Integrated technology allows components to communicate as never before, unlocking a new era of fleet performance.

In the never-ending battle to boost operating performance, truck components are talking to one another as never before. But theyre not just talking the talk; theyre walking the talk. Components are thinking beyond their parochial black boxes and working together as a complete system to reduce downtime, increase fuel efficiency, improve safety, and create a more driver-friendly environment.

No longer is it enough to maximize the performance of an individual component in isolation from others and daisy chain them together. Unlocking the performance potential requires knocking down traditional functional component silos and taking a systems approach. In so doing, the new integrated philosophy is altering perhaps forever the way fleets acquire, operate, and maintain equipment.

The electronic backbone of the integrated drivetrain is the J1939 data link, which provides the infrastructure to unleash this new productivity. J1939 allows systems to perform together smarter than ever before. Electronically enhanced shifting, performance and fuel economy all can be improved.

The electronic pulse of todays rig begins with the engine. To accommodate the competing fleet pressures for more punch and improved fuel economy (not to mention cleaner emissions), todays electronic engines produce more torque at lower rpms, a development that is forcing operators to look beyond the transmissions traditional role of multiplying engine output torque. And with the continued migration up the horsepower ladder, that role has taken on new urgency as the power goes down the driveline and out the axles.

For instance, todays low-revving engine reaches its optimal cruising range by using faster overall drivetrain ratios. In addition to producing fewer combustion strokes per minute, faster overall ratios impact startability performance of the engine/transmission/axle combination.

One-third of the North American heavy-duty market now runs with engines rated 420 hp. and above, according to some estimates, and torque ratings that were enough for transmissions just a few years ago are now insufficient.

Equity Transportation, a nationwide truckload carrier located in Grand Rapids, Mich., is a case in point. Since rescuing the company from bankruptcy in 1993, everything chief operating officer Alan Bishop does is geared toward keeping the trucks rolling. My costs drop dramatically when trucks are running, he says. Im not making money when theyre parked.

Improved utilization begins with a unique pay structure. His top driver pocketed more than $85,000 last year. More than half of his 150 drivers earn more than $60,000.

Drivers have weekly mileage goals, which, if met, can add 1/mi. to their base pay for every week they meet their goal. Bishop picked a threshold to stay well beneath the 3,200 miles the Dept. of Transportation uses as a red flag for illegal operations. In the event that a driver fails to achieve the target, his pay drops down to the bottom, unless the company fails to deliver the miles.

With an average length of haul of 540 miles, drivers usually get home every three days. Then theyreback out on the road. Its a system designed to retain the most motivated drivers, says Bishop.

Its working. Equitys turnover rate barely registers a pulse at 20%. With annual growth averaging close to 40% for the past three years, Bishop must add to his driver network. He can ill afford to lose any.

Keeping his units rolling is also reflected in Bishops equipment-acquisition strategy. In his latest equipment order, Bishop intends to boost his Detroit Diesel Series 60 rating from 370 to 500 horsepower. Despite the beefier powerplant, he will govern his 120-unit fleet at 65 mph. While that seems contradictory, he insists the higher horsepower gives the drivers the power to pull hills without dropping out of top gear, while at the same time helping him accomplish a startling fleet-wide fuel economy of 7.27 mpg. When he drops out the units that run less than 80,000 miles, his corporate average jumps to 7.6 mpg.

For Bishop, that 0.33-mpg gain is accomplished by taking the shift column out of his drivers hands and giving them the power they need, when they need it. It also doesnt hurt that he has started mounting Detroit Diesels Pro Drive on the dash (which displays running mpg figures). Drivers cant resist the urge to get the most efficient rating, he says.

Another way Bishop keeps his rigs rolling is by inflating his trailer count. At 430 trailers, he operates at a comparatively high 4:1 trailer-to-tractor ratio. This allows him to do two things. First, it gets Bishops drivers out of the load-unload game since most of his customers allow him to drop and hook. Its not uncommon for 18 trailers to be parked on customers lots. Plus, accessorial charges mount as the units sit, so Bishop still earns money.

Not surprisingly, power equipment is set up on three-year trade cycles, and is split pretty evenly between Volvo VN and Kenworth T-600s and W-900s. That allows Bishop to recapture more than 50% of his investment. The other advantage to the peppy turns is that they reduce his maintenance investment. I use warranty for maintenance, he says.

To help hold shop expenses in line, he has a one-source Meritor drivetrain spec, regardless of the truck brand. First of all, it gives me a stronger arm with warranty work, he explains. Plus my drivers and mechanics become familiar with one drivetrain.

The strategy is working. My trucks can run for a million miles, he says. Our air conditioners cant. Thats my biggest maintenance expense and one that is absolutely critical to keep drivers happy. The a/c has to work year-round because you never know when youll end up in Miami in the winter.

