The microchip shortage, loss of workforce within companies, worker strikes, higher aluminum prices, and high shipping prices have all contributed to fleet operations unable to get vehicles and parts in the usual time frame.
But because government fleets are managing and maintaining emergency response vehicles, including police and fire, and essential vehicles such as utility and refuse trucks, they’re working hard to ensure this doesn’t affect public services.
What’s more, many have calculated ideal vehicle life cycles and have worked tirelessly to get their maintenance operations to industry-accepted benchmarks — waiting an extra year for a vehicle or an extra month for a part changes up those calculations.
How have they adapted?
Delivery delays are affecting all types of vehicles, from police vehicles to trucks and vans to larger snow equipment. Fleet managers we spoke to said their plow trucks had been awaiting transmission modules for months and couldn’t be shipped out. Police vehicles ordered 13 months ago haven’t arrived, and vans ordered pre-pandemic haven’t been delivered. A dump truck ordered in April won’t be delivered until next year. Trailers that usually take two months to get now take eight to 10. Standard SUVs and compact and cargo vans are taking eight to 10 months, rather than four. Larger trucks that used to take 10 months to deliver are now expected to take 18.
Early cut-offs at order banks are limiting the selection of vehicles and affecting what fleets can buy, sometimes closing before an agency can even place an order. In other cases, dealers have had to cancel purchase orders because they’re not getting filled. A fleet manager said he can’t get chassis quotes from heavy-duty truck manufacturers because they don’t know when chassis will be available.
With so many purchasing issues, some are turning to purchasing alternative vehicles if they’re available for ordering or can be delivered sooner.
Because Miami-Dade County in Florida couldn’t get in orders for select police SUVs, the fleet is instead looking at special service vehicles, or the competing SUV pursuit vehicle. If a department wants a pickup truck, it could look at the other manufacturers, said Rey Llerena, manager of equipment and contracts.
“They have to relook and rethink to see what works, and maybe they may have to move vehicles around,” he said, adding that user departments often must consider the county’s mandate to electrify when buying new vehicles.
The City of Kitchener in Ontario, Canada, ordered plows from a different manufacturer after canceling an order for two tandem plows because the first company couldn’t guarantee pricing and delivery times, said Matthew Lynch, manager of fleet planning.
At Dakota County, Minnesota, Kevin Schlangen, CAFM, CEM, CPFP, fleet manager, has built a reserve of older vehicles that would normally be remarketed.
“Even though we have gotten new pickups in and some new police squads in, we have not gotten rid of the old ones,” he said. “They’re not in service, but we can reassign them and put them back if we had to, if we’re waiting for parts or if something else were to happen,” Schlangen said.
He had up to 28 vehicles stashed as spares at the highest point, all of which were used during the height of the pandemic to allow workers individual cars. Schlangen said decommissioned police SUVs are easiest to keep for multi-purpose use. He’s down to 10 vehicles now, only because he needed the remarketing funds for those vehicles back in his budget.
The City of Kitchener is using rentals at times to bridge the gap in vehicle delivery delays if the fleet vehicle had a major failure. Lynch said this was done after reviewing the cost of the repair and repair time, including any potential delays in parts deliveries.
At the City of Chesapeake, Virginia, this is delaying the fleet from implementing its electrification plans. The staff identified 40 vehicles that could be switched out to electric vehicles (EVs), but “our vendors couldn’t bid because they had no idea when vehicles will be available again,” said George Hrichak, CEM, CPFP, fleet manager.
Keeping Vehicles Longer
The biggest effect of delivery delays is public agencies are keeping their existing vehicles in service longer — an undesirable option since government fleet vehicles already have long life cycles. It often means spending money on significant repairs when the vehicle would normally be sold.
“I spent over $1,000 in repairs on a vehicle that’s only worth $5,000,” Schlangen said.
The City of Fort Wayne, Indiana, unfortunately, encountered a worse situation.
“We just put $100,000 into a reserve ladder truck because it’s two years by the time you do the specs, go out to bid, issue a PO, and get delivery. The unit is a 2007 truck; we normally wouldn’t have put that kind of money into it,” said Larry Campbell, CPFP, director of fleet operations. “We cannot recover the dollars and we’ll have to keep it for a couple of years longer to help recover the costs.”
Hrichak is facing the same problems. An accident vehicle that would normally be auctioned off is now studied to determine whether the repair costs outweigh “waiting an undetermined amount of time to get a replacement vehicle delivered,” he said.
Because vehicles are kept for the optimum life cycle, considering maintenance and operating costs, having to hang onto it another year or so will affect life cycle costs.
Even with smaller issues, the costs add up. For police vehicles, Campbell thinks the biggest expense of keeping vehicles longer is tire cost, along with larger items like transmission repair. Spending $600 on a set of tires — that’s hard to recoup at auction time, he explained.
He estimates the city has spent at least $50,000 due to extra maintenance from keeping vehicles longer, just on parts alone. Part of this comes from having to replace the cooling system of a vehicle model that has cooling system problems — but that he can’t rotate out yet.
Changing Up Procurement
While some must turn to different vehicle purchases, Schlangen hasn’t changed the way he orders vehicles.
“If that means it would normally have shown up in three months and now it takes a year, I guess it takes a year,” he said. “We’re still being selective on what brand we have. We’re still trying to stick with what fits and meets our user needs and trying not to settle.”
He added since the county keeps its vehicles for so long — 10 years in some cases — he wants to make sure customer departments get the vehicles they want and need.
