"Uncertainty" is the word people at most truck builders used to describe this year's business mood. Sales started strong, then slacked off in the summer as many buyers seemed to be waiting to see what would happen in the general economy and the presidential election.
Sales swung upward in October, even before the election, on reports of higher consumer confidence, strong new-car purchases and a revival in home building. FTR Associates, Nashville, Ind., put Class 8 sales at 22,760, 50% higher than the previous month and much improved over third quarter averages, while ACT Research, Columbus, Ind., projected orders of 23,200 units for Class 8 trucks.
Components and commodity shortages in 2010 and '11 hobbled production, but "we haven't heard a hint of shortages recently, not in the first three quarters" of this year, said Steve Tam, ACT Research's vice president. "They have not raised their ugly heads, and that's good news."
Nevertheless, the whole industry is soft right now.
"It's a function of lots of different variables, and the economy weighs heavily on people's minds," says Steve Gilligan, vice president of product marketing for Navistar International.
"We've done lots of [price] quotes, especially since the Cummins ISX became available in Internationals. But there are not a lot of orders. We're cutting back production. That's common right now."
Navistar recently announced it will close its vocational-truck plant in Garland, Texas, to cut overcapacity. Some of that production is going to Springfield, Ohio, and the rest to Escobedo, Mexico. Navistar will have enough capacity at those factories with a 30% reserve, says spokesman Steve Schrier, so "reopening Garland is not in our plans. We are flexible enough that we can build every model at any of our plants."
Before the October numbers were out, Peterbilt Motors' General Manager Bill Kozek was cautious. "2012," he says, "has been an interesting year. The first half was strong and the second half was more of a challenge. Next year should be the inverse, with the first half a challenge and the second half strong."
Next year could be a solid 210,000- to 220,000-unit year for U.S. and Canada retail sales, maybe even 240,000 units, says Robert Woodall, Peterbilt's director of sales and marketing. "We'll see if it strengthens that much. Two-forty would be awesome."
Who's buying? Freight haulers are still in the market. Construction has begun reviving, especially in home building, and concrete mixer trucks have resumed selling, though still in small numbers. Oil and gas drilling provided steady business in 2008 and '09, although they have since leveled off. Likewise for sales to the U.S. armed forces, which bought many armored and civilian-spec trucks to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The energy markets have been a godsend through the Great Recession," says Curtis Dorwart, vocational segment marketing manager at Mack Trucks. "Had it not been for that business, it would have been much worse than it has been." Mack and International were among the makers of civilian trucks who also sold vehicles to the U.S. military to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, business that has likewise tapered off.
Right now, "buyers are all over the map - fleets in general, people who are seeing the [fuel economy] advantages of the 2010 engines they now have or are hearing about them," says Preston Feight, assistant general manager, marketing and sales, at Kenworth Truck.13 liters taking hold
"For us, it's people who are getting more and more confident in the MX engine," Feight continues. "Twenty-five percent of our sales are of the MX and that's growing." The 12.9-liter Paccar-built diesel is standard on many Class 8 Kenworths and Peter-bilts. It's lightweight and offers good fuel economy, Feight says, and its performance compares to Cummins' ISX1 5, which KW and Pete also sell, along with the ISX12. The top MX rating is now 485 horsepower and 1,750 pounds-feet of torque. A higher rating is coming.
Thirteen-liter diesels are taking over many applications historically served by 15-liter-class engines in Class 8 vehicles, say all the builders. In fact, 13-liters recently outsold 15-liters in heavy trucks for the first time ever, some builders noted. All of them have proprietary diesels in 11- and 13-liter sizes. Thanks to modern combustion technology and advanced electronic controls, the 13s make high horsepower and torque for customers who want them.
That marks one of the equipment trends in the Class 8 business. The following are some other trends that are seeing an increase in interest, if not always in sales. Natural gas power
Plentiful domestic supplies and high production have brought down commodity and pump prices for natural gas, and it now costs about $1.50 per gallon-equivalent less than diesel fuel. Though production methods remain controversial, natural gas and the strategic energy promise it holds for America has been widely written about in the media and talked up at industry meetings. Builders are getting a lot of questions about natural gas power, but very few orders for it.
