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Britain’s busiest fleets: Five ways to reduce vehicle downtime

repairs spanner

Any reduction in vehicle off-road time (VOR) – small or large – can have a wide-ranging benefit for a company, whether it’s through saving money or meeting deadlines.

That’s why fleets need to take a holistic approach to maximising uptime, says Jason Chamberlain, sales director at ARI Fleet UK.

“Improving vehicle downtime by only a small amount can have a dramatic effect on the productivity and efficiency of a fleet,” he says. “Organisations should take a holistic approach to their maintenance programmes and driver behaviour policies to anticipate downtime scenarios before they become costly for the business.”

One way fleets can keep vehicles on the road for longer is through preventive maintenance (see feature, page 34), but there are many other effective measures. Mechanical problems and incident damage are the most common causes of VOR and many fleets have taken preventive steps to ensure vehicles remain on the road and not in the workshop.

However, minimising downtime starts before vehicles join the fleet, with reliability data key to making vehicle selections.

Lex Autolease, Britain’s largest vehicle leasing company, calculates that average mechanical vehicle off-road days across its fleet have reduced from 7.99 days per annum in 2010 to 4.65 days last year.

John Webb, Lex Autolease’s principal consultant, strategic fleet consultancy, says the reduction is due to improved vehicle reliability, changes to vehicle service schedules and component replacement labour times by manufacturers and general VOR time management techniques.

Freight Transport Association (FTA) figures suggest that planned van downtime averages three days a year with average unplanned downtime amounting to a further five to six days. Its study also suggested 46% of van operators didn’t measure VOR time.

Mark Cartwright, head of vans and logistics buyers at FTA, says: “Many operators put the cost of having a vehicle off the road as being in the hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds per day. Therefore, it is surprising that many fleets aren’t taking more positive action to manage their exposure. It is almost a stealth cost.”

Bob Brigginshaw, transport manager at North Yorkshire Police, says the force has a vehicle availability key performance indicator (KPI) of 95%.

To minimise VOR time, it attaches a ‘priority rating’ to each vehicle to assist workshops in decisions around prioritising the work.

“An armed response vehicle is top priority while the chief constable’s car has one of the lowest fix priorities,” says Brigginshaw.

“I can source another car for the chief constable easily, but not another armed response unit.

“Other fleets will have vehicles that are a greater priority than others and so can adopt a similar policy.”

Brigginshaw also highlights the importance of linking vehicles to employees. “People are an employer’s most expensive asset, so vehicle downtime is directly linked to employee costs,” he explains.

Therefore, the cost of VOR time is not just about the price of a component, labour rate and replacement car, but also factored in to the equation should be drivers’ employment costs – salary and benefits – and productivity, while a further unknown is reputational impact if an appointment cannot be kept or delivery made.

A significant number of fleet managers appear to be in the dark about the potential scale of the problem, with two-fifths (40%) of fleets surveyed by Autoglass unable to estimate the business cost of having a vehicle off the road. Those who were able to estimate put the average cost at £727 per day  per van in terms of lost business revenue.

A third of those surveyed also said they have vans off the road for unscheduled or emergency repairs on average at least once a month. 

Vehicle selection is critical

Vehicle reliability is essential for all fleets, but is the single most important factor for van fleet managers, says Simon Cook, of GE Capital Fleet Services.

“Fleet managers who choose the right van for the job will maximise reliability and minimise downtime,” he adds.

“The only requirement will be routine servicing and MOTs – and that can all be planned.”

Organisations try to save cash, he says, by selecting the cheapest vehicle, or one not fit for purpose in terms of size, gross vehicle weight and axle weight.

As a result, strain is placed on the vehicle and, says Cook, “unreliability is the result, leading to VOR time. Reliability and minimum VOR time are inextricably linked”.

Potential VOR time causes can be ‘engineered out’ of load-carrying LCVs by specifying features such as automatic transmissions and speed and rev limiters.

John Webb, principal consultant, strategic fleet consultancy at Lex Autolease, says it is equally important to ensure that company car choice meets operational requirements, highlighting that a small-engined car expected to fulfil load-lugging duties could undergo unnecessary strain, triggering mechanical problems.

Book SMR appointments in advance

Fleet managers and company car and van drivers should book appointments for service, maintenance and repair (SMR) work with franchised dealers, independent garages and fast-fits in advance to avoid unnecessary waiting times and guarantee part availability. Franchised dealers are increasingly offering time slots and extended SMR for commercial vehicles, and independent garages and fast-fits are known for having a culture of long opening hours and weekend working to reduce the impact of VOR time on customers’ work.

“Scheduled work is far easier to manage than unscheduled work,” says John Webb, of Lex Autolease.

“So, if fleet managers can take steps to manage unscheduled work out of the downtime equation, then VOR time will reduce.”

