Fueled by the never-ending need to bolster the bottom line, contractors now can take advantage of a host of recent developments in work trucks, from lighter frames to increasingly high-tech telematics. And with truck sales still slow in 2016, manufacturers are hoping improvements in mileage, hauling and safety features will entice construction buyers to renew their fleets in 2017.

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Signs of Life

After some lean years, there are signs of life in the work-truck market. According to the annual Fleet Purchasing Outlook survey conducted by the National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA), an uptick in some truck sales is being driven by construction.

The survey shows that sales of medium-duty trucks (Classes 4 through 7) continue to outpace those of both the light-duty (Classes 1 through 3) and heavy-duty (Class 8) segments of the market, says Steve Latin-Kasper, NTEA’s director of market data and research. “The reason for this uptick in 2016 is that medium-duty trucks have benefitted more from the continued growth in applications, [such as] construction and utilities,” says Latin-Kasper. NTEA forecasts 3.6% growth in Class 2-7 trucks and 8% growth in commercial vans in 2017.

According to that NTEA survey, roughly a third of respondents plan on growing their fleets in the year ahead. While most contractors will fill out their fleets through traditional purchases or lease arrangements, a number are pursuing rentals for the flexibility they offer, according to Bryan Bassett, regional sales manager for Salt Lake City’s Flex Fleet Rentals.

“For example, with rental vehicles, if a project manager requests a few half-ton pickups to start a job and then realizes that two of his foreman are towing a lot, they can swap out those two trucks for three-quarter-ton diesels with just a phone call,” he notes.

Smarter Shoppers

“Right-sizing,”or picking smaller trucks tailored to a job over their bigger cousins, remains a pervasive trend in the work-truck industry, according to David Sowers, head of Dodge Ram’s truck division.

“What we see happening across segments is that businesses are much smarter about their purchases today,” he explains. “So, they’re looking to right-size their new trucks to better fit their needs, like buying a light-duty truck that can tow more than 10,000 pounds, instead of a heavy-duty pickup.”

In some cases, this strategy includes a renewed interest in midsize pickups, such as the Chevrolet Colorado-GMC Canyon twins (now available with a diesel engine), the Toyota Tacoma and the all-new unibody Honda Ridgeline, as well as small vans such as the Nissan NV200 or Ram ProMaster City.

Nissan seeks to appeal to professionals with its Titan and heavier-duty Titan XD pickups, both of which come in regular-cab and work-truck models. “These trucks are specifically designed to provide an affordable and rugged entry point into the work-truck market,” says Nissan spokesman Kevin Rafferty.

Mark Young, director of fleet management for Brundage-Bone Concrete Pumping, says his operation has been downsizing their service trucks, from Ford F-650s with full-service bodies, welders, air compressors and cranes to one-ton pickups with utility bodies equipped with the welder and air compressor but not the crane. “We’re finding that these new service trucks are quicker to respond due to their smaller size and greater ability to maneuver,” says Young.

Thinking Lighter

The adoption of aluminum-body trucks made by Ford has resulted in some design changes. Fuel savings from lighter bodies are a plus, but the automaker is choosing to focus on the increased towing capacity in its pitch to construction professionals. Ford has announced that it will be using the all-aluminum bodies from its popular F-150 trucks in its 2017 SuperDuty pickups. While the switch to aluminum cabs in the F-150 saved 750 lb in total weight, the switch in the SuperDuty will save only 350 lb due to other enhancements to the truck’s frame.

“A lot of contractors appreciate the fact that we took the weight savings from our aluminum body panels and reinvested it in a heavier-duty frame, axles, suspension and other hardware that support better towing and payload capability,” says Kevin Koester, Ford’s super-duty and medium-duty fleet marketing manager.

On the heavy-duty side, Navistar now is making its International HX series of vocational trucks with aluminum-body cabs, a decision that not only lightens the truck but reduces dents and damage to the frame. Introduced earlier in 2016, the HX series is Navistar’s first major platform since it ceased production of vocational trucks for Caterpillar. The HX features a more powerful engine than the Cat-branded truck and also goes for about $10,000 less.

