Fleet car and truck maintenance costs have been trending upward during the first half of the 2021-calendar year as total fleet miles driven have increased in response to a recovering economy compared to 2020-CY. Prior to this, work-from-home mandates and the idling of non-essential fleets exerted downward pressure on fleet maintenance costs as fewer business miles, in the aggregate, were driven.
This assessment is based on AF’s 25th annual fleet vehicle maintenance survey conducted exclusively by the fleet management company Emkay based on an analysis of actual maintenance expenses incurred during calendar-years 2020 and 2021.
“The COVID pandemic presented many challenges with vehicle maintenance that no one in the industry experienced before in such a great capacity,” said Dale Jewell, senior director, fleet services operations for Emkay.
In this year’s maintenance survey, Emkay in partnership with Automotive Fleet magazine identified the following seven fleet maintenance trends:
➊ Longer PM intervals for cars and light-trucks as more vehicles are required to use longer-lasting synthetic motor oils.
➋ An ongoing parts shortage that is increasing repair times as some vehicles are idled waiting for components that are on back order.
➌ Extended vehicle replacement cycles that have driven up both preventive and unscheduled maintenance.
➍ Replacement tire expenses are trending higher in 2021 than 2020.
➎ As vehicles become more complex, so do vehicle repairs when malfunctions occur.
➏ Labor rates in 2021 remain relatively flat compared to 2020, but the forecast is for labor rates to increase in 2022.
➐ While vehicle quality is at an all-time high, the forecast for overall fleet car and truck maintenance expenses is for individual transaction costs to continue to increase.
"With the pandemic, the new norm has been to work remotely or from home, mitigating the necessity for travel. There are also several companies that do not allow outside visitors so several of our customers have been working from home. As things do begin to open up and drivers start to become more active again, the expectation is that costs will increase for our fleets,” said Tony Hernandez, team lead, truck maintenance for Emkay.
Preventive maintenance (PM) is one area where fleet maintenance spend has increased in 2021 compared to 2020.
“PM costs have risen in both segments due to the upswing in the economy and the opening of states and businesses,” said Troy
Fleener, team lead, maintenance for Emkay. “Coming out of 2020, vehicles are once again hitting the road. The prolonged maintenance ramped up early on and we expect it to continue doing so in the coming months.”
Below is a more in-depth look at each of the identified top seven fleet maintenance trends.
Trend 1: Longer PM Intervals
The key factor contributing to the lengthening of PM intervals is the ongoing shift by OEMs to recommend more expensive, but longer-lasting, synthetic motor oils. The frequency of oil changes have decreased, but the cost of preventive maintenance is increasing due to changes to more expensive synthetic oil requirements. While the average per unit cost per month of PM increased, the cost per mile for PM has remained flat in 2020, due to longer intervals between oil-drain because of the long-lasting properties of synthetic motor oil.
“For both the car and light-duty truck segments, Emlay has experienced longer preventive maintenance schedules. Historically, services were rendered every couple of months; now, we are experiencing mileage-based services,” said Hernandez. “When coupled with the downswing in the market brought forth by the pandemic, the intervals between services have become significantly longer,” said Hernandez.
Over the past decade, most OEMs have switched to more expensive synthetic oils, and extended oil drain intervals, which is increasing the cost of each preventive maintenance service. The reason for this change is the proliferation of smaller displacement engines in fleet applications has put pressure on OEMs and fleet managers to use synthetic oil. Turbocharged smaller displacement engines tend to run hotter and synthetic motor oils provides 50% better engine protection, which, in the long run, helps to maximize engine life. Industry-wide, the trend is for the cost of oil changes to continue to increase due to the number of fleet vehicles requiring either synthetic or synthetic blend motor oils, which increases with each new model-year.
The ongoing trend of increased PM costs per service will continue as older fleet vehicles requiring conventional oil are taken out of service and replaced with models that require synthetics. Also, improvements in engine design and enhancements to OEM oil-life monitoring systems are also facilitating extended oil-drain intervals.