The Holy Grail for fleet managers is to optimise the amount of planned time as opposed to unscheduled work.

“By planning SMR work, fleet managers are protecting themselves and not constantly fire-fighting, which has a direct cost on an organisation due to downtime,” adds Webb.

Rory Morgan, head of logistics support – Western Europe at Iron Mountain, says: “We schedule maintenance out of hours where it will have the least disruption to our business.”

Graham Short, fleet engineer at Anglian Home Improvements, adds: “Many service outlets offer evening/weekend bookings so maintenance can be carried out when the vehicle is not in use.

“But it is important that a relationship exists between fleets and the maintenance provider so that each party understands the needs of the other – the level of service available and end-user requirements.”

Booking ahead is also important for items like new tyres.

Andy Fern, head of fleet at Michelin, says the number of car and van tyre sizes and ranges available has doubled from 400 to 800, due to a combination of tyre technology developments and a wider variety of models requiring a greater range of load and speed ratings. Michelin also has an additional 275 lines of cold weather tyres available.

“This diversity can mean drivers who arrive unannounced can be inconvenienced, either by having to fit a second or third choice tyre or, worse still, by having to return at a later date,” he says. “It’s unrealistic to think that every dealer will have every single tyre line in stock at all times and for fleets there are consequences in terms of the fulfilment of tyre policies. Unless drivers give advance warning, they jeopardise their chances of getting their first-choice tyre.”

Availability of vehicle parts is a further issue with unscheduled SMR work.

“SMR work that is pre-booked and carried out on schedule means that parts that require replacement will be available at the garage, keeping VOR time to a minimum,” says Webb.

“In respect of unscheduled work, parts may not be in stock leading to extended vehicle downtime.”

ARI Fleet works with clients to map vehicle locations  close to its garage network which hold stock for regular  part fitting.

Consider cold weather tyres

Many fleets fit their vehicles with cold weather tyres in the winter months to ensure their operations can continue in snow and ice.

A Dutch survey, reported by ATS Euromaster, revealed that owners of vehicles fitted with standard tyres experienced a 32% increase in insurance claims during the winter months, compared with just 12% for those who opted for cold weather tyres: the climates of the Netherlands and the UK are closely aligned.

Critically, it can be too late to fit winter tyres once snow and ice has arrived, as stocks can be sold out. Therefore, to minimise vehicle downtime in cold weather, advance planning is essential.

Tesco.com says fitting cold weather tyres to its 3,200-strong LCV home delivery fleet has been invaluable in increasing driver safety and ensuring customer deliveries arrive on time.

“We have a long-standing relationship with Michelin and fitting its cold weather tyres has had a considerably positive impact on our customer service levels because we’ve been able to get to our destinations more easily in cold, wet or icy weather,” says a spokesman.

However, fleets which choose this option also face the hassle and cost of switching between standard and cold weather tyres, as well as storing the unused set.

Some fleets, such as British Gas, fit cold weather tyres all year to ensure mobility whatever the weather, but this is a rarity, says Michelin’s Andy Fern.

“Other European countries like Holland have been using winter tyres for 15 years and take-up is about 10%,” he adds. “This is a decent proportion, but they are set up for it. They have tyre hotels to store unused tyres and the mentality of ‘winter is coming, I need to get my winter tyres’.

“That is not the case in this market and may never be. The mentality today is you get in your car, you turn the key and everything should work.”

Michelin this year launched its CrossClimate tyre,  which Fern describes as “a summer tyre that has winter certification”.

At the product’s launch in Geneva in March, Michelin CEO Jean-Dominique Senard described the tyre as offering “the benefits of a Michelin summer tyre in terms of safety and longevity, but it also offers the advantage of a winter tyre in terms of its braking performance and grip for motorists who happen to be driving in wintry conditions”.

Manage scheduled vehicle maintenance effectively

A proactive approach to vehicle SMR can reduce downtime because it provides more options, according to Mohammed Imran, head of vehicle and supplier operations at Arval UK.

Vehicle collection and delivery, courtesy vehicles, ‘while-you-wait’ and mobile servicing were all more likely to be available if fleets ‘get in early’ (see booking SMR appointments, section 2).

“With notice, the repairer may also be able to order required parts beforehand, which will ensure a faster turnaround on the job,” he says.

As planned vehicle maintenance – servicing and MOTs – are a known quantity in terms of time scheduled, fleet managers are able to arrange downtime to meet business and employee requirements. Social housing repair and maintenance provider Mears Group has for many years utilised late and early hours, and while-you-wait servicing, and is increasingly taking advantage of mobile servicing.

Jo Hammonds, group fleet manager, says: “Vans can be idle at locations while tradesmen work, so it makes sense for them to be serviced without any disruption.”

