Record-high prices for gasoline and diesel fuel have been on everybody's mind for more than a year, making motorists wince and commercial users struggle and sometimes fail. Truck builders have been stung by a serious downturn in business and besieged by ever-increasing costs of materials, but are countering by offering equipment that promises to save fuel money for operators, emphasizing comfort and convenience, and plugging safety to try to inject new interest among potential truck buyers.
Class 8 truck sales are down seriously for the second year in a row. The current slowdown began in early 2007, with the advent of expensive EPA-'07 diesels. Customers' needs were satiated by a frantic pre-buy in 2005 and 2006, when sales reached 282,792 and 284,008, respectively. Then buyers began staying away in droves. Sales fell by more than 40 percent, to 150,008, according to the Truck Manufacturers Association. That walking pace, exacerbated by high fuel prices and a general economic slowdown, continues this year.
Original equipment manufacturers are reluctant to talk about current sales conditions, yet they appear to have prepared better for this downturn than previous ones. They scheduled production cutbacks and layoffs and generally tightened staffing, and should emerge from this dark period healthier than before. Those with European ties are buoyed by generally strong economies and truck sales there.
North American OEMs and component makers hope that customers will have to replenish worn-out vehicles soon. Some probably will, but the resumption in volume purchasing will probably be more measured. A few major fleets have said they won't go on another pre-buying spree leading up to 2010, when another set of cleaner-burning diesels are scheduled. That, along with the generally slow economy, could delay a recovery in truck building but spread it out over a longer period of time, which overall would be more healthy.
Here are glimpses of what's happening in the Class 8 business, especially equipment trends affected by high fuel costs:
SmartWay specifications as outlined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are now available as tractor and trailer packages from many builders, and the EPA has begun helping to arrange financing on such vehicles. To get a SmartWay sticker, a tractor must have a basic aerodynamic design and be equipped with roof and side fairings, including skirts that cover the fuel tanks, plus low-rolling-resistance tires (either duals or wide-base singles). SmartWay-approved trailers must have those tires and aero fairings.
The EPA announced in March that it has linked up with more than 300 lenders to make acquiring fuel-efficient commercial vehicles easier. The program features an online application process that takes only 10 minutes (www.SmartWayFinanceCenter.com). EPA says it doesn't back the loans or leases and applicants need decent credit to qualify, but many deals will have favorable interest rates. SmartWay items plus idle-reduction devices and tire-inflation systems are among equipment that can be financed.
Smaller-block diesels - 11- and 13-liter sizes compared to 15-liter models - have been used for years in regional tractors and vocational trucks, but more over-the-road tractors are now getting them, some builders say. Smaller engines make increasing sense because their lower displacements allow them to consume less fuel under most conditions. They also weigh less and usually cost less to buy. Drivers are more likely to accept them because advanced electronics, air-handling and combustion techniques enable them to produce healthy horsepower and torque. Yet 14- and 15-liter diesels are still favored for their longevity, and two builders offer 16-liter engines for specialty applications.
Auxiliary power units are gaining popularity as a way to save precious fuel, and builders say customers are asking about them and in some cases buying them. An APU usually costs $6,000 to $8,000 but avoids most idling of a truck's engine, and at today's fuel prices a unit can pay for itself in well under two years. For example, Wal-Mart Transportation bought thousands of Thermo King TriPac APUs and is saving millions of dollars a year in fuel.
Many OEMs will install mechanical APUs powered by small diesel engines, which provide full stand-alone capability no matter how harsh the weather and as long as there's fuel in the tanks, say their builders. However, diesel APUs require regular maintenance and repairs, and are newly subject to exhaust emissions limits in some states. Start-stop systems like Temp-A-Start can provide many of an APU's benefits at less cost, says its maker.
Electric idling-reduction systems are attractive because they are simpler and quieter than diesel-powered units, and are emissions-free and reasonably capable under most conditions, say Kenworth and Peterbilt, which offer one. Called Clean Power by KW and ComfortClass by Pete, the device will keep a sleeper comfortably cool for 10 hours in 95-degree outside heat. A Peterbilt test in Phoenix last summer showed that during daylight, a light-colored truck will stay cool inside for about an hour longer than a dark-colored one. Freightliner says it will offer an electric heating-ventilation-cooling system next year.