"It's amazing how much conversation there is about it," says Kenworth's Feight. "I wonder how far it will go. We began by offering the GX," the original name for the 15-liter dual-fuel engine that Cummins Westport now calls HD, "and will continue to. It can make sense if routes are right and cost of fuel stays down." Ken-worth offers four models with natural gas engines.
"Everybody wants to talk about it, but not many are actually buying," says Peterbilt's Woodall. "We do probably 45% of the total natural gas truck market. Two-thirds of that is the Cummins ISL-G in trash trucks, then the Westport GX in tractors is about one-third.
The Cummins Westport ISX12-G, due out in early 2013, should be of interest to the over-the-road operators, Woodall says. Peterbilt offers natural gas engines in eight different models, but only about 5% of Peterbilts built recently were natural gas.
Natural gas equipment for a truck is very costly, points out Navistar's Gilligan. "It's now $40,000 to $45,000 for tanks, and then a like amount for the engine. So there's an $80,000 price difference over diesel. Even with the low fuel prices, the payback is four years. That's not enough for the large fleets, who want payback in 12 to 18 months. I'm aware of one fleet that paid that upcharge for a substantial order, but it was because a large customer wanted to ship on green trucks."
The International LoadStar low cabover will enter production next summer initially only with the Cummins ISL-G because the major trash collection fleets are buying natural gas. Some get their fuel from methane generated at their own landfills, so their fuel costs are very low, and the home-every-night operations facilitate lower-cost "slow fill" compressed natural gas fueling.
"Gas is good for refuse," agrees Dorwart at Mack, which offers the ISL-G in its TerraPro low cabover. "But the entry into that is quite significant. Without [government] incentives it doesn't make a good business case. It all comes down to the price difference between gas and diesel." Jerry Warmkessel, Mack's highway marketing manager, says, "Some of us think it might be a flash in the pan. But if the demand is there, we'll meet it."6x2 axle configuration
The typical road tractor in North America has three axles and six wheel positions, with four of them powered. Thus it's called a 6x4. In Europe, most on-road trucks and tractors are 6x2s, with just one driving axle and a non-powered axle in the tandem. The "dead" axle is liftable so it can be raised to reduce tire wear when the vehicle is empty, and to transfer weight and traction to the driven axle in slippery conditions.
The 6x2 is simpler and weighs less because it needs only the one differential in its "live" axle, but it hasn't made many inroads in the North American market. Most owners and drivers here believe that four driving wheels provide superior traction, and they do in some cases - coming out of a sunken, slippery driveway at a loading dock and climbing steep grades on ice or snow, for instance.
However, cost-conscious fleet owners now are open to the idea of a 6x2. Without parasitic drag from a 6x4's two extra gear sets, fuel savings can be 4%, according to one study. Some customers report getting 0.6 to 0.8 mpg better economy, says Peterbilt's Kozek.
However, Navistar's Gilligan says a tractor's upfront price isn't cut by much and is offset by loss of residual value. And a 6x2 weighs only about 180 pounds less than a 6x4, according to International's data book. Navistar offers modern electronically controlled 6x2 products, but, like other builders, has not sold many.
"The key is how fast the suspension reacts to wheel spin," says Warmkessel at Mack, which built its first latter-day 6x2 for a customer in October. "The industry needs an electronically controlled air suspension that almost instantaneously drops the air (from the dead axle's air springs), then pumps it up again" when wheel spin stops. Products from Meritor Wabco and Dana Spicer do that. Though there are legal limits to how much weight should be sent to the drive wheels, the concept can work well. Automated transmissions
Fully automatic transmissions are very popular in medium-duty trucks, but not so much in heavies. Exceptions include trash collection trucks, which are virtually standard on the Allison automatic, and some mixer and dump trucks.
Caterpillar's CX-31 6-speed full automatic offered in Cat's vocational trucks "is a value in fuel economy and reduced maintenance on the drive-line, and eases finding new drivers," says George Taylor, director of Cat's Global On-Highway Truck Group. "It gives good power out of the hole and up the grades." Sales are pretty evenly split between manual and automatic in Cat's CT-660 trucks.
Automated mechanical transmissions are gaining steadily in popularity. Eaton says its UltraShift Plus models now sell for $4,500 to $5,000 over a standard manual transmission, about a third of what they were 20 years ago, and fuel savings alone can quickly pay for that.
