Modern cars are extremely complex but they are also far more mechanically reliable than those produced even a decade ago. Service intervals have increased, and apart from routine inspections the driver needs to have very little input to ensure their vehicle’s continued safe operation.
Despite these advances every fleet manager must remember that vehicles are potentially dangerous, and should always be kept in good working order as there are very important safety, as well as cost and commercial issues at stake.
Duty of Care
The duty of care owed by employers to employees, and the general public, should form the cornerstone of any fleet policy.
This means that the person responsible for the business’ vehicle fleet must ensure that maintenance is undertaken regularly and in accordance with the manufacturer’s service schedule. In addition, drivers must be made fully aware that they are directly responsible for understanding the maintenance requirements of the vehicle they drive, and ensuring that service schedules are properly observed.
What do we mean by maintenance?
Maintenance for fleet vehicles should not only be a safety consideration but should be viewed as more than simply keeping cars and vans fit for purpose. A properly maintained car will be more fuel-efficient, achieve a higher resale value, cost less in repairs and ultimately make your drivers more productive.
It is important that the rules drivers need to follow concerning maintenance are clearly laid out in the employer’s procedures. So what does maintenance cover?
- Routine inspections: Regardless of how technology and engineering advances, cars and vans need to be inspected for damage and to ensure issues such as tyre pressure and fluid levels are correct. Making sure your drivers understand these obligations and carry them out is very important.
- Servicing: This is the routine work scheduled by the vehicle manufacturer in line with the service booklet which comes with every vehicle. Many new cars have automated servicing intervals. An on-board computer monitors the car’s condition and will indicate through a dashboard message when the driver should book a service. Other vehicles are set so that work is required on some form of time/ mileage combination.
- Repairs: These can result from accidents, general wear and tear or driver abuse, and range from a small windscreen chip or a blown bulb, to a failed engine or broken gearbox. Most minor problems will not incapacitate the vehicle, but major issues could either bring it to an immediate halt, or make it obvious that urgent attention is needed.
- Tyres: Clear tread-depth and inflation pressure regulations exist to ensure that, as the only contact between the vehicle and the road, tyres are kept in good condition. Keeping robust records of tyre replacements is an integral part of demonstrating that an employer is meeting its duty of care.
Understanding the cost of maintenance
Despite longer service intervals and more efficient vehicles, maintenance is still a significant component of fleet cost and possibly the area where money can most easily be misspent.
- Suppliers: As fleet customers account for around a half of all new vehicle sales in the UK many companies invest heavily in making sure your servicing and repair needs are met. Choosing the right supplier is a balance between price, safety and efficiency.
- Records: Understanding each car’s operating costs is a vital part of a fleet decision maker’s role. Good record keeping allows an accurate record to be built, showing the performance of the vehicle and the driver. For example, it could show persistently high costs for one model, against another. Or it might highlight driver abuse, or that a vehicle has not been serviced according to requirements. Storing information in one location will help identify many important factors – for instance, have all cars been serviced – and enable more effective cost control. Quite significant financial savings might arise from negotiations with manufacturers and suppliers simply because the fleet manager has maintained robust records.
- Authorisation: A fleet manager has to make many decisions that involve balancing the safety and efficiency of fleet vehicles. Knowledge of vehicles and suppliers should allow the fleet manager to make informed decisions but what happens when the fleet manager is away, or cars are maintained by drivers and unauthorised costs are incurred? An authorisation procedure must be in place to prevent costs escalating. Authorising maintenance expenditure and clearly defining the drivers’ obligations must form part of the employer’s fleet policy.
- Downtime: The fleet manager should monitor any days when a vehicle is off the road for mechanical failure and record the costs, especially when a relief vehicle is provided at an extra charge.
- Warranties: Another important issue is the warranty available on fleet cars. Many different limits and thresholds are applied to warranties so details should be checked in case there are any onerous conditions. A characteristic of fleet cars is that they may be based – and therefore need to be serviced – in a different part of the country from where they were acquired. To take full advantage of the warranty, the repairing dealer must be told that the warranty does (or at least might) apply to the vehicle.
Otherwise, the company may pay for work which is actually covered by the warranty. Where vehicles are looked after by a third party supplier, they will normally ensure terms are fully understood by the garage before work begins.
For a small fleet looking after vehicle maintenance and building a strong working relationship with a local dealer can be a great idea. But as fleet sizes increase the need for specialist knowledge becomes apparent.
While many fleets successfully handle their maintenance issues internally, many turn to one of the growing number of service providers offering to take over some or all fleet activities. Before making this decision it is worth considering:
- Your fleet is unique: A fleet manager should ask if a third party would be able to understand their needs and whether they could introduce new ideas to reduce cost and vehicle downtime. Most third party suppliers should be able to demonstrate the delivery of quantifiable benefits to other fleets of a similar size, and discuss the various service level agreements available.
- Price: Asking whether a third party supplier might bring economies of scale to purchasing seems fairly obvious, but could they also offer systems and processes that enhance efficiency and reduce costs? The fleet manager must fully understand exactly what services are offered by the outsourced supplier and whether each of the components included in the overall package are really essential.
- Services: The range of outsourced services needed by fleets will differ widely but must they all be acquired from the same source? Services such mileage tracking and driver training are increasingly becoming part of the package offered by many suppliers, but should these be purchased from, say, an accident management specialist? A fleet manager should not be afraid to shop around, not only to compare costs but to ensure that services are provided by the supplier best equipped to complete the job safely and efficiently.
- Communication: Who, talks to whom, about what, and when? Outsourcing often means drivers will be speaking directly to third parties. While this might seem great in theory, is the supplier able to respond in line with the fleet manager’s required service levels. Ensuring lines of communication are agreed, documented and understood are vital before any contract is finalised.