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While new heavy-duty trucks tend to get bathed in spotlights whenever they are rolled out, their smaller but equally stout medium-duty brethren have been stealing more of the limelight of late.

Medium-duty commercial vehicles have not been immune to the forces of technological disruption coming at the trucking industry. Indeed, the switch to electric power and the advent of limited autonomous operation may appear in medium-duty applications before heavy-duty ones. But Class 8 trucks are not holding back, either. On the heavy-duty end of the market, look for a sharper focus by manufacturers on improving the trifecta of fuel efficiency, uptime, and safety.

OEMs, of course, are in constant communication with their customers to better understand not only current needs, but also to peer into the crystal ball to determine what they’ll be looking for in future vehicles.

We asked truck makers and others for their takes on what’s important to heavy-duty and medium-duty fleets, as well as where they think the trendlines will take technology in the near future.

Top Medium-Duty Trends

Medium-duty truck offerings, specs, and options are evolving, as customer preferences, regulations, and technological trends find their way into vehicle designs. The most widely spotted trends are to more safety-conscious equipment, the return of the gasoline engine, and wider use of telematics.

1. Safety First

Medium-duty fleets are taking advantage of increased safety enhancements offered by new technology. Steve Tam, vice president of industry forecasting firm ACT Research, sees a significantly higher number of vehicles being spec’d with active safety systems.

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“That’s a trend that is — interestingly — filtering into medium trucks from both the heavy-duty and light-duty/passenger car markets,” he says. “I think this is a trend that is going to lead to the eventual standardization of these types of systems on medium-duty trucks, because it just makes sense. Fleet managers often say they have a hard time figuring the return on investment for an accident that never happens because of these safety systems. But the reality is that if you can avoid even one serious accident, or — God forbid — a fatal accident, then the investment in safety systems is essentially priceless.”

Glenn Pochocki, director of sales for Autocar, says his company is seeing that drive toward safety in all sorts of medium-duty fleets. “That’s because the very nature of the job means that vocational fleets have much higher chances of injuries or even fatalities occurring. Their drivers often work outside of the trucks for extended periods. And they tend to operate in more crowded environments with lots of passenger cars and pedestrians close by.”

To help in these working and driving conditions, Pochocki says, Autocar designed its latest medium-duty truck, the DC Model, with a large, wrap-around, panoramic windshield to increase visibility from inside the cab. “We paid a lot of attention to upward views, too,” he adds. “You don’t hear as much about them, but many vocational fleet accidents involve overhanging power lines, tree branches, as well as bridges and other structures. So, we wanted to make sure drivers were able to be as aware of what is above the truck as they are with what’s in front and to the sides of the vehicle.”

Hooking up to a trailer can be time-consuming as well as a safety issue for fleets. Trevor Dorchies, commercial communications manager for Ram Truck, says the company has put extra emphasis on developing systems to make hooking up a trailer and getting it on the road quicker, easier, and safer.

“There’s an always-present need for more capability and the desire to make hooking and towing large loads easier,” Dorchies says. “With our Ram Heavy Duty trucks, we make hooking up to a trailer easy with features like the auxiliary camera system supporting up to two different cameras, along with other features like trailer pressure monitoring system, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist and adaptive steering.”

In revamping its medium-duty product lines, Hino announced at the North American Commercial Vehicle show that safety features from its new heavy-duty XL trucks are finding their way down into their smaller siblings. That includes an array of safety systems becoming available on the Hino Class 6-7 L Series, including electronic stability control, collision mitigation, lane departure warning, active cruise control, and a driver’s seatbelt sensor.

Chad Semler, vocational marketing manager for International Trucks, says fleets are looking at all aspects of safety, not just high tech. “The first thing you think of when you say ‘safety,’ is collision mitigation systems,” he says. “But fleet managers are increasingly looking at more basic things now.”

These include features such as enhanced lighting outside of vehicles and in cargo boxes, Semler says, as well as ergonomic hand-holds and steps, which he says give a more natural feel to drivers climbing into a cab than ladders. And visibility ties in with those concerns as well. “We recently lowered the hood by 7 inches on our all-wheel-drive MV truck,” he advises. “It makes a big difference for safety and a recent example of how important this area is for fleets.”

2. Gasoline Engines Are Back

Another major trend among medium-duty fleets is a marked return to gasoline engines. “That’s a definite trend — no doubt,” says Brian Tabel, executive director of marketing for Isuzu Trucks North America. “Ever since we came out of the Great Recession, we’ve seen a slow, but steady, trend toward gasoline engines. About half of our medium-duty sales in North America are spec’d with gasoline engines now. And we’ll have a Class 5 cabover available for sale next year to meet this growing demand.”

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Medium-duty fleets typically have a much longer replacement cycle than for heavy-duty trucks. “A lot of fleets have moved to replace older trucks, and they’re suddenly confronted for the first time with selective catalytic reduction emissions systems, diesel exhaust fluid, and diesel particulate filters — and they don’t have the maintenance capability to deal with those issues,” Tabel says. “We call it ‘diesel fatigue.’ So, gasoline engines are simply easier for them to run.”