The higher quality synthetic motor oil allows the intervals between these services to lengthen, which is offsetting some of the additional per-transaction costs. In addition, greater time and mileage between oil changes has translated into reduced driver downtime and shop visits.
One common misconception by drivers is that PM only involves oil changes. Oil changes aren’t the only PM. Nowadays, tire rotations are often more frequent than oil changes. It is important to have vehicles PM’ed on a schedule. What’s important to remember, especially in the commercial and vocational markets, is that tires may need to be rotated more often than the oil is changed.
Extended oil drain intervals have the potential to lead to increased maintenance expenses or major repairs if the driver is not ‘in tune’ with their vehicle, problems can occur such as brakes wearing metal to metal, prolonged driving with low oil levels, and incorrect tire pressure causing premature tire wear caused by drivers ignoring the illuminated TPMS light on the dash.
Trend 2: Longer Service Lives
Another factor that influenced maintenance costs in calendar-years 2020 and 2021 has been the upward trend in the average months in service for fleet vehicles. This extension in vehicle replacement cycles has driven up maintenance costs. For instance, fleets are keeping vehicles longer and because of this are required to perform additional PM maintenance involving spark plugs, cooling system, transmission service, and sometimes necessitating the acquisition of a new set of replacement tires.
“For both the car and light-truck segment, we have seen our fleets keeping their vehicles in service for a longer period of time. Instead of using strictly months or mileage formulas to replace units, fleets are now approaching vehicle replacement criteria more cautiously. With manufacturer supply shortages and shutdowns, it is becoming increasing difficult to replace particular models,” said Hernandez.
In a period of budget constraints and vehicle availability issues, some fleets have extended the service lives of vehicles that otherwise would have been replaced.
“Fleets are closely monitoring their costs and associated downtime. This has led to fleet downsizing overall and an increase in finding or using spare units when possible. Fleets are now more accepting of an increase in repair time to ensure the most competitive cost possible. Having a spare vehicle readily available has been found to be of great value now,” said Hernandez.
Trend 3: Tire Expenses are Increasing
One of the greatest contributor to increased fleet maintenance spend is higher prices for replacement tires. On a per unit per month basis, fleet tire spend in 2021 has experienced upward pricing pressures due to higher prices for the commodities used to manufacture tires.
“Tire prices are increasing approximately 5% in 2021, mainly due to the increase in raw material, disposal, and transportation costs,” said Jewell. “Overall, FMCs will see an increase in this segment as more vehicles hit the road and mileages accumulate throughout 2021. With the reduction in overall miles driven in 2020, companies should anticipate this increasing expenditure.”
In addition to higher commodity prices, there are other factors putting upward pressure on replacement tire expenses, such as higher fuel prices, which increase logistics costs to transport tires to retail stores.
“Transportation costs are likely to continue to rise, which will cause more increases with tire and distribution costs. As the economy and travel continue to open during 2021, conditions will continue to change and ultimately affect tire expenses,” added Jewell.
Trend 4: Constraints in Spare Parts
One factor contributing to longer repair times for fleet vehicles is the shortage of some spare parts needed to complete an unscheduled repair or to repair an accident-damaged vehicle, especially if the component needing to be replacement has microchips, which are currently in short supply.
“Part shortage continues to be an issue and now have lead times ranging from days to months prior to arriving at a dealership or national account vendor,” said Hernandez. “Although this is not new to fleet management companies, the frequency is at an all-time high.”
In addition, higher commodity prices are causing the cost of replacement parts to trend higher.
Trend 5: Increased Vehicle Complexity
Overall vehicle quality continued to improve in 2021 compared to prior years and the forecast of vehicle quality in coming years will continue to improve as the industry transitions to electric vehicles due to the fewer number of moving parts.