Fuel cells seem the ultimate anti-idling device, as they can silently convert hydrogen or diesel fuel into electricity - or would if they were available. Slow development has kept them in the future, but Delphi says it is testing an advanced diesel-fired fuel cell that produces 1 kilowatt, and soon will test a 3-kw version. Continued development should bring the products to market sooner rather than later, the maker says.
Automatic and automated mechanical transmissions continue to catch on because they cause engines to operate more efficiently and also make trucks easier and safer to drive. Peterbilt reports that 10 percent to 15 percent of its Class 8 trucks are now ordered with Allison automatics and Eaton AMTs, and the builder is preparing to offer Eaton's UltraShift in several vocational models. U.S. Xpress Enterprises has used Eaton and Meritor-ZF AMTs for years, and Schneider National is converting to UltraShifts because tests showed that automated manuals cut accidents by nearly 30 percent.
Aerodynamic design, long considered an important factor in achieving good fuel economy, is getting more attention from buyers, even if there'll always be a market for traditionally styled trucks, says Peterbilt. Meanwhile, Freightliner and International have been skirmishing with conflicting claims of aero superiority, the former using results from wind tunnel testing and the latter touting numbers gotten in track and on-road testing of competing models. Both suggest that possible fuel savings could go right to prospective customers' bottom lines, though previous industry studies and much fleet experience has shown that factors such as drivers' habits and traffic conditions have greater effects on fuel economy.
Safety is getting more emphasis from some manufacturers, which are promoting various electronic safety devices while preparing to offer others. Volvo, for instance, has made electronic stability control standard on VHD mixer chassis, while sister company Mack has made the Bendix-produced products optional. Meritor Wabco electronic stability products are offered by tractor and trailer builders, while Eaton's Vorad collision-warning device has long been optional on many highway trucks. Lifeguard Technologies' RollTek, which combines side-curtain air bags with a seat-and-seat-belt restraining system, is a new crash-protection option on Freightliner's Cascadia.
Adaptive cruise control, which alters a vehicle's speed as radar sensors react to traffic conditions, is available from some builders, and there's at least one aftermarket product. Even more advanced is a "predictive cruise control," which uses GPS and topographic mapping to establish a truck's location and modulate its throttle based on terrain. For instance, the system will know when the truck is approaching a downgrade and reduce power before it begins rolling downhill. Daimler Trucks North America (Freightliner, Sterling and Western Star), which will offer it starting early next year, says it can improve fuel economy by 2.5 percent.
Comfort and convenience items continue to proliferate, partly for driver appeal but also with the idea that comfortable and well-rested people are safer and more productive. Lighter-weight but effective air-ride suspensions, including several new types for steer axles, are being introduced. Kenworth and Peterbilt now offer a front air suspension; Freightliner, which has offered a Hendrickson front air suspension, says it's coming out with a proprietary one early next year.
A new, more economical engine, the turbo-compounded Detroit Diesel DD15, has joined Freightliner's lineup and is the preferred power for its long-nose Cascadia, which is getting three more sleeper options, along with a new medium-nose, 112-inch-BBC version. The shorter Cascadia will likely be powered by the MBE 4000 plus an anticipated DD13. Freightliner still produces Columbia and Century S/T aero highway tractors and traditionally styled Classic and Classic XL tractors, built on Century chassis, along with the premium Coronado. Early in '09, some of those models will be available with "predictive cruise control" that can save at least 2 percent in fuel (see main story). The FLD-SD (for severe-duty) continues as a truck and tractor, boosted by orders from the U.S. Army, but will drop out of the civilian market by the end of 2009 and be replaced by a new Class 8 vocational model. The upcoming work truck won't be based on the current Business Class M2 and M2V (for vocational) models which include Class 8 versions. Freightliner emphasizes its proprietary Mercedes-Benz and Detroit engines, including the Series 60, but offers Caterpillar's C13 and C15 in many of its Class 8 models.
