At the end of a year filled with disruption, it seemed fit to reach out to Class 8 leaders to see how they see current and future evolution of the industry’s haulers. Touching on everything from COVID-19’s effect on how they do business to the acceleration of electrification and autonomous technology development, the OEMs took time from their busy and disrupted schedules to give HDT a look at current and future trends affecting Class 8 models.
It wasn’t the best year to unveil a new truck, with live events cancelled around the country and bugs in some of the virtual alternatives. But that didn’t stop OEMs from introducing us to a few new faces in the Class 8 crowd — even with the scheduling problems created by COVID-related lockdowns at all of the factories.
“The most pronounced effect was in mid- to late spring when our manufacturing operations experienced temporary closures,” says Pete Hobbs, vice president of market development for the on-highway market segment at Daimler Trucks North America. “But we used that time to design-engineer the safety protocols to enable our employees to return to manufacturing the best trucks on the road, and all of our facilities were open again by mid-May.”
After suspending operations at its Lehigh Valley Operations plant on March 19 and before resuming production at a reduced rate on May 11, Mack Trucks reconfigured its manufacturing processes to allow its workforce to increase social distancing and take a number of other precautions, including daily temperature screenings, required face coverings, modified arrangements in high-traffic locations, and continual cleaning and disinfecting of work areas. The pandemic also changed its product announcements.
“Typically, when we have major product announcements, we would conduct an in-person event, but since the pandemic, we’ve decided to conduct virtual events allowing customers, dealers and the press to remain in their homes/offices while learning more about our product and services in a safe, socially distanced way,” says John Walsh, Mack Trucks vice president of marketing.
Magnus Koeck, vice president of strategy, marketing and brand management at Volvo Trucks North America, said the company discovered it could have highly successful and exciting virtual events in lieu of in-person events.
“We deliver the same in-depth technical information, enable candid access to our key executives and product experts, and hold question-and-answer sessions just like we would at a private or public in-person event,” Koeck says. “One big change, of course, has been the absence of ride-and-drive and hands-on product-experience events, but safety is the number-one value of Volvo Trucks and we continue to keep that in the forefront of our minds as the pandemic continues to remain active in North America.”
Safety was the topic almost all OEMs pointed to when asked about the biggest trends in the market. From advanced driver assistance to collision mitigation to better visibility, truck makers are ensuring the safety of drivers both in the cab and around it.
“Improving safety remains a top priority for Class 8 vehicles,” says Chet Ciesielski, vice president, On-Highway Business at Navistar. “Technology is advancing quickly, and International now has the next generation of Bendix Wingman Fusion as standard equipment on the LT Series and RH Series.” (It’s also available on the new HX vocational truck unveiled just before we went to press.)
DTNA’s Hobbs calls safety “the new fuel economy in the trucking industry.” Active safety systems and options are highly sought by customers, he says, with roughly 90% of Freightliner Cascadias now being optioned with some form of collision mitigation technology. And for the first time, the Detroit Assurance 5.0 active safety system has been brought into the Western Star family on the new 49X vocational truck.
This includes full braking on moving pedestrians. When the radar and camera system detects a moving pedestrian about to cross the truck’s path, an audible and visual warning occurs with simultaneous partial braking, followed by full braking if the driver does not react.
At Volvo, Koeck says, “Safety is one of our core values and a top priority. We have a zero-accident vision, meaning that no Volvo truck should be involved in an accident.”
The company’s latest advances in active safety systems consist of options such as Volvo Active Driver Assist (VADA), an active safety system that provides audible and visual alerts and interventions to help maintain a safe following distance behind vehicles.
Demand for Electric
In the last year, OEMs in the light, medium, and heavy markets have all forged paths toward electrification, more rapidly than many would have expected just 18 months ago. DTNA, Kenworth, Peterbilt, Navistar, Mack, and Volvo all have battery-electric trucks in development, testing, or available for order. Research is progressing on fuel-cell electric technology at many companies.
While Mack’s Walsh doesn’t see diesel suddenly disappearing, the OEM is “excited about the potential for further innovations making diesel even cleaner and more efficient than it is today.”
“At the same time, there is significant customer interest in electric vehicles, and electromobility clearly has a place in our industry moving forward – particularly, in the short/medium term, in closed-loop applications like refuse collection where the truck returns home every night,” says Walsh, adding that Mack’s “electromobility journey is just beginning.” Mack recently opened orders for the Mack LR Electric refuse truck.
As we went to press, Volvo was on track to unveil the commercial version of its VNR electric, available for order starting Dec. 3. It has been deploying pilot trucks in California since June as part of the Volvo LIGHTS (Low Impact Green Heavy Transport Solutions) project.
Freightliner has been working with fleets in California to test its eCascadia as part of its Electric Innovation Fleet for two years. This year it added more test trucks in other parts of the country as part of what it calls a “co-creation” process with fleets.
Kenworth recently announced orders are being taken for the T680E, a Class 8 battery-electric model that will enter into production in 2021. The zero-emission tractor has an estimated range of 150 miles and uses a DC fast charger that recharges in a little more than three hours.
Its sister brand, Peterbilt, is also making a step into the electric lane with the Model 579EV, also currently available for order.
“We see a tremendous amount of growth in the area of technology and electrification,” says Jason Skoog, Peterbilt general manager and Paccar vice president. “Our parent company, Paccar, has two dedicated facilities in the Paccar Technology Center and the Innovation Center whose sole goal is constant innovation in the areas of technology and electrification.”
