Record-high prices for gasoline and diesel fuel have been on everybody's mind for more than a year, making motorists wince and commercial users struggle and sometimes fail. Truck builders have been stung by a serious downturn in business and besieged by ever-increasing costs of materials, but are countering by offering equipment that promises to save fuel money for operators, emphasizing comfort and convenience, and plugging safety to try to inject new interest among potential truck buyers.
Class 8 truck sales are down seriously for the second year in a row. The current slowdown began in early 2007, with the advent of expensive EPA-'07 diesels. Customers' needs were satiated by a frantic pre-buy in 2005 and 2006, when sales reached 282,792 and 284,008, respectively. Then buyers began staying away in droves. Sales fell by more than 40 percent, to 150,008, according to the Truck Manufacturers Association. That walking pace, exacerbated by high fuel prices and a general economic slowdown, continues this year.
Original equipment manufacturers are reluctant to talk about current sales conditions, yet they appear to have prepared better for this downturn than previous ones. They scheduled production cutbacks and layoffs and generally tightened staffing, and should emerge from this dark period healthier than before. Those with European ties are buoyed by generally strong economies and truck sales there.
North American OEMs and component makers hope that customers will have to replenish worn-out vehicles soon. Some probably will, but the resumption in volume purchasing will probably be more measured. A few major fleets have said they won't go on another pre-buying spree leading up to 2010, when another set of cleaner-burning diesels are scheduled. That, along with the generally slow economy, could delay a recovery in truck building but spread it out over a longer period of time, which overall would be more healthy.
Here are glimpses of what's happening in the Class 8 business, especially equipment trends affected by high fuel costs:
SmartWay specifications as outlined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are now available as tractor and trailer packages from many builders, and the EPA has begun helping to arrange financing on such vehicles. To get a SmartWay sticker, a tractor must have a basic aerodynamic design and be equipped with roof and side fairings, including skirts that cover the fuel tanks, plus low-rolling-resistance tires (either duals or wide-base singles). SmartWay-approved trailers must have those tires and aero fairings.
The EPA announced in March that it has linked up with more than 300 lenders to make acquiring fuel-efficient commercial vehicles easier. The program features an online application process that takes only 10 minutes (www.SmartWayFinanceCenter.com). EPA says it doesn't back the loans or leases and applicants need decent credit to qualify, but many deals will have favorable interest rates. SmartWay items plus idle-reduction devices and tire-inflation systems are among equipment that can be financed.
Smaller-block diesels - 11- and 13-liter sizes compared to 15-liter models - have been used for years in regional tractors and vocational trucks, but more over-the-road tractors are now getting them, some builders say. Smaller engines make increasing sense because their lower displacements allow them to consume less fuel under most conditions. They also weigh less and usually cost less to buy. Drivers are more likely to accept them because advanced electronics, air-handling and combustion techniques enable them to produce healthy horsepower and torque. Yet 14- and 15-liter diesels are still favored for their longevity, and two builders offer 16-liter engines for specialty applications.
Auxiliary power units are gaining popularity as a way to save precious fuel, and builders say customers are asking about them and in some cases buying them. An APU usually costs $6,000 to $8,000 but avoids most idling of a truck's engine, and at today's fuel prices a unit can pay for itself in well under two years. For example, Wal-Mart Transportation bought thousands of Thermo King TriPac APUs and is saving millions of dollars a year in fuel.
Many OEMs will install mechanical APUs powered by small diesel engines, which provide full stand-alone capability no matter how harsh the weather and as long as there's fuel in the tanks, say their builders. However, diesel APUs require regular maintenance and repairs, and are newly subject to exhaust emissions limits in some states. Start-stop systems like Temp-A-Start can provide many of an APU's benefits at less cost, says its maker.
Electric idling-reduction systems are attractive because they are simpler and quieter than diesel-powered units, and are emissions-free and reasonably capable under most conditions, say Kenworth and Peterbilt, which offer one. Called Clean Power by KW and ComfortClass by Pete, the device will keep a sleeper comfortably cool for 10 hours in 95-degree outside heat. A Peterbilt test in Phoenix last summer showed that during daylight, a light-colored truck will stay cool inside for about an hour longer than a dark-colored one. Freightliner says it will offer an electric heating-ventilation-cooling system next year.
Fuel cells seem the ultimate anti-idling device, as they can silently convert hydrogen or diesel fuel into electricity - or would if they were available. Slow development has kept them in the future, but Delphi says it is testing an advanced diesel-fired fuel cell that produces 1 kilowatt, and soon will test a 3-kw version. Continued development should bring the products to market sooner rather than later, the maker says.
Automatic and automated mechanical transmissions continue to catch on because they cause engines to operate more efficiently and also make trucks easier and safer to drive. Peterbilt reports that 10 percent to 15 percent of its Class 8 trucks are now ordered with Allison automatics and Eaton AMTs, and the builder is preparing to offer Eaton's UltraShift in several vocational models. U.S. Xpress Enterprises has used Eaton and Meritor-ZF AMTs for years, and Schneider National is converting to UltraShifts because tests showed that automated manuals cut accidents by nearly 30 percent.