Further, saving weight without reducing power is seen in the 2017 Mack Granite mixer trucks, which feature a redesigned powertrain that is lighter than earlier models without a big drop in engine displacement.

Under the Hood Improvements

 Nissan’s Titan XD remains an in-between offering with its Cummins turbodiesel engine, carving out a niche between half-ton and three-quarter-ton pickups. “The idea is that it gives work-truck buyers a chance to buy the right tool for the right job, rather than spending more money to get 900 pound-feet of torque you’ll never use,” Nissan’s Rafferty explains.

The Ford Super Duty is opting for extra power, with a 6.7-liter Power Stroke turbodiesel engine that delivers 925 lb-ft of torque. On the other end of the displacement spectrum is the Ford F-150’s fuel-efficient 3.5-liter EcoBoost turbocharged V6 that puts out 375 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque—numbers on par with the automaker’s much thirstier 5.0-liter V8.

Innovations have been happening in the transmission front, as well. The eight-speed automatic that comes mated to Ram’s 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V6 helps the truck to return EPA fuel economy estimates of 21 mph city and 29 mph highway, enough to give it claim to the title of most fuel-efficient pickup.

In what may seem like a reversal of a longtime trend, some medium-duty truck buyers are opting to skip the diesel engine in order to take advantage of lower gasoline prices. “We’re the only manufacturer offering our customers a gasoline engine in the medium-duty truck segment,” says Ford’s Koester.

Towing Wars

Ram and Ford have been engaged in a running battle over their heavy-duty pickups’ towing capabilities, with maximum tow ratings of 31,200 lb by the Ram 3500 and 32,500 lb by the Ford F-450. Now, buyers at least can feel confident in relying on those numbers. Manufacturers used to come up with towing numbers using their own proprietary formulae, but now the SAE J2807 standard is used by all major manufacturers, making an apples-to-apples comparison finally possible. Big towing numbers are no longer the exclusive territory of the Big Three automakers. The new Nissan Titan XD has a maximum towing capacity of 12,314 lb, a number that beats some three-quarter-ton trucks. “Titan XD effectively bridges the sizable gap in capability between truckmakers’ half-ton pickup trucks and their three-quarter-ton pickups,” says Nissan’s Rafferty.

Driver-Focused Features

Speaking to ENR, contractors and industry experts pointed toward changes in work-truck configurations that may help driver hiring, retention and productivity. There is interest in lowering vibration and noise in trucks, which can help to reduce driver fatigue. New suspensions, such as the Ram pickups’ self-leveling rear air suspension, reduce the bumpy rides once thought standard for work trucks. Once rare options—Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity, among them—are common, adding to the truck cab’s reputation as construction’s mobile office.

But the biggest change for drivers may be the switch to automatic transmissions and greater use of smaller trucks that don’t require a commercial driver’s license to operate. Work limited to experienced drivers increasingly is farmed out to a broader pool of drivers.

Safety and Telematics Go Standard

New safety features and driver-assist functions are propagating across the major truck brands. Ford Super Duty can be had with adaptive cruise control, which maintains a set distance between the truck and the vehicle in front of it, even while towing, and can brake automatically if a crash is imminent. Blind-spot monitoring will alert a driver if there is an unseen obstacle, a feature that can come in handy on busy roads. Rearview cameras and rear ultrasonic parking sensors are also available on most new pickups.

A recent NTEA survey found that more than half of respondents were using telematics to monitor the performance of their vehicle fleets. Moving beyond basic GPS data, fleet managers and contractors are using telematics to track utilization, maximize deployments and improve the way their drivers drive. Using these systems, some of which are coming factory-installed, fleet managers can spot a problem before it becomes a costly breakdown or an emergency repair. “If we receive a code suggesting a bad alternator, in many cases we can respond effectively to take care of the issue before the operator even knows there is a problem,” says Brundage-Bone’s Young.

It remains to be seen if these technological changes will entice buyers to go with pricier options, but any fleet manager who has been putting off refreshing the truck fleet will find that a great deal has changed in work trucks, and manufacturers are betting big that these investments will pay off.