I don’t think anyone will be surprised that fleet managers are interested in advanced technologies.  What I do find surprising is the three they find most intriguing according to a new study—automated transmissions, natural gas powertrains, and low-viscosity lubricants.  Collision mitigation systems, air disc brakes, prognostics, real-time dynamic navigation, and tire pressure systems follow closely behind as other technologies expected to see greater fleet adoption in the near term.

The pressure of new regulations like CSA, anti-idling decrees, braking distance rules, and greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction standards are often cited as motivating this technological revolution in trucking.  The fifth annual survey conducted by Frost & Sullivan on advanced truck technologies certainly acknowledges regulatory pressure, but it identifies a 15% decline in average truck utilization experienced over the past five years as the major driving factor in fleet investment.  The availability of drivers, changes in hours of service, shorter hauls, and even traffic congestion are all cited as contributing factors to this decline.

Whatever the underlying cause, all this new technology comes with higher initial equipment prices and lifecycle costs.  Now more than ever, minimizing the total cost of ownership has become imperative for the well-run fleet whether it’s for-hire or private.

Viewed in this light, the top three, and indeed all the equipment technologies identified as of high interest to fleet managers, make solid sense.  They offer the potential to cut fuel costs (always a fleet’s number-one equipment expense), please drivers, avoid safety issues, and get the most productive uptime from trucks.  As the report dryly put it, “Fleet managers are willing to invest in technologies that can enable operating cost savings, even if this implies paying a premium for acquiring such technologies.”

Digging into the details of the study, which was based on surveying vocational and on-highway fleets of all sizes, uncovers other interesting findings.  For example, there’s “rising interest in smaller displacement [12-13L] engines, especially among small- to medium-sized for-hire fleets,” although the analysts predict that 15L diesels will dominate the market for at least the next five to 10 years.

One-third of the fleets reported that they are buying trucks with proprietary engines, but those also spec’ing automated mechanical transmissions are evenly splitting that purchase between OEM and units from independent suppliers.

The introduction of 12L natural gas engines has made a transition to that fuel much more attractive, according to the fleets surveyed. However, they report that they’ll have to see a cost advantage of at least $1 per diesel gallon equivalent before committing to a switch.

And adoption of new equipment technologies isn’t the only fleet response to cost and productivity pressures.  Frost & Sullivan also pointed to fleet data access and analysis as “another key trend gaining momentum.”  The fleets indicated that prognostics and telematics could be two key contributors to this trend, but only if they see price reductions in those services as they gain market volume.

The study’s conclusion is that fleets are becoming more familiar and comfortable with new and emerging advanced technologies. However, they aren’t just chasing novelty, but rather “are making informed decisions and choosing technologies that not only can benefit their fleets’ operations, but also induce improvements in trucking’s productivity, safety, and efficiency.”

Now that doesn’t surprise me.