2009 will likely be the last model year for General Motors-built GMC TopKick and Chevrolet Kodiak midrange conventionals (shown) and T-series tiltcabs, as the deal to sell the line to Navistar International has proceeded quickly and was expected to close by the end of June. But the products will continue and GM commercial truck dealers will still sell them, though they'll come from a Navistar factory. Baby 8 versions use cabs and noses from medium-duty Cs with heavy duty frames, axles, suspensions, brakes and other appropriate chassis parts, combined with midrange powertrains, including the only gasoline engine, the Vortec 8100 V-8, still available in a Class 8 truck. Caterpillar's C7 diesel is optional, but increasing numbers of C-series trucks and tractors get the Isuzu-made 6H, which remains the only engine available in the heavy T tiltcabs. Whether Navistar will keep the GM-designed Baby 8s after the deal is a good question, but so is "why not"?
The retro-styled LoneStar tractor (shown) goes into production later this year, and claims fuel-saving aerodynamics as well as chrome appeal. LoneStar will be International's highest-priced on-highway model, followed by the premium 9900i and 9900ix, and then by the ProStar. The ProStar began coming off the line at Chatham, Ont., early this year to replace the 9200 and 9400. The 8600 medium-nose regional tractor is being replaced by a TranStar, to be built at the Garland, Texas, plant. The 5000i premium vocational vehicles now carry the PayStar name, and Cat- and Cummins-powered versions of the 7000 series severe-service trucks have taller hoods to house bigger radiators for EPA-'07 diesels. A 7000 cab-chassis forms the basis for armored trucks that Navistar Defense builds for the U.S. military. Baby 8 versions of the DuraStar 4000 use International MaxxForce midrange diesels. Big-bore engines will be Cat's C13 and C15 and Cummins ISM and ISX; Cummins' ISL will be the lightweight engine in certain heavy applications, and International's own MaxxForce DT and HT 570 and DT 466 will go in others. Later this year, MaxxForce heavy duty diesels developed with MAN of Germany will debut.
Kenworth's best-selling highway model is the T660 (shown), which is also KW's most aerodynamic, following an extensive redesign of the venerable T600 more than a year ago. The wide-cab aero T2000 continues into 2009 with updates it got for the last model year. The W900 and T800 soldier on in both highway and vocational duties, though there are rumors of a T8 restyling, perhaps by 2010 (or perhaps not). A T800 using a Cummins Westport natural gas engine is aimed for use in the Los Angeles Basin. The C500 remains the prime extra-heavy duty off-road truck, and some export versions are built with the flat-nose cab from the old K-series cab-over-engine models. KW's heavy diesel offerings include Cummins ISL, ISM and ISX, and Cat C9, C13 and C15. Paccar will begin building its European-designed 11- and 13-liter diesels in Columbus, Miss., by late next year, for use in Kenworth and Peterbilt heavies.
Titan (shown), unveiled at two trade shows early this year, is Mack's biggest, heaviest and most powerful model. It comes only with a new 16.1-liter MP10 diesel (based on sister company Volvo's D16) with as much as 605 horsepower and 2,050 pounds-feet. Titan is aimed at logging, construction and heavy hauling with GCW ratings as high as 300,000 pounds. The Granite will account for much higher volumes in those vocations and others, and now has a longer cab for more leg and belly room. Last year the MR heavy low-cab-forward got a redesigned and roomier interior and other advancements, plus a new name: TerraPro. The Vision and CH highway models are now Pinnacles, with axle-forward and axle-back versions having differently styled noses and grilles. The more traditional-looking Pinnacle Axle Forward gets a Rawhide package with extensive chrome and polished metal trim and a plush interior. The builder dropped Cummins engines two years ago and most models now come only with Mack Power diesels: an 11-liter MP7 and 13-liter MP8, with greater fuel efficiency than previous engines. The 7 and 8 come in Maxidyne, MaxiCruise and Econodyne versions, while the Titan's MP10 comes initially as a MaxiCruise with a flat torque output; later there'll be a Maxidyne version with steeper torque curve.
