"We see 2012 developing," Lampert told a gathering of industry trade press at a launch event in Yountville, Calif., this week. "It's fair to say that it won't as strong as we had once forecast, but it's continuing the road to recovery and it'll be a rock solid year at somewhere around 185,000 Class 8 units."
Lampert said the fundamentals are all in place and they look decent.
"Freight is still being generated out there, and the average age of trucks is as high as it has ever been," he said. "Those are strong reasons to believe we'll be OK this year, but when you add the pending on-board diagnostic requirement coming in 2013, we can see potential for a strong jump in orders later this year as fleets try to get orders in under that wire."
In 2011, combined orders for all Freightliner models in Class 5-7 for NAFTA and export orders were 33,700 units.
"For the first half of 2011, we had 17,100 orders. In the first half of 2012 we're up about 200 orders at 17,300," said Lampert. "We see continued improvement on the Class 5, 6 and 7 side from a low in 2009. We're cautiously optimistic that the trend line for growth is going to continue."
Lampert says a common topic in customer recent customer interviews was natural gas. "Everyone wants to know what's going on with natural gas, what our plans are for natural gas, how do we see natural gas developing," Lampert told reporters.
Lower fuel prices, less market volatility, and a 1.4-year payback mean that natural gas is ready to become a mainstream fuel for trucking. Everything is lining up, Lampert says, from expanding fuel networks, to the availability of larger engines such as the 400-horsepower Cummins Westport ISX12 G engine. That is what over-the-road fleets are looking for, he said.
Going forward, Freightliner plans to begin full production of the Cascadia with an IXS12 G engine -- and newer engine platforms are in development. With the possibility of passage of the NAT GAS act still ahead to provide financial help for purchase of natural gas vehicles, Lampert sees continued growth in demand for natural-gas-powered trucks in many sectors in Class 6-8 markets.
Lampert said much of Freightliner's growth plans for export market revolve around the Argosy COE product, and to a lesser extent on Western Star. The company plans to take export sales to 15,000 units from 4,000 units, sold mostly into Latin America, South Africa, Russia, Australia and New Zealand.
"We've had a lot of early successes in international market places," Lampert noted. "We're pleased with where we stand and we still see a lot of additional opportunities."
The largest volumes are in Costa Rica and Guatemala with potential for 5,000 to 6,000 trucks. South Africa and the Middle East remain a cornerstone, and the Russian market remains the largest growth opportunity.
"A strong market already exists with our colleagues on the Mercedes side, so the infrastructure already exists there under the Daimler umbrella," Lampert said.