Early this year, Daimler Trucks North America named Kary Schaefer general manager, marketing and strategy. We spoke with her last month after Freightliner unveiled its next-generation Cascadia. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
HDT: What are the most exciting and unique things about the new Cascadia?
Schaefer: I think the Driver’s Loft, the new updated interior that we’ve introduced; I really think that’s a leap forward in our interior design and a big improvement in driver experience. We’ve got that Murphy bed configuration that’s easy to set up and take down, and the interior noise level when you’re driving the truck is outstanding. We’ve improved the storage, trim levels are really nice…. it’s a great improvement in the driver’s living space.
Fuel economy is my second one for you. Between aerodynamic improvements with our new aero packages and drivetrain development changes, we’ve improved the fuel economy by 8% over a model year ’16 Cascadia Evolution, so it’s another big leap forward for us in terms of fuel economy leadership. And the changes we made to the driveline, we’ve been able to introduce a super fine finish on transmission gears, so it can use low viscosity oil which reduces friction losses. And axle lubrication management — it reduced all of the churning loss of the ring gear as it goes through the oil. Then the Intelligent Powertrain Management. We’ve incorporated additional map data and extended the intervals for coasting, which also improves fuel economy. It’s really impressive performance.
HDT: It’s interesting that you brought up the interior first. One of your recent jobs at DTNA was leading the cab engineering department. We’ve seen a lot of attention in recent years to cab design in new trucks as a way to make drivers happier and healthier. What are your thoughts on this trend? How far can we go?
Schaefer: When I was the cab chief engineer, I tried to get out in the field; we worked with large fleets to interview drivers to find out what would make their jobs more comfortable, reduce fatigue, make driving more attractive. I think interior noise is a big part of it, and safety systems – not just active safety, but visibility, solid mirrors, all those things are just as important as active safety systems. … And we’ll continue to see trends like that in the future. I think connectivity will play into it; I think drivers and fleets and small feet owners will be able to use connectivity to be more efficient in their jobs.
HDT: You’ve been in your new job about eight months now; so it’s been a busy time! What are some of the things you’ve been doing so far?
Schaefer: I’ve been really trying to get up to speed on changes in our products and in our marketplace. I had left the company and hadn’t been there for the last three years so had to get myself up to speed on products – both current and future product road maps – on new technologies we’re working on here and in Europe and in Japan. [I’ve been] trying to understand companies like Otto and Nikola One and what they’re trying to accomplish, and how it may or may not affect our business. I’ve been putting a process in place to do a market watch to stay on top of those. I’ve been trying to get out to meet with customers and dealers; I think that’s really important to develop those relationships.
And then host a press event here or there! The Detroit DD 5 was a new product for us, so working with our group on that product launch, and working on the new Cascadia. I have a great team.
HDT: What do you think are the advantages of having a career engineer like yourself heading up marketing and strategy?
Schaefer: I think engineering is about problem solving, and I have a lot of project management background in my engineering roles, and so I think you can definitely bring that over to this role. And on the engineering side, I understand the product development process. I’m not a super technical person, but I can talk the talk and understand and walk the walk, which helps me ask the right questions of engineers and our product strategy folks to make sure we’re filling the pipeline with good products in the future.
HDT: Any downsides? What are the challenges of switching hats?
Schaefer: Ooh… [laughs]. You should never have an engineer read a press release — I pick on words, like is it “almost” or is it “exactly.”
HDT: Because engineers have to be very precise.
Schaefer: I have a hard time, if [something’s] correct but maybe not precise. That’s a challenge. And a lot of the look and feel and design of the ads … I’m really glad we have talented people that put those designs together!
[Another challenge] of all the new technology is trying to understand, when you react to something new? When do you react to a new entry into the market and how do you know if there is a threat to your company or a product? To me it’s really hard to suss out which things need to have attention or not.
HDT: I’m sure you’re not the only one. You’re coming into this at an unusual time in our industry.
Schaefer: Think about it — if we really see these “Uber for trucking” apps, how people outside of trucking can change logistics. And if you're a truck manufacturer, what’s your piece of the pie, what’s in it for you?
HDT: Prior to DTNA, you held leadership positions with companies such as Boeing, Pacific Testing Laboratories, Abossein Engineering and Cloud Cap Technologies. Tell us about insights those experiences bring in your new job.
Schaefer: I think what’s interesting is how you can apply technology in different ways to these different industries, [such as] the application of a radar or camera system in a [drone] versus how it’s applied in a truck in a safety system. At Boing, we worked on aerodynamics and range, how far could the plane fly, so I think aerodynamics and range and fuel efficiency topics translate a little into the truck industry, too. And all of it has product development processes that are somehow similar between the different industries.
HDT: Another trend we’re seeing is the increased globalization of the industry when it comes to making and selling trucks and components. While the Class 8 cabovers used in Europe aren’t likely to make an appearance here, under the hood it’s a different story. As an engineer, what are the pros and cons of this approach? How hard is it to take a powertrain that initially appeared in a European cabover and adapt it for the North American market?
Schaefer: It depends on what point in time you get involved in the process. It’s hard to take something that was point designed and adapt something for a different market. But over time we’ve put processes in place to gather local market needs up front in the development process to be able to use those products [in different markets].
I think the DD5 [medium-duty engine] is a great example of that, a global engine platform developed with that in mind from the start. And we all reap the benefits from it. We’re able to learn from each other, understand the market needs, and you get the scale effect. We get the advantage of test miles in Europe; the engine’s already been in thousands of trucks in Europe, it’s already a proven engine.
HDT: During the Cascadia introduction, you told reporters that Freightliner had learned from its mistakes in designing the new Drivers Loft sleeper option. How important is it to have that attitude of admitting mistakes and then learning from them?
I think it’s invaluable. You have to always do a lessons-learned and understand where your failures are, where you can make improvements. If we felt like our fuel economy was good enough, we would never introduce incremental improvements. If we felt our interiors were good enough, we would never introduce improvements. And learning from warranty issues and trying to build in improvements is critical to having a successful product.
HDT: From a truck builder’s perspective, what are the top trends to stay on top of in the coming year?
Definitely the connectivity topic. Electric trucks and hybrid vehicles and alternative fuels. I’m watching different shifts in the market in terms of length of haul and the makeup of day cabs vs. sleepers. Safety systems and autonomy I’d put right up there, in fact I should have mentioned that first. Fuel prices obviously, we have to monitor that. And obviously regulations.
HDT: Speaking of autonomy, you see a lot of articles these days in the non-trucking media about driverless trucks putting drivers out of work.
I think those are distractions for the market. I think they’re unrealistic and I think they’re distraction. They’re hype, right? I don't think it’s realistic in the short term. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome.
HDT: What are your goals moving forward in this position?
My goals are to ensure we have a successful new Cascadia launch; one of the key things for me is making sure we’re training dealers and dealer salespeople on how to spec the truck correctly for the application to get the most value and fuel economy benefits. So there’s a lot of education and a lot of training and sales tools to make sure we’re able to deliver what’s expected. Ensuring that we have a good medium-duty engine launch; it’s not like you have an opportunity to bring a new medium-duty engine platform to the market often, if ever. And I want to be a good partner with our dealers and customers.