Too Much, Too Fast

Steph Sabo doesn't like being distracted. All the man wants to do is keep his trucks on the road, hauling freight, and he's not happy when maintenance issues keep him from doing that.

Sabo, maintenance director for Nashville, IL-based Norrenberns Truck Service, has been distracted a lot lately by a problem he has termed "truck complexity." It's a big issue; far bigger than even Sabo thought when he first brought it up at a Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) meeting in early 2004. In little more than a year, enough other fleet maintenance managers have jumped on Sabo's bandwagon that TMC has formed a Task Force to study the issues and recommend solutions to the problems they find, and Sabo has been named Task Force Chair.

The Task Force is only beginning to set a plan of action, but Sabo already has a clear idea of what needs to be done. If he can't stop the forces of complexity, he'll try to change the direction in which the trucking industry is heading.


Sabo's concerns with truck complexity are rooted in the fact that Norrenberns serves both the truckload and less-than-truckload (LTL) markets, and, thus, runs two very different types of truck. And the company has recently added new models of both types of truck to the fleet. That's where Sabo's troubles began.

"It all started when one day we had two different manufacturers' trucks at two different dealers, and they both just dropped the ball," Sabo recalls.

"To me, our main function is to make the trucks roll," he says, "and they just did not get it. And it was over complex issues of things that really weren't relevant to make the truck roll. This has always been bothering me that the trucks are getting worse and worse and worse, and then that just took the cake."

On the day in question, an Inter-national day cab was sidelined with a speedometer problem, and a Volvo was shut down with a turbo malfunction. Both were taken to their respective dealers, but Sabo did not get the kind of service he expected.

"They just didn't seem to care to get the truck in and out," he says. "And the way we operate here, we're a small-time operation, and we pretty much fix all our own stuff, and I just hate turning stuff over to dealers; we hate to let things leave here."

The truck with the turbo problem was covered by warranty, but the dealer told Sabo they couldn't get the turbo. In the end, Sabo had to track down a new turbo himself.

"It just turned out to be a whole disastrous nightmare," he says. "And we've taken things to dealers before, that's no big deal. But nowadays it seems like it's a whole lot worse.

"Any time a new thing comes around it means new training, new everything," Sabo continues. "And while we have these new Volvos, our operations manager, my right-hand man, is spending countless hours on the phone with Volvo, trying to get the VCADS to work, and I'm thinking, 'This is just a waste of time. Why do we have to be doing this? All we want to do is… haul… freight.'"

It was at that point that Sabo started to see complexity issues all around him. Why did trucks have to keep getting harder and harder to understand and maintain, when their core mission is so simple?

" EGR added more complexity to it… So I guess you can see, it's just little things here and there, here and there, here and there. The 8600s came in the picture, the '02s came in the picture, the Volvos came in the picture… and that's really a complex truck."


To understand why trucks have become so complex, it's important to look to the past. Trends that have affected the trucking industry have been evolving steadily over the years: strict environmental regulations; the driver shortage; vertical integration; the electrification of trucks. The trouble is, most of these trends lead to truck complexity. Even the trends that would appear, on the surface, to simplify an issue, can often create unexpected complexities.

For instance, new environmental regulations lead to EGR, which leads to variable geometry turbochargers and EGR valves. The driver shortage leads to over-the-road trucks loaded--sometimes overloaded--with creature comforts, which leads to more complicated electrical systems. Vertical integration leads to greater OEM control which leads to more returns to the dealer for maintenance work. The electrification of trucks leads to telematics and multiplexing (one of Sabo's pet peeves), which leads to ongoing technical bulletins and computer downloads and a need for computer-savvy technicians. And everything, it seems, leads to more need for training, of which there's never enough.

On top of everything else, Sabo can see his 14 technicians growing frustrated with truck complexity. "I hear that here, and you hear it everyplace," he says. "The dealers do have a direct line to the OEMs, but they're tearing their hair out, too. They're calling the OEMs and the OEMs don't know, because they've never experienced these problems."

Sabo is quick to admit that many of these problems will probably be gone five years from now. But, then, five years from now we'll be dealing with 2007 and 2010 engines...

"The complexity thing is a giant monster," he says. "I found that out when I really got into it. I thought 'complex' was not so complex of a word!"


At it's September, 2004, meeting, the TMC inaugurated an "exploratory" Task Force to look into the issue, and Sabo was pleased by the turnout at the first meeting.

