New powertrains and autonomous technology will radically alter the trucking industry. But what about trusty old vocational workhorses? - Photo: Deborah Lockridge

New powertrains and autonomous technology will radically alter the trucking industry. But what about trusty old vocational workhorses? 

Photo: Deborah Lockridge

Back in April, HDT Editor in Chief Deborah Lockridge and I spent a day touring the Autocar manufacturing plant in Birmingham, Alabama. The plant itself was a bit of a throwback to a different time. It was a blend of both mass production with a hand-built touch thrown in as a way to ensure highly customized trucks built to exact customer specs.

They were building a product that modern, high-speed, automated production lines simply can’t deliver, Autocar engineers told me. In their view, hands-on, intensive attention to detail is the only way to make sure its fleet customers get the trucks they need to get their work done.

That got me to wondering what the future of vocational trucks will be, given the bewildering array of technological changes rushing headlong at trucking today.

“Super Spec’ing” Vocational Trucks

First off, let’s note that the ability to spec a truck down to the Nth detail, is largely a North American thing these days. It makes sense, given the vast diversity of climate, terrain and application North American fleets must contend with. It also doesn’t hurt that providing such a service to what is still the largest truck market in the world still makes sense to OEMs from a customer relations standpoint.

That “Super-Spec” model has largely disappeared in Europe and Asia. Buying a truck in those countries is a lot like buying a passenger car here: You can play around with a few limited specs. But, by and large, you kind of have to take what the manufacturer is offering.

One big reason for limiting specs is so OEMs can control costs and streamline production both on a global and regional scale. That’s become increasingly difficult for manufacturers to do over the past couple of decades – and that’s just primarily offering human-driven, diesel-powered trucks.

So, what I’m wondering is, what happens when you suddenly introduce multiple alternative fuel/powertrain offerings into the equation? And then, what happens if you start mass-producing autonomous trucks will little, or even no, accommodations for human drivers? My point is, that product and component synergy is vital for global cost control and scale production. Moreover, the fewer components and specifications a manufacturer must deal with, the easier it is to customize trucks to a very precise set of specifications.

Modular vehicle designs are the easiest way to do this. Basically, you share as many components as possible – such as cabs, chassis and engines – across as many different makes and models as possible. OEMs have been doing this quite successfully for many years.

Will they be able to continue to do so in the near future, with so many different powertrains, fuels, engines and differing levels of automation entering into the production chain?

My hunch is, yes – to a large degree. But, on the other hand, this plethora of new systems, components and technologies is going to create many new headaches for engineers and the workers who actually build trucks on assembly lines.

Autonomous Trucks on the Assembly Line?

While this remains to be seen, if autonomous long-haul trucks are as big a hit as some industry analysts (myself included) think they will be – I’m not sure it will make sense from a production and cost-control standpoint to build a vehicle that can be either autonomous, or human-controlled. That’s because I think the benefits of completely removing all human ergonomic features from autonomous trucks will necessitate the develop of separate vehicles – most likely based on common chassis, with some shared components.

The reality may turn out to be that human-driven trucks and autonomous trucks are so different in terms of specs, components and build requirements, that it might not make sense to build them together on the same assembly line. And even if you do, will you then be able to customize and spec the trucks to the degree that most North American vocational customers still demand?

For example, if you’re a large OEM who now has to start researching, developing, and eventually building battery-electric vehicles, hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles, other alternative fuel vehicles, and autonomous trucks on top of diesel engines, are you going to want to invest time, money and manufacturing dollars into building a fairly conventional mid-range gas or diesel engine for vocational applications as well? Are you going to want to offer those vocational vehicles with a large amount of spec options available to customers?

Probably not. But you’ll still want to offer those types of trucks and engines to your customers.

So, what to do?

The Solution to Too Many Specs Options

One option, which Daimler recently announced, is to farm out engine production to a third-party supplier. Cummins, in this instance. And it’s worth noting that Cummins is already laying the groundwork to effectively serve in this role, by offering multiple powertrain options – both conventional and cutting-edge – that can help OEMs with rapidly expanding product, powertrain and production demands.

A lot of new startups – mostly in the BEV space — seem to be eyeing the possibility of some sort of production shakeup in the vocational space by offering new vehicles. I notice, many of these vehicles tend to be under Class 7 in size.

Those vehicles, I would guess, would be the most likely ones to get dropped by OEMs suddenly faced with mounting production, component and manufacturing costs, and pressures to cut as many specs as possible out of the entire process.

This would be an excellent opportunity for the auto manufacturers – which largely walked away from vocational trucking during the tumultuous early 2000s – to get back in the trucking game. They may well to do so, given the rather dreary outlook for passenger car sales in an autonomous future, versus the ever-growing emphasis on moving freight as quickly, safely and efficiently as possible in that same future world.

In other words, if more than one automotive futurist is correct, the manufacturing model will flip completely from the one we’ve known for over a century now: The money will be in trucks. Not cars.

To bring this little thought experiment full circle, I’d make one final observation. A highly specialized, detail and spec-oriented manufacturer like Autocar would likely do quite well in that strange new world, even when producing highly spec’d vehicles using alt-fuel or BEV powertrains (technologies Autocar is already working on). 

Regardless of what happens on the high-tech front, the demand for tough, specialized trucks that can accommodate human drivers and work crews is not going away for a long time to come. I think new opportunities to serve those markets and customers may well be an offshoot of trucking’s technology revolution.

About the author
Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts

Executive Editor

Jack Roberts is known for reporting on advanced technology, such as intelligent drivetrains and autonomous vehicles. A commercial driver’s license holder, he also does test drives of new equipment and covers topics such as maintenance, fuel economy, vocational and medium-duty trucks and tires.

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