At Volvo, the I-Shift 12-speed AMT now goes into about 40% of new trucks, says Ed Saxman, drive-train product manager. "We're selling 80% of our trucks with our own Volvo engines, and one out of every two is I-Shift. In many operations, drivers are attributing economical operation to the I-Shift."
The more drivers have to shift with a traditional transmission, the better they like the automated one, he says, so metropolitan runs are seeing big advantages.
The recently introduced Detroit-brand 12-speed automated transmission is one of the new big things at Freightliner Trucks, says T.J. Reed, director of product marketing. The DT12 is based on a Daimler product sold in Europe since about 2005. For North America it will go into production at Detroit's plant in Redford, Mich., this spring. It initially will be offered in highway tractors and later get PTO mounts for use in vocational trucks.
The company's long-range goal is to sell 15% of its trucks with its own automated transmissions, including the DT12. Freightliner currently offers Eaton's UltraShift Plus units and will continue to, executives have said.
The proprietary AMTs are also part of a trend toward more vertical integration.
Daimler Trucks intends to push for more vertically integrated components in its American Freightliner and Western Star models, and next year will begin offering engine-transmission "modules" that promise greater efficiency for customers. These will link Detroit diesels and automated mechanical transmissions that will deliver up to 7% better fuel economy than existing combinations.
Similarly, Volvo's I-Shift is part of Volvo's XE package that also includes a low-rpm engine for extra fuel economy. Sister company Mack offers a Super Econodyne package with an mDrive AMT.Caterpillar
CT-660 vocational trucks and tractors are selling as planned, Cat says. It's based on the International 5900i but has many obvious and underskin differences. CT-660 comes with Navistar-built 11- and 13-liter diesels, which will get Cummins-sourced SCR exhaust after-treatment equipment in 2013.A planned 15-liter engine will not materialize, and Cat says it will soon announce its intentions on a 15. Cat's own CX-31 automatic transmission is bought by about half of all customers; others choose Eaton manuals. The CT-660 with its setback steer axle will be joined in 2013 by a CT-680 with a forward-set axle.Freightliner
Freightliner's new Cascadia Evolution with advanced frontal aerodynamics details claims 5% to 7% better fuel I economy than previous versions of Freightliner's flagship highway tractor. Coronado is still the premium tractor and also comes as an SD for severe-duty applications. The 114SD and 108SD trucks are now two years old. M2-106 and 112 can likewise be fitted for vocational duties; primarily, though, the 106 is a medium-and medium-heavy street and highway truck and the 112 a city and regional truck and tractor model. Freightliner offers proprietary Detroit diesels in 11 -, 13-, 15-and 16-liter sizes in its Class 8 models, along with Cummins ISL9, ISX12 and ISX15 diesels and the ISL9-G natural gas engine. Early next year it will add the ISX12-G. Heavy drivetrain components include Eaton and Detroit transmissions and Detroit and Meritor axles.International
ProStar+ remains Navistar International's principal highway tractor and will be the first model to get the Cummins ISX15, which Navistar will resume buying after deciding to move to selective catalytic reduction to meet EPA 2010 and upcoming emissions regulations. Cummins Emissions Solutions will supply SCR gear for Navistar's own medium and heavy diesels, starting with the MaxxForce 13.That and other MaxxForce diesels power other Class 8 Internationals, including the retro-styled LoneStarand high-hood 9900i highway tractors (which will also offer the ISX15);TranStar regional tractor (available with the Cummins ISL-G); and WorkStar and 5500i vocational trucks and tractors. Navistar has dropped development of its own 15-liter diesel, and has edged back from an earlier commitment to a 12.4-liter dual-fuel (gas and diesel) engine, which it is now "evaluating." Internationals can be ordered with a variety of drivetrain and axle components from Eaton, Meritor and Dana Spicer.Kenworth