"We had a lot of the OEM engine manufacturers there," he says. "There were some OEM truck manufacturers there, but not as many as I was hoping to see. They're protecting their lines; they don't want us to tell them what to do, they're telling us that what they're doing is good. And it probably is, but they're just going about it in the wrong way.

"We had a lot of support from TMC, and a lot of good talk from the attendees," he continues. "We're all headed in the right direction on this. But this complexity issue is so big, we need to now focus it down on what we're really trying to accomplish. We have to keep taking bites out of what we think are the issues. So, we've noted a lot of issues and directions to go, and now we have to try to go to them and see if we can do any good with them."

The first order of business for the Task Force is to take up the cause of the Motor Vehicle Owner's Right to Repair Act (HR2735 & SB2138) currently languishing in Congress. The bill, intended specifically for the automotive market, would require vehicle OEMs to provide independent service garages and do-it-yourselfer owners with access (at a reasonable cost) to the same technical repair and maintenance information that they provide their dealers.

If the Task Force had its way, the bill would be amended to include heavy-duty trucks. "We have to have the ability to repair trucks, and if we have to deal they way they do in the car world, we're all going to be in trouble," Sabo explains. He believes that information should come easier, "So we can continue to repair these on our terms and not on somebody else's terms."


"We're going to see if TMC and ATA (American Trucking Associations) want to endorse the Right to Repair Act," Sabo says. "I think we should slow down the OEM control, if we can do that, if that's even possible.

"I don't mean that to sound so harsh," he says, upon reflection. "Maybe I should say we need to be more interactive with the way the OEMs are building their trucks. I think the Right to Repair Act might do that, or, at least, maybe get their attention."

The scope of the Task Force's initial action items reveals that Sabo and his colleagues are willing to think big:

  • OEMs must allow us to program and work on our own vehicles;
  • Training should be free to all users of the products;
  • OEMs need to price their components to include necessary support, not make money selling that support;
  • We need to establish in-house warranty in our shops--this allows us to access the same information the dealers have, and most facilities our technicians are trained as well as the dealer techs;
  • We need to upgrade our diagnostic tools every year, but that is better than trying to work with the dealers to persuade them to repair our vehicles;
  • We need to make repairs when the unit fails, not when the dealership's doors are open;
  • We need the new technologies, but we do not need all of them.

If Sabo could boil the Task Force's action items down to one central theme, it would be: "Who owns the truck?"

"That's the big question out there anymore," he says. "A few years ago, I'd have thought that would never be a question, but that's the way it's played. So that's something that needs to be defined also, because Volvo thinks they own the truck after they sell it to you. And I can understand that because of lawsuits; that's why they won't let us perform any recalls, because they want your hands off of that. I don't know if other fleets can do their own Volvo recalls, but they won't let us do it. And we can do anything with International."


While the TMC Task Force works on its plans, Sabo isn't sitting still at home. He has his own action list for Norrenberns, and the first thing he'd like to see is a simpler day cab for his LTL business.

"So you've got your over-the-road truck. You're going to make that a whole lot different than a normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill day cab that everybody runs out there just to peddle freight off of," he explains. "That, to me, should just be a very, very, very simple truck. And then we should be able to get a little bit more complex with that other truck.

"They've got to make a truck that almost anybody can drive, and it's got be able to be fixed by almost anybody that can half-assed fix a piece of equipment. To go that route, I think they take too big of steps at one time."

Once those big steps are taken, though, they're not easy to undo, and Sabo understands that. But he also has some smaller issues that probably could be settled:

"No matter what the manufacturer, speedometers are always an issue," he says. "They probably wouldn't be such a big issue, but the odometer mileage means a whole lot. The odometer definitely has to work. Vehicle speed sensor's always a problem, instrument clusters are a nightmare… it's like, let's go back to the cable system; at least it halfway worked."

It's clear that Sabo is passionate about this issue, but he's not a complainer. He blames himself for not negotiating better training and customer support on some of his purchases, and, by chairing the new TMC Task Force, he's putting his money where his mouth is.

"I think if we try to stop some of these things now, then maybe the fleets will have more say five, 10 years down the road.

"I'm a young guy," he says. "I'm going to be playing this ball game for a long time."

Contact Steph Sabo about participating in the TMC Truck Complexity Task Force at: