Daimler Trucks North America President and CEO talks to reporters at the North American...

Daimler Trucks North America President and CEO talks to reporters at the North American Commercial Vehicle Show.

Photo: Deborah Lockridge

“The Future: Driven by You.” That was the theme of Daimler Trucks North America’s presentation at the North American Vehicle Show in Atlanta recently, so when I had a chance to sit down with DTNA President and CEO Roger Nielsen for 10 minutes, that’s what I asked him about.

Starting with the near future, I asked where he sees the health of the trucking industry and truck sales in 2020. While other truck makers offered forecasts, Nielsen wouldn’t be pinned down to a specific number – but he said he didn’t think things would be as soft as some are predicting.

“We say we are going back to normal,” he said, referring to lower year-over-year truck sales comparisons that are unsurprisingly down compared to last year’s record-setting numbers. “Fleets are on a normal replacement cycle. For the most part fleets didn’t grow hugely,” he said – a huge number of last year’s truck sales were to modernize fleets rather than to add capacity – “so they don’t see a need to decrease right now. They’re telling us freight rates have stabilized” after softening earlier this year. “If we look at reports like bankruptcies, it seems like [softening] freight demand and culling supply will come together.”

“Truck fleets don’t order a little bit every day,” he added. “It’s a binary decision one month out of a year.”

Looking further ahead, I noted that the California Air Resources Board just the previous week had published a proposal that would require truck makers to produce a certain percentage of their vehicles that are zero-emissions. With Freightliner’s current electric Innovation Fleet already under way in the state, I asked, did he see DTNA as having a leg up here?

“Where we position ourselves is we’re the leader in this. You see this with our concentration of battery electric trucks in our Innovation Fleet in California; I think it reflects our ability, our capability to work closely with these regulatory agencies to make sure they understand what’s technologically feasible as well as help them understand in what the pace of introduction should be. We’re working for series production of battery electric vehicles by 2021. As battery capacity suppliers come on board, we can get out there and show everyone we have an attractive set of vehicles, and that they can be run at a cost comparative to what competitors are running.

“And we need to put in infrastructure. Customers need to meet with the utility company and energy supply companies; we need to come together to figure out how we’re going to create, distribute, and retail electricity. We all have to learn. If you take a look at the wattage on a typical windmill it’s 1.3 or 1.6 megawatts, and half that capacity is on a truck – that means we take 30 minutes with one windmill just to charge one truck. It’s definitely more than just plugging it into your garage like a Nissan Leaf. We’re learning what the power infrastructure needs are, and it’s a little sobering – not only what it takes but how long it might take to get the infrastructure in place.”

While battery-electric trucks were on prominent display at the NACV show, including four from DTNA, and a new medium-duty electric truck from Navistar just across the aisle, we also saw more attention paid to hydrogen fuel cells than ever before. In the press conference earlier that morning, Nielsen had said in response to a question about hydrogen fuel cells that Daimler Trucks plans to bring a fuel-cell truck to series production by the end of the 2020. “We have a long history in fuel cells, and you will see us put that to use in the commercial vehicle industry.”

So I asked him to expand a bit more on that topic.

“We’ve been leaders in this for years. We believe in battery electric. And fuel cells are going to exist side by side with them as we get into the first half of the century. The base technology on the vehicles is similar; it’s where is the electric power coming from. And hybrids of the future might be battery powered with fuel cell range extenders – kind of a whole different look at hybrids. Definitely see us in the 2020s put units in customer hands for testing, and we believe by end of the decade we’ll have some fuel cells in series production.”

I asked him what customers want when it comes to electric trucks. Is this being driven by wanting to get ahead of emissions regulations? Is it due to customers wanting to be seen as environmentally friendly? Or do they foresee real cost reductions in areas such as maintenance that will help drive ROI?

“The ones who are most interested see it coming from the regulatory side, where their hours of delivery might be restricted,” he said.

Range concerns, he said are one thing fleets are asking about. “What are the driver’s options for extending the range of the vehicle?” he asked. “We drove an eCascadia from the test track in Madris, Oregon, all the way back to Portland, and we’re like, ‘OK, turn the heater off to get those additional miles.’ What does it mean for a driver who has been used to the ubiquitous diesel station, now wondering, where am I going to get charged up?

Wrapping up our brief interview, I asked Nielsen, “What are YOU excited about?”

“I’m excited about the next 10 years,” he said. “We went from 30 to 40 percent market share and we made fuel efficiency the watchword. Now as we head out of this decade, fleets are saying, I want fuel efficiency but I also want safety, I want connectivity. Ten years from now, we’re going to say, ‘Remember when all we talked about was electric?’ The speed of change in this industry… this is my 34th year in this industry; I was around when we did the first electronic engines in the late ‘80s. Now to be able to control vehicle with adaptive cruise control, automatic lanekeeping ... and the things we haven’t even imagined yet.”

What about autonomous trucks? Watch the video below for Nielsen's bold proclamation at the end of the NACV press conference:

About the author
Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

Editor and Associate Publisher

Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology.

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