Our lists of commercial truck models in their various weight classes continue to shrink as corporations restructure and contract. This has been a fixture of business in general and the automotive world
in particular all through the modern Industrial Age. Most recently it involves Daimler Trucks North America and its parent, Daimler AG of Germany, which announced in mid-October that it's dropping Sterling Truck.
Daimler executives gave rational, business-oriented reasons for ceasing production and sales of an entire line of medium- and heavy-duty trucks that had a steady if insufficient following. Among the casualties are Sterling dealers, who are being offered financial settlements along with service and parts agreements.
Daimler's decision will eliminate Sterling's heavy A- and L-Lines and its Acterra medium-duty conventionals, including a Class 5 model, all built in Ontario, Canada. Also to be dropped is the Class 4 model 360 low-cab-forward truck obtained from Fuso, a sister company. Many Sterling customers had previously run Ford heavy-duty trucks and some still do; Ford heavies became Sterlings when they were sold to Freightliner Corp. 11 years ago. Acterra mediums have found buyers in municipal fleets and specialty users such as expedited-freight carriers. Owners of those trucks will eventually have to choose other products. Daimler hopes they'll consider Freightliner and Western Star trucks, but of course there are many others out there.
Also affected by the Sterling decision is Fuso, the Japan-based builder of midrange low-cab-forward trucks now owned by Daimler. Last summer Daimler moved many of Fuso's U.S. administrative functions, including sales and marketing, from Orange Township, N.J., to the Sterling and Western Star headquarters in Redford, Mich. Daimler managers must decide what to do with those offices and the people who work there. One consideration is to rehire Fuso's now-retired top managers in New Jersey, but they may or may not be available. Meanwhile, Fuso parts and service specialists remain working there.
Further contraction might well ensue following a merger between General Motors and Chrysler. Discussions were suspended as Ford, Chrysler and GM lobbied Congress for $25 billion in loans. Lawmakers must also decide whether GM should be granted billions of dollars to help buy Chrysler from Cerberus Capital Management and close down redundant plants. Which of Chrysler's many dealers and products would also become redundant would have to be determined, but the doomed vehicles would surely include at least some Dodge trucks.
Would GM keep all of its own light and midrange models and kill off the Dodges, or would it retain some from both lines and eliminate the rest? GM's C series mediums stretch into Class 8, but it wants out of the medium-duty business and prefers to sell those lines, as it would have under the now-suspended deal with Navistar International. But federal bail-out money might make up for any lost proceeds from a sale.
Indirectly affected by any GM-Chrysler deal would be Isuzu of Japan and its Commercial Truck arm in the U.S. Isuzu and GM are no longer linked financially, but they still have close operational alliances overseas and here. Isuzu supplies Class 3 to 5 low-cab-forward trucks to GM, and GM assembles Class 3 and 4 gasoline-powered LCFs, plus Class 6, 7 and 8 diesel LCFs that are sold by Chevrolet, GMC and Isuzu dealers. Isuzu wants to continue that arrangement. It's now talking with GM about continued use of the 6-liter gasoline V-8 that powers the NPR Gas and W-series trucks, and where they'd be built after next June, when GM closes its plant in Janesville, Wis.
Life Goes On
Meanwhile, business goes on. Development and in-earnest sales of General Motors' medium-duty trucks resumed after their proposed sale to Navistar International fell through. Some wags accused Navistar of using the due-diligence period in the first half of this year to expand its market share while GM marked time. Actually, the now-settled strike at a GM supplier, American Axle, did more to damage GM's truck sales, particularly of heavy pickups. And GM says it gained some market share, at least in lighter pickups.
The fourth quarter is Commercial Truck Selling Season for Ford Truck, which claims it has led in total sales of commercial trucks for 23 straight years. It's aiming for 24. This year has been the toughest for sales since the early '80s days of hyperinflation, 21 percent interest rates and deep recession, one executive said at an industry meeting. In late October there were 10,000 unsold SuperDuty and E-series vans on dealers' lots, and Ford responded with low- or no-interest-rate financing and cash rebates of $2,000 for each of them. It's not alone: Early last month, Kenworth announced a $12,000 credit toward the list price of a new T170.
Hino's conventionals have been well received, and it enjoyed strong sales increases since converting from low-cab-forwards to conventionals, even if sales are down since the economic slowup. However, in response to demand from some customers, Hino has reintroduced a Class 4 model 155 LCF in Canada, and two Class 3 models will appear in the U.S. in a year or two. There'll also be a Class 3 LCF hybrid, probably by the 2011 model year.
The Hino hybrid was among 35 vehicles shown off at the Hybrid Truck Users Forum's annual meeting in October. Twenty-three of those trucks had an electric-drive system from Eaton Corp., now the leader in hybrids, and another had Eaton's Hydraulic Launch Assist (HLA). Bosch, which owns the proving grounds near South Bend, Ind., where the vehicle demonstrations took place, unveiled its own diesel-hydraulic system in Crane Carrier and American LaFrance trash trucks.
Hybrids continue to gain momentum and sales are slowly ramping up as fleets evaluate test units. Diesel-hydraulic systems are just beginning to come on line, joining several hundred diesel-electrics now in service, mostly in package delivery but also in public-utility work, beverage routes and other types of pickup and delivery service. This month Peterbilt will begin assembling Class 8 trash trucks using Eaton's HLA in Model 320 chassis. It is a "parallel" hybrid that runs on hydraulic power, diesel power or both. Hydraulic fluid is pressurized by a pump that captures braking energy and stores it in accumulator tanks.
In late October, United Parcel Service ordered seven Class 4-5 "package cars" that will have diesel-hydraulic drive systems designed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and produced by Eaton Corp. This is a "series" system that propels the truck entirely by hydraulic fluid that's pressurized by a pump that captures braking energy and as-needed running of a diesel engine. The diesel does not directly move the truck and thus runs only intermittently, which contributes to the 40 percent to 50 percent fuel savings compared to a non-hybrid diesel truck.
Hydraulic hybrids are several years behind electric hybrids in development, production and operation, but hydraulic might be the better system for many uses, according to several sources. For trucks that only require "launch" assistance and not auxiliary power for booms, tools or other non-automotive use, a hydraulic system might cost only one-fifth to one-third as much as an electric system. Electric systems require batteries, which will remain expensive until more factories begin producing them in high volumes, and even then, materials will cost more than what's needed for hydraulic apparatus.
Diesels More Costly
The diesel, meanwhile, continues as the king of commercial-truck power, but the engine continues to get more complex as increasingly stringent exhaust emissions regulations take effect. Most builders say they'll use selective catalytic reduction to meet upcoming 2010 limits, while N