Maintenance is conducted in-house by a team of four and is limited to light-duty preventive maintenance on 30,000-mile schedules, supplemented with lube jobs every 15,000 miles.

Tires are rotated at the same time, allowing Bishop to run his steer tires 180,000 miles and drives for more than 400,000 miles.

Further down the road of electronic integration, U.S. Xpress Enterprises is looking for easier-to-shift transmissions that increase driver comfort and make the driving experience easier and safer. U.S. Xpress operates 4,400 power units and 9,000 trailers.

We have a pretty complicated truck and continue to add to it, says Ronnie Pate, president of the companys leasing division. The next addition will be a 100% conversion to Eaton Corp.s Autoshift automatic transmission. Already, U.S. Xpress is one-third the way through the conversion.

Pate admits that for his top drivers Autoshift is a wash since it essentially mimics their driving practices. The real payback, he says, will come with his less experienced drivers, since the automatic shifting technology mirrors that of top drivers. Plus, he expects Autoshift to open up avenues in recruiting somebody who is not familiar with a clutch. Another intangible benefit will be enhanced safety, as the driver will be able to keep both hands on the wheel instead of navigating through the gear range.

At first, drivers resisted the Autoshift because they viewed it as encroaching on their control. Soon they realize that they have more control than ever before, Pate says. They dont have to worry about clutching and proper engine speeds. They can do it with a finger. Once they realize that, our revenue per truck (a component of fleet utilization) increases.

>From a maintenance perspective, Pate has seen a decrease in the number of driveline problems and reduced tire wear from the optimized shifting.

The company also has added an Eaton Vorad collision warning device, and is currently exploring the components adaptive cruise control feature. Are there enough dollars to pay for it? he asks. Probably not. But its the right thing to do. By making the driver comfortable and safe, we can help produce revenue.

Next on the electronic front, U.S. Xpress will be adding Eatons Automatic Traction Control (ATC), which will eliminate the inter-axle differential locking control. When left engaged, that control has torn up more than one rear end. ATC reads wheel slippage, automatically transferring more torque to those that are stuck. The adoption of the traction control system forced the company to switch to a six-channel ABS system to better monitor wheel speed.

There is a definite payback when we measure our asset utilization of revenue per truck. Rates arent going up, so we have to look to increase efficiencies, Pate continues.

Weve engineered so much onto our trucks, says Pate, it has become tough on the manufacturer to get items on. Once theyre on, however, the new technology has helped U.S. Xpress meet one of its goals of reduced maintenance, shaving that line item by 10% over the past three years. In addition, the companys accident frequency and severity are both moving in the right direction.

Looking further down the integrated highway, Pate wants to move beyond power and into communications. His plan: Reprogram operating parameters on the fly and customize them for any state youre running in to optimize fuel economy. Other likely additions to the system will include tire pressure monitoring, interactive suspension control, and force-sensing fifth wheels.

The integration of drivetrain components is a situation predicated on open communications and a high degree of trust. Ask Don Perkins, executive vp of Roberson Transportation. To him, integration means teaming with a supplier that offers a broad product line to ensure a high level of performance, while at the same time reducing the amount of in-house oversight. For a company that operates 715 company tractors and 1,500 trailers, and has 450 owner-operators, those savings can be substantial.

One key operating philosophy drives this business, explains Perkins. That is to take care of our drivers, who take care of our customers. We dont need to tie our people up with unnecessary sales visits, service, warranty administration, and inventory management.

Like all maintenance guys, says Perkins, I think I do the best specing in the business. But I have come to realize that we have to service our drivers the best so we can keep them working for us and not for somebody else.

Roberson has an elaborate cross-functional team approach to component specing that involves key input from drivers, customers, and suppliers to design and build what it believes is the best truck on the market.

So far, the supply chain integration has helped reduce the work force in the shop by 35% and reduced parts inventory fourfold. Another benefit is that when you develop this intimacy with key providers, the sales process stops and real progress occurs, says Perkins.

This sole sourcing strategy, in place for the past eight years, recognizes that not every manufacturer Perkins deals with builds the best product in its class. You have to assume that the company you partner with has the best height, breadth, and depth of product line, and that their overall technology, service, and support of the product line is superior.

Another key component of Perkins strategy is that the partnership is not exclusive. The maximum amount of our business any company gets is 90%, he says. There will always be technology we need to see and embrace and I want to ensure I have that ability.

The length of each supplier contract runs three or four years. That keeps them hungry, he says. But despite the expiration date, Perkins is the first to admit that he is pretty darn loyal during contract renegotiations. I want to dance with the ones that brung me, he says. The better you get to know each other, the harder it is to switch.

* Product line height, width, and depth * Field sales force * Service * Parts availability * Warranty * Brand name recognition * Time in business * Sales force turnover * Manufacturing capabilities * Trust * Low cost