Others turn to their dealers.
Campbell said dealers have helped when manufacturers cut off the ordering dates for a model year before he can issue a puchase order. Dealers who have worked with the city for a long time will sometimes put the fleet’s orders in ahead of time. But if the user department makes a change in what it wants, Campbell feels compelled to keep his word with the dealers. This year, officers had to accept three vehicles in different colors from what they wanted, but Campbell said it’s better than waiting three months for replacements.
John Hyatt, fleet manager for the City of Dublin, Ohio, said a good relationship with the local dealership has been beneficial. “Our salesman found that two [Freightliner plow trucks] were available; he called me in early 2021 and I jumped at the chance to purchase,” he explained.
In another example, when he called a Ford salesman to ask for a quote for a 2021 Ford Transit van, he was offered a 2020 vehicle for a reduced cost.
Lynch is hoping for a legislative solution to the delivery delays; he hopes to get city council pre-approval to order vehicles that have 12-month or more build times.
Stocking Up on Parts
Parts delays are also causing major headaches for fleet operations.
“Across the board, there isn’t a single vendor or place that hasn’t had delays in deliveries,” Schlangen said.
Many operations have bought extra parts. Dakota County stocked up on wear items like filters, brake pads, and cutting edges, and the fleet’s parts inventory has gone up significantly. Fort Wayne staff members are ordering parts a year out, including brooms for sweepers and snow plow cutting edges. Its inventory has tripled. Knowing snow season could be severely affected by the shortages, in July, the Dublin fleet team purchased six months of parts, including diesel exhaust fluid, windshield wiper fluid, high-usage tires for trucks and patrol vehicles, and cutting edges and curb shoes for plows.
At Chesapeake, Hrichak said its contracted in-house vendor normally averages less than 11 out-of-stock lines per month — this has gone up to 25 and as high as 40 lines each month. John Eader, fleet maintenance superintendent, added the operation preemptively increased stock limits on items known to have long delays, including tires for emergency service vehicles.
Of course, not all parts can be stocked.
“We [needed] an electronic control module for a transmission. They were saying, ‘We have no idea when it’ll come in,’ and we had to park it,” Schlangen explained. It came in 10 days later, but he expects they won’t be so lucky next time.
Schlangen is most worried about tires and electronics. There are delays in tire deliveries, and electronics and special parts are “a crapshoot,” he said.
At Fort Wayne, a heavy truck sat for four months waiting for a diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) sensor. It’s worse when the vehicle is still under warranty; that means the part must come from the OEM or the warranty is void, putting the fleet in a tough situation, Campbell said.
Both Miami-Dade County and the City of Chesapeake have turned to aftermarket parts if OEM parts aren’t available. Chesapeake has also increased its use of salvage yards, eBay, and other online marketplaces to acquire items when it can’t get them through the usual channels. Fort Wayne also uses Amazon and eBay if needed — if it’s available there, it’s often cheaper and faster to get, Campbell said. The team usually avoids this because it prefers to use local vendors. The fleet also reuses parts from wrecked vehicles.
Hyatt said having a Napa IBS store in its facility has helped because “every IBS store can view each other’s parts stock inventory and then make a request to purchase the excess stock from other stores.” Still, the parts specialist has spent “countless hours” searching for parts.
Logistics issues are also preventing vendors from upfitting police vehicles in a timely manner; Chesapeake has been waiting for five months for upfits.
The issue had led the fleet to make several operational changes. It has increased its welding equipment and capabilities to do more in-house work because “wait times at commercial vendors have increased to unacceptable levels,” Eader said. It has increased the amount of work sent to machine shops for repairs, often reusing a component that would normally be replaced. When replacements aren’t available, powertrain control modules, bulkhead control modules, and airbag modules are all sent for repair. More parts are salvaged from total loss vehicles for reuse. Technicians have been repairing wiring harnesses that would normally be replaced or performing overlays on affected circuits to keep vehicles operational.
The Long-Term Impact on Maintenance & Lifecycles
Schlangen said lifecycles will go up for his fleet, but “we can adapt to that.” However, maintenance costs and total cost of ownership will take a hit. Unfortunately, he was told his department would get no increased operating funds, and shortages would be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
Vehicles sitting around awaiting repair make tracking key performance indicators impossible.
“It crushes your turnaround time. It crushes your vehicle availability,” Campbell said.
Shop metrics are also affected at Miami-Dade County. On the heavy-duty side, it’s taking on average eight days to turn around vehicles when it used to take four. On the light-duty side, turnaround time has gone from six days to 10, said Scott Stephens, fuel manager, who also manages the maintenance software.
“This doesn’t sound like a huge increase, but 10 days is a long time to be without your vehicle…especially first responders,” he said.
With problems ordering vehicles, Stephens expects vehicle retention levels similar to those during the Great Recession — and that means higher costs.
“Instead of, say, a 10-year replacement cycle, we may have to boost it up to 12. That means our average per-vehicle lifespan…may increase because we’re going to have to put in extra dollars to keep these vehicles up and running,” he said.
There is one positive to vehicle delivery delays — Lynch from Kitchener said remarketing values are way up.
“We had one chainsaw sent to auction that was purchased in 1999 for $1,200 and sold at auction for $1,000,” he said. “There is now consideration to investing in minor repairs to vehicles that are headed for auction, as the return on investment can sometimes exceed the cost of repair.”