The Internet takes on a split personality in the light/medium market

I talked to Jim Carney, executive director of the National Truck Equipment Assn. (NTEA), recently about the presence of the Internet in the light- and medium-duty truck market. His opinion - one that I share - is that the Internet will have two "lives" in this market: It will be accepted and used virtually every day by in some areas, while in others it won't be used much at all.

According to Carney, the Internet continues to play a huge role on the service end for fleets, manufacturers and dealers. Maintenance manuals that once filled garage shelf after garage shelf are now being put online, giving technicians instant access to information.

"This is where we're seeing lots of Internet use," said Carney. "General Motors, Ford, and others are not only putting their maintenance manuals online, they're putting their vehicle specs up for fleets and others to use."

In fact, the NTEA itself is going live with a revamped web site of its own that will provide reams of truck chassis data. The organization even plans to provide information about city, county, municipal and government fleet bids.

On the other hand, Carney thinks that e-commerce is never really going to catch fire in the light- and medium-duty business. Right now, about half of NTEA's members have web sites in some shape or form, but most deal in what Carney calls "brochure-ware," providing customers with information in more traditional ways.

Why? "Many don't think e-commerce is going to come about in this segment of the industry because of the complexity of our products," he said. Carney believes vehicle packages that involve mounting cranes, aerial devices and other equipment on trucks require personal interaction between buyer and seller.

"In this business, you need to know the person at the other end of the table," he explained. "The dealer needs to know about his customer's general needs and specific problems. No two customers are alike; vehicle specifications are much more complex in this market."

Carney's opinions about the Internet's role in the light- and medium-duty truck segments ring true for me. The trucks in this market are configured in a much broader variety of ways than vehicles in the Class 8 segment, whose units, by and large, ply the same paved highways. By contrast, many light- and medium-duty fleets have to go off-road, getting into muck that is none too forgiving on men and trucks alike. Close collaboration between OEMs, dealers and end-users is necessary to make sure the trucks function dependably in such rough environments.

That's not to say that the Internet isn't opening new possibilities for light- and medium-fleets. New web sites are coming online that allow you to compare different specification packages, as well as look at financing options, payment schedules, and even full maintenance histories of used trucks.

Volvo Trucks North America has put an option on its web site that allows fleets to look at billions of spec'ing options for its vehicles. That's right, billions. And Ryder System is launching a used-truck web site that will give customers a chance to review vehicle specs and full maintenance histories online. I can foresee a lot of fleet managers comparison shopping without ever having to leave their desks.

There's no shortage of interesting things happening on the Internet these days. It's up to you to put them to good use.