T680 is Kenworth's newest highway tractor and features advanced aerodynamics, a 73-inch integrated sleeper, "driver performance center" and many other features for comfort and operating efficiency. Its aluminum cab is 83 inches wide, falling between theT660 (73 inches) and theT700 (91 inches).The T700, which replaced theT2000 in 2010, remains in the lineup. KW's older narrow cab remains in use on the vocationally oriented but highway-capableT800 (including a wide-radiator Heavy Haul version), the traditionally styled W900 and W900L, and the on/off-road C500. All T models have a setback steer axle, while the W900 has a forward-set steer axle. Paccar's 12.9-liter MX-13 diesel is standard on most Class 8 models, while KW also offers Cummins' ISX15, ISX12 and ISL9 (Paccar PX-9) diesels, and the ISL-G natural gas and Westport HD (Kenworth calls it the GX) dual-fuel (natural gas-diesel) engines. Eaton, Dana Spicer, Meritor and other components are in the data book.Mack
The Pinnacle series in axle-back or axle-forward configurations makes up Mack's main highway tractor offerings. It's available as a daycab, or sleeper boxes in various lengths can be removed to give the tractors second lives as daycabs. Pinnacles are available with MP7 (1 1-liter) and MP8 (13-liter) diesels, which are also used in Granite vocational models for dump, mixer, roll-off and other severe-service applications. The Granite MHD (medium heavy duty) is powered by Cummins' ISL9. It originally came only with tandem rear axles, but the MHD is newly available with a single rear axle. A Super Econodyne package is a no-cost option in Pinnacles and comes with an extra-low-speed MP engine and an mDrive automated transmission. Cummins' ISX12-G will be offered in certain Pinnacles when the larger natural gas engine enters production in 2013.The longer and larger Titan uses the 16-liter MP 10 diesel and is aimed at heavy haulers, loggers and such. The TerraPro low cabover in LE (low-entry) or MR (Mack refuse) cabs comes with the MP diesels or Cummins' ISL-G. Multi-axle MRs are often used to mount concrete pumper bodies. Mack and Eaton transmissions, and Mack, Dana Spicer and Meritor axles are among drivetrain options.Peterbilt
The Model 579 is Peterbilt's most recent aerodynamic and high-featured highway tractor. It joins the existing Model 587 wide-cab tractor and an array of other aero models: the 386 and 384 with their somewhat narrower cabs and the 382 regional and local model. The traditionally-styled 389 is the successor to the 379, once Pete's best-selling highway tractor but also used as a dump and mixer chassis.The 365 and slightly longer 367 are the main vocational models. A recent addition is the 348, which gets only the Cummins ISL9 (nowthe Paccar PX-9) medium-heavy diesel.The 320 low cabover is Peterbilt's refuse truck. Paccar's MX-13 is standard on most Class 8 models, while Cummins ISX12 and ISX15 are also available. Peterbilt also offers the ISL-G natural gas and Westport HD (Peterbilt calls it the GX) dual-fuel (natural gas-diesel) engines in eight models. Eaton, Dana Spicer, Meritor and other drivetrain components are options.Volvo
The Volvo Auto Hauler is based on a VHD (Volvo heavy-duty) chassis with a forward-set steer axle; Fontaine Modification cut cab height by 4 inches to achieve pavement-to-roof height of 95 inches to a loaded car rack. Much more numerous on the highways is the builder's VN series. VNs are numbered 780, 670,630 and 430 to approximate their sleeper lengths in inches. About 80% of big sleepers get shore-power electrical wiring. VNs are offered with long (L) and medium (M) hoods. Volvo also offers VNL 300 and VNM 200 daycab tractors for urban and regional runs. Cummins'ISX15 is an option, but most VNs use Volvo's own 11 - and 13-liter diesels, and about 70% of those have "alternative" Eco-Torque ratings where torque is stronger at lower rpms to encourage drivers to keep revs low and save fuel. Cummins ISL-G is available now and the upcoming ISX12-G will be available soon. VHD vocational trucks and tractors are offered with D11 and D13 power.Western Star
The long-nose 4900 and slightly shorter 4800 are the principal highway and vocational I tractors and trucks from Western ' Star, Daimler Trucks North America's premium brand. They use 13-, 15- and 16-liter Detroit and 15-liter Cummins power. Earlier this year the slightly lighter but still Class 8 model 4700 appeared as a truck and daycab tractor with DD13 or Cummins ISL9 and ISC8.3 diesels. The ISC goes out of production this month; its horsepower and torque ratings will betaken up by the ISL9 (a change also being made by other builders who used the ISC). The big and heavy off-road 6900DX features Detroit Series 60 diesel in Tier III emissions tune plus the DD15 and DD16.From the December issue of HDT magazine.