Managing uptime: Be proactive to avoid breakdowns

Making the right choice upfront and instigating a scheme of preventative maintenance are excellent starting points in managing uptime and avoiding breakdowns. 

Preventing breakdown is about more than just nuts and bolts.

Everything you do with your vehicles, including decisions made before you even buy them, can affect their reliability.

No one wants their vehicle to break down.

Often fleets have the support of their vehicle provider or one of the major recovery organisations to help out when things go wrong – minimising downtime through replacement vehicles or fast repairs. 

But if you could prevent a vehicle going wrong in the first place, the uptime advantages are even greater.

Having a vehicle off the road for even one hour can cost your business hundreds of pounds.

Then you have to consider the implications for your customers. Will they get the service or product they were expecting from your brand? Will they use you again?

Once these costs are added to the mix, the need to eliminte downtime becomes a business priority.

There are a number of ways you can ensure your vehicles won’t let you down.


Choose your vehicles wisely

Think carefully about what vans or trucks you are about to order. Are they going to be overworked? Can they carry enough weight? What about fuel type?

Research shows 83% of fleets simply replace vehicles with ones the same size.

The finding comes from the 2017 edition of Arval’s Corporate Vehicle Observatory Barometer (CVOB), which surveyed 3,847 fleets across Europe.

Rightsizing is a strategy designed to match the payload needs of a fleet to the specification of a specific model of van as closely as possible, delivering benefits in a wide range of areas from fuel efficiency to reduced environmental impact.

Shaun Sadlier (pictured), head of Arval’s Corporate Vehicle Observatory in the UK, says: “Model selection is probably the most important van-related decision a business can make. 

“Having a vehicle that closely meets your needs can make a huge difference to fleet costs and efficiency, and the rapid proliferation of van designs and payloads that are now available means it is possible to identify models to fit almost any fleet profile.

“However, this research indicates that the vast majority of fleets are adopting a ‘same again’ policy to van selection, almost irrespective of fleet size, and foregoing the potential wholelife cost savings in areas such as fuel and tyres that rightsizing can deliver.”

In a parallel finding, the CVOB also indicates that few fleets ask for external help when choosing vehicles. Just 16% of larger fleets (more than 50 vehicles) do so, 9% of medium fleets (10-49 vehicles) and 7% of smaller fleets (1-9 vehicles).

Mark Wilkie, fleet and commercial vehicle director at Trust Ford, says: “When we supply a fleet with vehicles, we first must understand what that fleet’s requirements might be going forward. We look at when and how they use vehicles and effectively try to tailor something that works for that specific fleet.”

Electric vehicles can offer fleets greater reliability due to having fewer moving parts that can fail.

Mark Lovett , head of commercial vehicles at LeasePlan, says: “Electric vehicles (EVs) are increasingly high on the agenda for fleet operators. Over the next few years, vehicle off road (VOR) time is potentially going to reduce quite dramatically. The bits that normally cause the problems and VOR time are the big mechanical faults.

“We are only talking two-to-three replacement cycles where the third cycle of vans will be electric, the whole ingredient that contributes to downtime changes fairly fundamentally then.”

Regular servicing is a must for any fleet looking to maximise reliability. Regular replacement of consumables will maximise efficiency and the workshop visit will allow for a full inspection.

Phil Jones, senior market insight manager at BT Fleet, recommends that fleets adhere to manufacturer schedules as a bare minimum.

“Those with ageing fleets should exceed that and have additional maintenance completed that might not be included in the service but will save off-road time in future,” he says.

“For example if you get through a lot of brake pads it might be worth changing them at every service so you don’t incur extra downtime during the year.”

Ultimately the maintenance regime has to be geared around your individual fleet and how you use your vehicles.

Liam Farrar, fleet manager at Wakefield District Housing, says: “All our vehicles are taken out with a full maintenance package from the leasing company.”

He doesn’t use main dealers for servicing, preferring to build relationships with local suppliers who can offer a better, quicker service. 

“We use local suppliers. They offer us better availability of being able to get emergency appointments and because our business is in social housing it’s partly about supporting the local community.”


Diagnostics systems

Farrar still ensures the vehicles are maintained to the same standards and remain within warranty by using original parts and garages with the correct dealer-level diagnostics systems.

“It’s different but it has always worked well for us. We’ve got good relationships with local suppliers and can get service whenever we require it,” he adds.

As part of his lease agreement, Farrar has negotiated that all the vehicles receive an additional six-month safety inspection, regardless of mileage or age.

“It’s part of our full maintenance package and our (FTA) Van Excellence accreditation. They check for any faults or potential issues and the vehicle receives a full safety check, too.”

Iron Mountain fleet manager Rory Morgan has his mixed-size vehicles on a fleet management system. 

“The HGVs are on six- or eight-week cycles and the vans are on annual or 15,000 miles, whichever comes soonest. 

“I’ve always believed waiting for a warning light to come on in a vehicle before you get it checked is absurd. All the problems we have with the roads at the moment, coupled with speed bumps, mean there are a lot of things that can fail on those vehicles if they aren’t seen on a regular basis.”

Lex Autolease is keen to promote pre-maintenance and pre-MOT inspections. 

Richard Tilden (pictured), head of commercial vehicles at Lex Autolease, says: “Is the preventative maintenance working? A fleet which puts in out-of-hours checks every eight weeks will see a significant drop in downtime and costs. 

“For high mileage fleets it is critical they pay more attention to pre-maintenance. If it’s integral to the delivery of services to customers, having that vehicle off the road is costing them money.

“If you have a pre-MOT inspection on a HGV it identifies all the things that could fail the truck. These can be replaced prior to the MOT. With vans, if you look at the stats, the first time fail rate is far greater than in HGV because it’s not common practice. Van customers need to learn from HGV.”

Embrace pre-usage checks

Why check your vehicles once or twice a year – or once every six weeks if you have HGVs – when they can be checked every day?

Pre-use checks are becoming inherent to a driver’s daily duties and can help spot possible faults before the vehicle hits the road.

Checking basic things like fluid levels, tyres and general vehicle condition is vital but, to be effective, the checks must be reported and handled correctly as part of a pro-active maintenance regime.

Tilden says: “If faults are logged, customers can build a database of common faults which we can help them to weave into preventive maintenance programmes.”

LeasePlan recently launched a new Driver Check App to help fleets maximise uptime.

Lovett explains: “The objective of the app is absolutely as a pre-emptive measure to reduce the chance of things going wrong with a vehicle. Often the driver ignores a fault, it gets worse and worse and the vehicle inevitably fails – the repair is then far worse than if it had been identified sooner.”

If defects are identified, the app reports them to the fleet manager who can then take action to get that vehicle repaired or looked at. 

“If you don’t have something like driver check app, the driver can choose to ignore the warnings and then that vehicle ultimately will break down while it is out in use,” Lovett adds.

Morgan uses driver pre-use checks each time the vehicle is used. 

“We double check them by a supervisor weekly. Basically there is a form that they have to touch each vehicle at least once a week, which helps police the individual drivers and make sure we are picking up on any errors.”

Farrar has adopted an electronic solution, using the driver’s PDA.

“We aren’t depot based – most of our drivers are completely mobile. From a duty of care point of view it ensures they are doing the checks. They can upload photos of any issues and we will arrange for any repairs.

“We do random audit checks on odometer mileage against what they listed on the check,” he says.

Farrar believes part of his success with the check app is that the business promotes people informing it of issues or damage. 

“We don’t have a blame culture. We want the vehicle to be safe, we ask them to tell us of any issues whether it is their fault or not,” he explains.

A vehicle is only as reliable as its driver

Even with the best maintenance scheme in the world, a bad driver is quickly going to undo all your hard work.

Burning clutches, wearing tyres and a general lack of mechanical sympathy has somewhat been addressed by the rise in the use of vehicle telematics.

But the initiatives fleets are already introducing to be more compliant, such as seeking accreditation from organisations such as the Freight Transport Association (FTA) and Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme (FORS), is also having a positive effect on reliability.

Lovett recommends fleets target their worst performing drivers if they want to reduce breakdowns. 

He says: “They are usually the ones having the most accidents, having more fuel spend and the most mechanical issues. If you target the worst performing drivers you then are able to reduce the negative impact of having more accidents and downtime.”

Morgan adds: “If the driver is driving with more sensitivity, the brakes will last longer, the clutch will last longer and so will all of the running gear. 

“We’ve been with our telematics provider for seven years and when I did some analysis in the past five years there has been a definite drop in the cost of maintenance.”

Simon Cook, LCV leader at Arval, agrees driver actions are among the most common causes of breakdown. 

“These can range from errors such as mis-fuelling through to a generally poor driving style that subjects the vehicle to unnecessary wear and tear,” he says. 

“Educating and training drivers appropriately is essential if these kinds of problems are to be avoided. This can range from the production and distribution of guides and fact sheets on key subjects through to in-vehicle expert driver training designed to encourage a less punishing way of driving.”