It also means operators use robust management systems to flag up reminders when services and MOTs are due and ensures drivers respond quickly to dashboard notification.

“Delays in scheduled maintenance mean mechanical problems are more likely to occur, causing unscheduled downtime. Therefore, scheduled maintenance events need to be rigidly planned,” says Webb.

Implementing preventative measures at an early stage is critical, according to Jason Chamberlain, of ARI Fleet UK, who says the move could have a significant effect, and help boost productivity.

“A robust maintenance programme with a well-defined escalation procedure should mitigate the requirement for last-minute bookings, which has a direct impact on vehicle availability,” he says.

It’s a view shared by ACFO chairman John Pryor, fleet and travel manager at Arcadia Group, who says issues around SMR can often quickly escalate into a vehicle being off the road for some considerable time and trigger expensive car replacement costs.

“It should be straightforward to arrange for a vehicle to be collected and delivered within the day without impacting on the employee’s workload or incurring any additional costs in respect of vehicle replacement,” he says.

“Alternatively, the employee may be able to work from home on the specific day or take public transport into work.

“By planning SMR work in advance, alternative arrangements can be made without disruption or cost.”

He also advises using contract hire suppliers to put pressure on garages to ensure that work is completed on schedule.

Morgan has negotiated an arrangement that sees Iron Mountain pay for the first 24 hours use of a replacement vehicle when one of its own is off the road for maintenance.

If the vehicle remains off the road for longer, then the replacement is available free of charge until the SMR work has been completed and the  vehicle is returned.

Fleet managers could use software dashboards and KPIs to pro-actively monitor the length of time vehicles spend in garages and then direct work to those workshops that deliver best service.

Brigginshaw advance plans servicing and MOTs on the North Yorkshire Police Fleet to avoid usage peak times when vehicle unavailability could be an issue.

Workshop communication vital to on-time return of vehicles

Open and honest communications with garages and workshops is critical to ensure agreement on how long SMR work will take to complete.

Fleet managers agree that accurate guidance from service departments and repairers is essential to determine when vehicles should be back on the road with some suggesting that downtime clauses should be agreed with suppliers or repairers in the event of a late return.

More than 90% of vans managed by GE Capital undergo a ‘same-day fix’ to ensure that vehicle downtime is kept to  a minimum.

Vehicles not returned the same day should be managed on a daily basis and ideally hour-by-hour, according to Simon Cook, of GE Capital.

“Communication is critical between the garage or bodyshop, the fleet manager and the driver to return a vehicle to the road as quickly as possible and keep replacement vehicle costs to an absolute minimum,” he says.

“Frequently, a vehicle can be fixed but it can wait at the garage because of a lack of communication.”

Equally, says Imran, of Arval UK, “if a vehicle has an intermittent problem it is important for fleet managers to supply as much information as possible to the repairer”.

He adds: “This will allow them to determine the root cause more quickly and get the vehicle running efficiently in the shortest amount of time.”

For fleets with access to their own workshops, such as North Yorkshire Police, it is often more cost effective, from a VOR viewpoint, to carry out a repair themselves, even if the vehicle is under warranty, or respond to a breakdown themselves and source a temporary vehicle from its own ‘stand-by’ fleet.

“All-in-all, it is all about speed of response, financial savings and keeping downtime to an absolute minimum,” says Brigginshaw.

e driving them and different faults – some faults might happen quite regularly, others might happen every four or five years depending on what part fails,” Turford says.

“We launched at five trial sites across the country. We looked at how often the vehicles were failing for unplanned work and we built something called mean time between failure which looks at how often and how many days a vehicle was going into a workshop. For example, every 50 days, or every 100 days.

“We utilised one of the tools, called Professional Maintenance, where you bring the vehicle into the workshop, do an inspection, record all the data, fix the faults and send it back out into the operation.

“It’s almost like drawing a line in the sand because we know that that vehicle has gone back in the best condition possible. And then we monitor it for any more failures. If any occur we record those and get to the root of the problem.”

In one instance, the workshop discovered it was frequently replacing a key fob for one of the vans due to the driver being in and out of the vehicle doing deliveries.

That led to a conversation with the supplier who was able to provide a stronger key fob designed for frequent use.

“Just by doing that we saw an increase in the mean time between failures for that type of vehicle,” Turford says.

Royal Mail also utilises a methodology called ‘mean time to repair’, which records when a vehicle leaves the delivery office for repair and when it returns. This has helped identify variation in turnaround times at different workshops.

“We can then look at why it is taking longer at some workshops – is it supply of parts, skill sets or the location?” Turford says.

The World Class Mail initiative has now been rolled out to the rest of the fleet and has meant that known problems are addressed before they cause the vehicle to fail.

It has also been a key reason why Royal Mail was able to increase its van fleet operating cycle from four years to seven years-plus without any major impact on vehicle and parts failures.

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