How to develop vehicle equipment specifications

David Higgins
Director, Central Fleet Maintenance
City of Boston, Massachusetts

Editor's Note: This issue contains the first part of Mr. Higgins's article. The concluding piece will appear in the September issue.

One of the most critical and time-consuming parts of a fleet manager's annual requirements is the determination of the required vehicle specifications, for the next year's purchases. The process can be as difficult as one wants to make it or as easy as the following text details.

The following is a comprehensive yet simplified format to follow when specifying your fleet vehicles, and can be tweaked to suit your own personal needs.

Who will operate this vehicle or piece of equipment?
A critical and often overlooked piece of information regarding the creation of equipment specifications is the people factor.

Just as with the proper component selection, the ultimate users can be the defining factor for equipment longevity. Consideration must be given to the individual, or group, that will operate the vehicle or piece of equipment. Are there any particular physical concerns or restrictions you need to take into consideration? If so, are there reasonable accommodations that can be specified to address the issue? Possible relocation of controls, or modification of access/egress for anyone/group? Does the unit described in the specification require any level of special licensing? Do all of the potential users possess the correct operating authority? Will the new unit be utilized by more than one entity and, if so, does an inventory of operators exist?

What's the skill level of the potential vehicle operators?
As you establish a list of potential operators, consideration of skills required should be factored. What, if any, unique operational considerations should be taken into account? Is the proposed unit of similar size, functional components (i.e., transmission, method of power, and fueling requirements), and operating characteristics as the unit being replaced? Can the specification be modified, without compromising functional intent, to address any major differences from the unit that is being replaced?

Once all of these factors have been considered, an inventory of skills for potential operators will aid in highlighting the most economical use of training resources.

An inventory of skills should be taken
For replacement units, an inventory of the present operators, their functional skills, and level of familiarity with any anticipated change in operational requirements should be a baseline for skills inventory. For equipment that has not been utilized in the past, operational training is a requirement for the bid specification, with a level of competence established, prior to the authorization of usage. Records of training attended should be placed in the operator's file and a record in the skills inventory database, including the source of training and sanctioning authority. In the event of license requirements, levels of state license authority should be included.

Licensing requirements? CDL endorsements?
If the proposed equipment meets the definition of a commercial motor vehicle (CMV), a commercial driver's license (CDL) is required (49 CFR, Part 383). The definition of a commercial motor vehicle states any motor vehicle or combination of motor vehicles used in commerce to transport property, or passengers, if the motor vehicle:

  • Has a gross combination weight rating of 26,001 or more pounds inclusive of a towed unit with a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 10,000 pounds.
  • Has a gross vehicle weight rating of 26,001 or more pounds.
  • Is designed to transport 16 or more passengers, including the driver.
  • Is of any size and is used in the transportation of materials found to be hazardous for the purposes of the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act and which requires the motor vehicle to be placarded under the Hazardous Materials Regulations (49 CFR Part 172, Subpart F).

Should a commercial driver's license be required, any anticipated components that will need an endorsement to the license must be noted, for instance air brakes, certain size tankers, combination vehicles, and passenger vans of certain capacity. In some applications, depending on the frequency of use, it may be more cost-effective to consider a non-commercial motor vehicle, and contract for the service not fulfilled, absent the commercial motor vehicle.

What is the intended function of the equipment?
Although seemingly a straightforward question-what are you going to do with this vehicle?-reviewing potential applications prior to creating the specifications can prevent most of the "if only" reflections after the vehicle has been put in service.

If the new unit is a replacement, a review of the original specifications, any in-service modifications, and any new applications anticipated can assist in ensuring a comprehensive specification. If, on the other hand, the new unit does not have any prior application, the clean sheet of paper method can provide meaningful insight as to the potential application. The clean sheet of paper method should involve input from all anticipated users, both functional and administrative. The best specification in the world will not work well in an environment that cannot support the economic requirements of the equipment or vehicle.

Are there any dual-purpose considerations?
Does the vehicle/equipment described have more than one application (such as a dump truck and sander, and/or plow)? Will more than one department utilize this equipment? If this unit is to be a shared resource, what, if any, functional compromises exist? Do the multiple applications make cost-effective sense? Do any of the dual-purpose options compromise the overall effectiveness of the unit; for example, will a built-in spreader within a dump body possibly have an adverse effect on types of material that can be transported, thereby limiting the effectiveness of the vehicle as a dump?

What are the seasonal requirements for the described equipment? Specifications for optional components can enhance the functional applications of the unit. Certain types of small tractors can be designed to carry a wide variety of hydraulically controlled implements, such as plows and material spreaders, and broom and leaf-collection systems.

Given the main function of the described unit, many modular options are available for totally dissimilar operations. One, single-power unit can be equipped to adopt a variety of different bodies, and therefore perform vastly diverse functions, albeit with some level of operational compromise. For example, a single cab and chassis can be transformed from a simple van body or flat bed into a tow truck or a tank vehicle.

Review your current vehicle's functions
A review of the current unit's function is the place to begin with the new specification. If the new piece of equipment is to be a replacement, data on the applicability of the old vehicle represents a wealth of information on how the new unit should be described. Information gathered from present users regarding current application can be combined with a clean sheet of paper approach to develop a description of intended function that will maximize the efficiency of the new unit. Reflection on any "what if" postulates will assist the process as the data is being gathered.

Proper selection may rely on historical data
A major part of the new component selection will rely on the current service and repair history of the existing unit. Particular attention should be given to any component or system that was problematic, and/or subject to service recalls or operational failure. Data from automated Vehicle Maintenance Information Systems (VMIS) can aid in highlighting areas of concern. Are there any systemic concerns regarding accident ratios being abnormal? Does the present unit have impaired sight lines, or some other type of obstruction? What would seemingly be a minor issue to staff (i.e., location of a mirror or the positioning of a switch), may be an operational nightmare for the functional team. Many of these types of items can be addressed when the new specification is being prepared.

Are there any seasonal requirements?
Are there specific seasonal requirements that require particular applications (i.e., dump trucks converted to material spreaders via a slide-in unit)? If any dual-purpose considerations have been identified, modifications based on seasonal requirements may conflict with multiple users. Will any one-user group impact another, as a result of climatic events?

What is the principal area of operation?
The efficiency of any new piece of equipment, or vehicle, can be a direct reflection of how well suited it is for its environment. Consideration must be given not only to the what, but also to the where. Will the stated function be strictly urban? Are there any rural areas of operation? If so, are there particular limitations to vehicular size, and/or weight, that must be considered? If such limitations exist, however, and they only inhibit a small piece of the operational capacity of the new equipment, can the function that is adversely affected be outsourced with any level of cost efficiency?

On-road or off-road or a combination of both?
Does the intended function involve any off-road operation? Operating environments such as landfills, gravel pits, and other unimproved areas pose unique challenges to equipment and vehicles. If the area of intended operation includes both of these environments, some component options may compensate for the differing terrain and road surface. However, if the primary function is one particular venue, or another, consideration should be given to the compromise required to enable the described unit to operate effectively in both applications. If the compromise would render the primary function marginal, the secondary application should be reevaluated.

To reach David Higgins, please call 617-635-7555 or send e-mail to