Telematics provider Hubio says driver monitoring isn’t just about penalising drivers, it’s enabling intelligent data collection to better help fleet managers make decisions.

General manager Russell Olive explains: “Telematics systems turn data into intelligence that can power proposals for improvement or to respond to non-compliance, whether this is for the management of vehicles and driver behaviour to reducing vehicle downtime.

“Over the past few years, telematics systems have advanced dramatically. Before, it was   a simple case of monitoring speeds and distances but now fleet managers have access to driver behaviour, including braking, cornering, acceleration and speeding as well as MOT and servicing alerts.”

Monitoring driver behaviour can better encourage economical driving styles by inspiring drivers to improve their own driving conditions, for example increasing braking distances to improve tyre durability, which will ultimately have a positive effect on vehicle reliability and overall condition.


Use of technology

Telematics has the power to do more than just vehicle tracking and driver behaviour monitoring.

Since 2012, Scania Trucks fitted with Scania Communicator have been able to relay diagnostic information wirelessly to a workshop.

It is used prior to a planned maintenance session to establish any extra repair work or parts that may be required, thus reducing off-road time.

Mercedes-Benz has developed the technology further for its trucks. Mercedes Uptime, introduced this year, provides a constant connected service which relays data back to a central computer.

The system is designed to predict a breakdown before it happens. This is done through in-depth analysis of all the vehicles sensors using a specially written algorithm.

If the system picks up on a fault, it flags the issue with the operator who can make a decision on how to action it. The truck can be taken to a workshop for repair if the correct parts are available according to the reported failure, or a relief vehicle dispatched to pick up its load.

Johnston Fuels is one of the first businesses to adopt the technology, which costs around £10 per month per vehicle.

Director Lee Potter says: “The small extra cost of this technology will be easily outweighed by the savings we stand to make, through the reductions in unplanned maintenance that will keep us on the road and earning.”

Morgan has traditionally used a tracking and driver behaviour system but has been trialling an advanced system which includes diagnostics and can tell him if the vehicle is functioning correctly.

“It was initially based on tracking exact fuel usage to clamp down on inefficiency. The fact it does diagnostics as well is an added bonus,”he says.

The rise of the connected vehicle is unlikely to be something fleets can escape in the future.

For Tilden it’s right on the top of his agenda in terms of how Lex can become a data warehouse and use the technology in a proactive manner.

“We are having discussions internally as to how we manage that. With 390,000 vehicles on the fleet, having that data and interpreting it in a timely manner is a big task. Given all the data protection regulation as well, it’s yet to be established who owns the data.”

Manufacturers have always had the information available through normal diagnostics systems but BT Fleet believes the ability to do it over the air is both an opportunity and a threat. 

“If you have all your vehicles maintained at dealerships it’s not so much of an issue. But if you use a third party and it’s locked out or commoditised, it could be a barrier to having the quickest turnaround time,” says Jones.

BT Fleet is speaking to vehicle manufacturers to look at opening up that information, but only one has come forward. 

“In these situations, the customer always wins ultimately. Customers should have freedom of the market to decide where to put their business,” Jones adds.

Uptime stock photo

Don’t forget about the tyres

There’s a lot more to tyres than just tread depth. Age, condition and even the type of tyre fitted can affect reliability and efficiency.

David Morris, head of fleet at Goodyear Tyres, says tyres often take a back step for van fleet operators. 

“It’s one area that they consider to be a high level of spend and potentially the tyres are damaged more than they wear.“

Goodyear recommends fleets consider total cost of ownership, rather than just purchase price when buying new rubber.

In the truck world a different picture is painted.

“There was good reason that proactive solutions were developed for the truck market first,” says Morris. “They have a very good view of downtime and an HGV is far more expensive to have off road than the LCV and far harder to hire a replacement.

“Proactive solutions allow fleet operators to precisely identify and resolve tyre-related and potential safety issues before they happen by enabling them to monitor their vehicles and tyres in real time.”

Morris adds: “We are starting to see LCV fleets working similarly as hard as HGV and we feel the basis of proactive solutions coming into the LCV fleets.

“Many LCV fleets can learn a lot from truck tyre husbandry. Because LCV fleets have grown exponentially over the past few years it has taken a while to catch up.

“The concept we see coming on board in five-to-10 years is chip-in-tyre technology. It’s coming through on high performance cars, where all the data is collated from a chip in the tyre, relayed to the fleet manager or to the car’s ECU,” Morris explains.

“At this point in time with vans we are focusing on the telematics and some of the driving characteristics. Hopefully proactive solutions will follow on through into van.” 


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