Navistar’s NEXT eMobility Solutions is “taking a holistic approach to electric – it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” says Chet Ciesielski, vice president of on-highway business at Navistar. “With each customer requiring a customized solution that fits their business model, we not only construct the products, we consult with customers to address their specific applications, we provide guidance on charging infrastructure, and we connect the charging platform with a fleet portal to track vehicles’ electricity usage, state of charge, hardware performance and vehicle range to provide real-time operations support.”
The OEM has a new manufacturing plant in San Antonio, Texas, scheduled to open in the spring of 2022. While the facility will be capable of building both diesel and fully electric vehicles, Navistar has said the first vehicle off the line will be an electric truck, built entirely on the main assembly line. It has not released any details as to whether that will be a Class 8, or perhaps a medium-duty like the concept eMV it showed off a year ago.
And there are a number of more recent entrants into the market with battery-electric trucks either in development and testing or even already on the road, such as BYD, Hino, Lion Electric, Nikola, and Tesla.
Hydrogen on Tap
Battery-electric isn’t the only green fuel on OEMs’ minds. Hydrogen, while not the most understood alt fuel out there, is making its way into more than one truck maker’s plans for the future.
“We see both battery-electric and fuel cell technology playing a critical role in the transition to CO₂-neutral commercial transportation in the future,” says DTNA’s Hobbs. “These are complementary technologies that will allow us to cover the vast majority of customer needs.” Parent company Daimler Trucks said it plans to put a fuel-cell truck in production by the end of the decade.
Recently, Volvo Group and Daimler Truck AG signed a binding agreement for a new joint venture to develop, produce and commercialize fuel-cell systems for use in heavy-duty trucks.
“The ambition of both partners is to make the new company a leading global manufacturer of fuel cells, working towards climate-neutral and sustainable transportation by 2050,” says Volvo’s Koeck.
According to Navistar’s Ciesielski, while alternative fuels offer great opportunity for the industry, “there is certainly no universal solution for all applications.”
“There’s growing interest in hydrogen fuel cells in heavy trucks because this technology is more suitable for longer-range applications,” he adds. “The challenge does not lie in the vehicle technology, but the cost and process of production and the infrastructure of commercial distribution.”
Cummins and Navistar recently announced they will work together to develop a Class 8 electric truck powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
Hino and Toyota are developing a Class 8 fuel-cell truck for North America, and Traton has signed a deal with Hino to develop both battery- and fuel-cell electric trucks. And Hyundai said it plans to bring its fuel-cell Xcient Class 8 truck to the U.S.
Who’s Behind the (Autonomous) Wheel?
Autonomous technology at various levels has been making its way into the Class 8 landscape for some time. As the technology advances, many OEMs are developing or planning on making their own footprints in the space.
Volvo Trucks has been demonstrating, piloting, and commercializing fully autonomous solutions around the world. For example, the global OEM is piloting an autonomous-electric Vera (which has no cab for a driver at all) and an autonomous Volvo FH model in a quarry in Norway.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and the best applications are those involving freight movements along pre-defined, repetitive routes,” says Koeck. A year ago, Volvo Group established an Autonomous Solutions group to accelerate the development, commercialization and sales of autonomous vehicles. “Additionally, we continue to work in innovative collaborations and partnerships to keep up with the latest development in technologies that are best-suited for customer applications.”
Daimler Trucks also sees great potential in the future of automated trucking to reduce accidents on the road, according to a DTNA spokesperson.
“We anticipate launching the technology within the decade,” he adds, which includes collaboration with the OEM’s partners, Torc Robotics and Waymo. “We are combining our rich heritage of trucking experience and our infrastructure network with the software expertise of our partners to commercialize this highly complex technology. We are also working with our truck customers to ensure that our solutions match their needs.”
In early 2020, Kenworth exhibited a Level 4 Autonomous Kenworth T680 proof-of-concept truck that was conceived and constructed at the Paccar Innovation Center.
“Paccar has worked with leading experts in the field of high-definition mapping, localization, perception and path planning to deliver an integrated autonomous solution,” says Jeff Parietti, public relations manager at Kenworth. “Kenworth and the Paccar Innovation Center in Silicon Valley are working closely together to explore and develop the latest advanced driver assistance systems and other new technologies that offer safety and efficiency benefits for truck fleets and drivers.”
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The Economic Outlook
While the economic outlook seems to vary by the day, Class 8 truck makers are seeing a major improvement from eight months ago, when the country was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic and production came to a sudden halt.
“While there’s certainly ongoing uncertainty, we’re encouraged by recent positive trends in the market, and hope that the effect of COVID-19 on Class 8 North American sales continues to subside moving into 2021,” says Mack’s Walsh. “We expect the total North American Class 8 market to be 220,000 vehicles this year, and currently anticipate a market in the range of 250,000 vehicles next year.”
Greg Treinen, heavy-duty vocational product manager at DTNA, agrees with Walsh’s projection, seeing the economy in recovery mode since the “major dip experienced in the early days of the pandemic.”
“Truck demand has followed that positive trajectory, and we expect that to continue into 2021. Of course, for the vocational market, seeing a long-awaited infrastructure bill come to fruition would help encourage further commercial vehicle demand.”