Thirty years ago, fleet owners wrestled with the concept of the so-called “vanilla truck.” And no, the discussion wasn’t about saving money by ordering bare-bones “stripper” trucks. Rather, vanilla was shorthand for a Class 8 linehaul truck built with streamlined, if not simplified, specs selected by a given truck builder to match up with the general operational needs of numerous fleet customers.

The idea behind the vanilla truck was straightforward. By writing a single spec based on its extensive experience building and servicing trucks for a large number of customers operating in a similar fashion, an OEM could offer trucks at a lower purchase price. And, what was more, they could assure the fleet owner that these trucks would perform at least as well as trucks built—more expensively—to the fleet’s own custom specs.

Alas, the vanilla truck was so ahead of its time that the idea made no headway with fleet owners and truck builders soon stopped talking about it.

But today’s fleet owners are experienced at managing the dizzying demands of this era—including everything from onerous regulations to stubborn driver shortages to high fuel costs to green trucks to advanced technology of all sorts. By necessity, they are very open to change. And nowadays, truck makers go to great lengths to work as closely as possible with fleet customers—starting from well before the sale. Yet they are also exceedingly mindful of individual customer requirements.

The upshot is that fleet owners today are far less wedded to previous specs. And that requires truck OEMs and their dealers to be at the top of their game putting together trucks spec’d to deliver the lowest possible total cost of ownership (TCO). TCO includes not only initial purchase price and residual value, but everything that comes in between—including such “hard” costs as fuel and maintenance and such “soft” ones as optional safety and driver-comfort features.

“Fleets may start out looking to get the lowest truck purchase price, but they tend to end up [buying] on the total cost of truck ownership,” points out T.J. Reed, director of product marketing for Freightliner Trucks. “As an OEM, we work to present truck buyers with real-world examples—with bona-fide results—of how various spec choices and modular packages will deliver the lowest TCO in a given trucking operation.”

Reed says concerns over fuel costs are a “huge factor currently” that drives fleets to examine TCO when they spec and purchase trucks. He points out that to address this, Freightliner has developed modular fuel-efficiency spec packages. One of these might include aerodynamic devices, a specific transmission and other equipment that “when integrated together, delivers a 5 to 6% mpg improvement.” Reed notes these packages are applicationspecific, such as by sleeper type.

He also relates that discussing the total lifetime cost of fuel-saving as well as all types of spec choices vs. buying on purchase price alone “often pivots on the trade cycle—with a typical trade cycle of three to five years, fleets want to see a payback [on spec choices] within two years to realize value over the long term.

“The conversation the customer has with the truck dealer reviews all the possible choices and looks at the potential results in the aggregate to enable the fleet owner to make the right decisions for his or her operation,” he adds.

Reed says spec tradeoffs must be “weighed individually as every fleet’s operation is different. For example, if a fleet is seeking maximum fuel efficiency, a lot of questions need to be considered—such as operating speed, whether it runs coast-to-coast or regionally, and the terrain encountered— to determine which specs and options will pay back the most over time.

“Residual value is another key factor in building a low TCO truck,” he continues. “But bear in mind, spec’ing with an eye on the return gained at resale will result in a higher upfront price for the new truck.