The 386 (shown with ComfortClass electric idle-reduction), which combines an aerodynamic nose with the tried-and-true 370-series aluminum cab, is Peterbilt's most popular highway tractor as owners seek ways to improve fuel economy. A variant is the Model 384, with a medium-length nose and a 116-inch BBC. A low-profile version of the 388, a variation of the traditional 389 conventional, aimed primarily at auto haulers, is now available. The 386, with its wide cab and integrated sleeper, remains the builder's flagship model, and there's also a 387 daycab. The ComfortClass can now be ordered on 63-inch sleepers as well as 70-inchers, which first got the option earlier this year; it comes standard with a heavy sleeper curtain and high-density insulation, which is also part of an optional Arctic package available in various models. Engineers are doing verification work on Eaton's two-pedal UltraShift automated mechanical transmission for use in vocational trucks, and have developed proprietary lift axles with Watson & Chalin. Peterbilt's principal vocational conventionals continue to be the 365 and 367. Its Model 320 heavy low-cab-forward truck is available later this year as a hybrid using Eaton's Hydraulic Launch Assist. Nine- to 15-liter diesels from Caterpillar and Cummins are available in most Class 8 models, while the 340 "heavy 7" uses a Cummins-built Paccar PX8.
Sterling has announced a setback L-Line tractor (shown) with a Cummins Westport ISL G, a liquified natural gas engine certified for use in the Los Angeles Basin. It's meant for buyers who wish to qualify for drayage business at area ports, which are embarking on aggressive Clean Trucks programs, but the tractor is useful for other areas where authorities subsidize LNG as an automotive fuel. Sterling generally focuses on regional hauling and vocational applications with its Class 8 models. The lineup goes into the 2009-2010 model year largely unchanged. A- and L-Line conventionals with set-back steer axles have 113- and 122-inch BBCs, and use Detroit Diesel's 14-liter Series 60 and 15-liter DD15, Mercedes-Benz's 12.8-liter 4000, or Caterpillar C13 and C15 power. An L-Line with a set-forward steer axle uses the MBE 4000. L- and Acterra models designated 8500 are standard with the 7.2-liter MBE 900 diesel, while Cummins' 8.3-liter ISC is optional.
Volvo was an originator of the "shore power" concept, whose electrical equipment allows truckers to plug in where 110-volt outlets are available, and still offers this as an option, along with an inverter to charge batteries, in many VN sleeper models. Some VNs can also be ordered with a Dometic diesel or electric APU.The VN series includes the VNM (medium-length hood) and VNL (long hood). The VT series, with its high and wide hood, includes the VT800 daycab and VT 880 sleeper.
Volvo also has mid-roof sleepers designated VT830 and VN730; both sleeper compartments are 77 inches long but 2 feet shorter in height to save weight and better match trailer and load heights for tractors pulling tankers and flatbeds. Adhering to its tradition as a safety leader, Volvo makes electronic stability control standard in VHD mixer chassis. The VHD vocational model has an optional short sleeper, built primarily for Canadian loggers who must camp in the woods. Volvo Powertrain in Hagerstown, Md., builds D11, D13 and D16 diesels (and similar MP engines for sister company Mack); the D engines are used in various models, and VNM and VHD use them exclusively. Cummins' ISX is available in VNL and 800/880 models.
The low-profile LowMax 4900 (shown) gets a larger, 1,625-square-inch radiator to better handle cooling of EPA-'07 diesels, and has improved steering and front suspension, including asymmetric springs, for better ride and stability. An even larger 1,875-square-inch radiator is available on 4900s for high-horsepower and severe-service applications; the larger radiators fit within existing hoods and grilles. Strong air disc brakes from Bendix and Meritor are newly optional on many models, as is a lightweight sliding fifth wheel from SAF Holland. A new 40-ton integrated dump truck using a 6900EX chassis and a J&J steel body competes with more costly off-road articulated and haul-road trucks. Western Star expanded its Stratosphere sleepers for the 4900 series, which now includes 40-, 54-, 68-, 82- and 84-inch models, two with Ultra High roofs. As part of the Sterling organization (and therefore Daimler Trucks North America), Western Star will use the Detroit Series 60 and DD15 in its 4900 FA and SA models, with the MBE 4000 and Cat C13 and C15 engines as options.Those midrange offerings mostly continue unchanged into 2008, with some exceptions.