“The quality of vehicles produced today is much better than in years past. Manufacturers are striving to make vehicles safer, more fuel-efficient, and of superior value. The trend will continue within the electric vehicle segment in the years to come,” said Fleener. “We can certainly expect EV utilization to make a large impact in the future on maintenance costs for both FMCs and customers as OEMs bring them to market.”
However, as vehicles become more complex, so do vehicle repairs when malfunctions occur. While the technology innovations being introduced in today’s vehicles are very reliable, when they do malfunction, they are very expensive to fix. This can drive up certain repair expenses, such as infotainment systems, for example.
Also, an increasing number of vehicles are equipped with advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), such as collision avoidance, surround view, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, pedestrian protection, and blind spot monitoring, to name a few. While ADAS benefits outweigh any negatives, they do, nonetheless, come with trade-offs, such as a higher acquisition cost and new variables in maintenance management.
There are many types of ADAS available with some built into vehicles and others available as part of an option package. ADAS relies on inputs from multiple data sources, including automotive imaging, LIDAR, radar, image processing, computer vision, and in-car networking. When ADAS systems need to be serviced, it requires special equipment operated by a specially trained technician. Many previously simple repairs now require a calibration of the ADAS system, consisting of cameras, sensors, and controllers, which requires specialized and expensive tooling and equipment.
Likewise, glass replacement costs have increased with new technology related to advanced driver assistance systems. ADAS cameras built into windshields and rearview mirrors are adding complexity and cost to windshield replacements. The replacement cost of a windshield in an ADAS-equipped vehicle is typically higher than that of a non-ADAS unit. In addition to the increased cost of the windshield itself, the vehicle also often requires a recalibration of the entire system, an additional cost.
Trend 6: Forecast of Higher Labor Rates
Labor rates in 2021 remained relatively flat compared to 2020, but the forecast is for labor rates to increase in 2022.
“Labor rates remained relatively flat from 2020 to 2021,” said Jewell, “We do expect labor costs to rise throughout 2021 and into 2022 especially for vendors most impacted by lockdowns and work in specialized skill areas such as electrical diagnosis or transmission specialists.”
In addition, the anticipation is that labor rates will increase in 2022 at the rate of inflation, perhaps greater due to the ongoing shortage of qualified service technicians. As vehicle functionality and operation becomes increasingly dependent on electronics and software, it has begun to stretch the skillset of some technicians at independent service providers. There is intense competition for skilled technicians between dealerships, independent service providers, and fleets that operate in-house maintenance facilities.
With more technology embedded in each vehicle, independent shops are being required to make significant investments in diagnostic equipment to diagnose and repair malfunctions using the data from in-vehicle technology. In addition, increased vehicle complexity is requiring the hiring of technicians with a higher technical skillset, who typically command higher salaries. The demand for these technicians exceeds the labor supply. Compounding this problem is that older skilled technicians are retiring from the trade at a rate faster than younger technicians entering the profession to replace them. This is increasing pressure on independent shops to boost wages to attract the new talent.
Trend 7: Higher Costs Per Transaction
While vehicle quality is at an all-time high, the forecast for overall fleet car and truck maintenance expenses is for per transaction costs to continue to increase even though the frequency of unscheduled maintenance declines or remains flat.
“Emkay foresees maintenance expenses going down; however, the cost per repair going up. As more and more fleet clients move towards higher technology and more fuel-efficient vehicles, which doesn’t require ongoing repairs, it does require a significant amount of diagnosis to determine the cause of an issue. The everyday mechanic must now evolve into a service technician that will require the understanding of completely new systems, diagnostic equipment, and technology. This training will come at a cost to the consumer as an increased cost on repair. In short, the repair may be costly, however, they will be and few between,” said Hernandez.
Also, supply chain constraints, such as the current microchip shortage, are a new factors impacting fleet maintenance turnaround rates and uptime.
“The industry continues to see the availability of materials and transportation costs as challenges. Many items such as computer chips and other technology components are on lengthy backorder across several OEMs,” said Jewell.