Public fleet managers oversee diverse fleets, specifying everything from flat-bed trucks and utility vans to garbage trucks and trailers.

While vehicle options are growing in complexity and sophistication, you're under increasing pressure to document taxpayer return on investment.

Given these two factors, you can't just buy what you've always bought.

To keep maintenance and operation costs down, the NTEA recommends a simple four-step design process to ensure you deliver vehicles that meet all your customers' needs.

Step 1: Determine what the truck needs to do.

Don't be satisfied with, “I need a pickup truck.” Thoroughly explore what will make that truck most productive for that department. Perhaps a simple class upgrade will add durability to the vehicle and extend its life.

Ask what the vehicle will be used for. Exactly what will that department be hauling? How far will it be driven, and how often? What special circumstances will drivers and/or operators encounter, and how often?

For example, will the truck haul equipment? Does the driver need to be able to get equipment on and off the truck frequently? Will material be hauled to unpaved jobsites? What kind of material is being hauled, and how much? Will the truck have different uses at different times of the year? How many employees will it carry regularly?

Think about the environment in which the vehicle will be driven. Consider how features can improve or hinder productivity. Look at the performance of that department's current trucks. Ask drivers which truck styles and equipment they prefer, and why.

Step 2: Explore technical details.

Now that you've identified what the vehicle must do, figure out how to make it happen.

How much payload weight and volume will the vehicle have to carry? What are the dimensional requirements, based on the size and shape of materials that are transported? Will the vehicle be used to plow snow?

Then ask about performance requirements.

What's the optimal speed with a full load, braking considerations, and fuel economy? If alternative fuel or hybrid technology is important, determine the availability and costs of alternate fuels so your customer can weigh the cost-effectiveness and performance of traditional versus alternative fuels.

What type of truck body and/or special equipment does the customer need? Account for the size of special equipment to be upfitted to the chassis; the weight of these components; cargo storage needs; component installation requirements and operational requirements, such as power sources for equipment; and equipment access.

You also must account for accessory items like generators, hose reels, and compressors. Your dealer can be a useful resource in this process.

Step 3: Consider operating conditions and environment.

How often will employees drive the truck in the city, on the highway, off-highway, and in combination? Will they use it predominantly in level or hilly terrain? Evaluate its operational cycle, including desired cycle time and daily hours of operation. Also consider loading cycle, climate/weather, and maintenance.

These factors will help you select the correct engine, transmission, and other components.

For example, if the vehicle will be used in temperatures above 90° F for an extended period, you may want to upgrade the engine and transmission cooling systems, select high-temperature-rated tires, and specify deeply tinted glass in the cab. In very humid climates, you may choose to relocate air system tanks or use remote drain systems to facilitate manual draining, install upgraded air dryers, and specify heated mirrors and windows.

Step 4: Review the maintenance histories of existing vehicles.

Look for common failure patterns to see if you need to upgrade vehicle specifications. Typical high-maintenance areas include suspension systems, front-end/ steering, brakes, engines, transmissions, differentials, and vehicle frames.

This can also alert you to other potential issues. If a particular truck has higher maintenance costs than similar vehicles in the fleet, that truck's driver may be responsible. Repeated repairs within a short period may point to poor maintenance and repair procedures.

— Johnson is director of fleet relations for the National Truck Equipment Association.

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