manager (CAFM) certification to October/November's Essentials of Fleet Management (EFMS) virtual seminar, webinars, communications, and more. In Earley's words, "(We will) show employers why membership is a wise investment, both in helping navigate today’s challenge and to keep evolving as industry moves forward."
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