Kevin Koester, commercial truck brand manager for Ford, says the company now offers a choice of gasoline or diesel powertrains. For F-600, this includes the all-new 7.3L V-8 gasoline engine. “This Ford-built engine generates more torque and power than the 6.8L V-10 engine it replaces,” he says. “And it is offered in a more compact package that provides better maintenance access for technicians. It uses fewer parts than the V-10, resulting in less downtime at the shop and lower long-term ownership costs.”

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ACT’s Tam also attributes the move to gasoline to a lag-effect from emissions systems. “Some medium-duty truck buyers have extremely long trade cycles,” he notes. “It’s not unusual to see many of them keep trucks for 10 years or more. This may be the first time they’re seeing SCR systems up close. And many of them may be opting not to deal with that technology and the additional maintenance and operating costs that come with it on their new vehicle purchases.”

The shift to gas engines is a “major” trend, according to Bryan Allen, manager, marketing communications, for Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of America. “Fuso introduced its cabover Class 4 FE Gas model in 2018 with great success to meet this new demand,” he says. “This quarter, we will begin sales of the industry-only cabover Gas Class 5 work truck, the FE180. This means that the market growth of gasoline-powered work trucks will continue to grow.”

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3. Telematics Time

Like their heavy-duty brothers, medium trucks are becoming increasingly more connected, says Kelly Gedert, director, product marketing, Freightliner Trucks and Detroit Components. “Connectivity solutions are becoming more popular with medium-duty customers, as they want more information and data on the health of their vehicles while they’re on the job or out in the field,” she notes. “While a large percentage of over-the-road customers have embraced the use of telematics data, medium-duty customers are utilizing the data available and integrating the data into their operations as well. We are seeing trends in remote diagnostics, proactive diagnostics, as features that will become more common for medium-duty applications in the future.”

Ford is also taking fleet communications, data and telematics requirements seriously, Koester says. “We’re updating all of our commercial vehicles, including the F-600, with standard modems with 4G LTE Wi-Fi for up to 10 devices to help keep drivers and crews connected while on the job or on the road. New Ford Telematics and Ford Data Services are available across the lineup to help commercial customers operate their fleets more efficiently and enable fleet managers to enhance uptime and asset utilization, optimize running costs, improve driver behavior, and protect their fleets.”

Top Heavy-Duty Trends

Electric trucks and hydrogen fuel cells may dominate headlines, but heavy-duty OEMs say fleets continue to focus on three major areas when it comes to vehicle specs: fuel efficiency, uptime, and safety.

1. Boosting MPG

“Fuel efficiency optimization is extremely important, because it can have a significant impact on our customers’ bottom lines as well as the environment, especially when it comes to long-haul applications,” says Allison Athey, product marketing manager, Volvo Trucks North America. She points to the Volvo VNL model as a “perfect” example of what Volvo Trucks is doing to meet the needs of improved fuel efficiency and driver comfort for long-haul applications.

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To maximize fuel efficiency, Volvo Trucks recommends pairing the D13 Turbo Compound engine with the proper driveline for the application. Depending on that application, the aerodynamic features of the truck can also have a considerable impact on the efficiency. “We work closely with our customers all the time to ensure optimal fuel economy regardless of application and operational factors,” notes Athey.

“One trend we’ve seen is that linehaul and regional-haul fleets are choosing lower horsepower ratings to support fuel economy efforts for their fleets specific operating environments,” says Laura Bloch, Kenworth assistant general manager for sales and marketing. To help meet this customer demand, earlier this year Kenworth added a rating of 405 hp at 1,650 lb-ft torque for the Paccar MX-13 engine.

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“This rating features a new torque curve that further refines the engine’s fuel economy performance in line-haul and regional-haul applications by lowering the engine’s horsepower rating while maintaining its torque,” she explains. The Paccar Powertrain Fuel Economy Package pairs the 405-hp rating with the Paccar 12-speed automated transmission, Paccar 40K tandem rear axle, and enhanced Kenworth predictive cruise control technology to maximize performance and fuel economy.

Freightliner announced its latest fuel economy enhancements at the NACV show in Atlanta in October, including teasing a new DD15 Gen 5 engine to be available in 2021. Updates to the next-generation engine allow for more efficient combustion, which increases fuel economy and reduces CO2 emissions. Coming sooner, in 2020, Detroit’s DT12 automated manual transmission will get higher overall ratios that will contribute to fuel efficiency improvements and provide better low-speed maneuverability.

2. Connecting to Gain Uptime

Class 8 fleets are embracing vehicle telematics systems in a big way as they seek to minimize or even eliminate unscheduled downtime.

Peterbilt announced a set of new uptime initiatives at the NACV show, with General Manager Jason Skoog highlighting new over-the-air updates for Paccar MX engines and aftertreatment systems beginning in December, and a new Platinum Service Center program to identify the company’s best dealers. Over-the-air updates will leverage the OEM’s existing SmartLinq remote diagnostics hardware and the Paccar Solutions portal, along with a new mobile app, to deliver secure software updates remotely.

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Mack is committed to giving its customers the most uptime possible, says Roy Horton, director of product strategy for Mack Trucks. “The only way to give fleets the uptime and total cost of ownership they demand is to give our products superior support in the field,” he says. To deliver on those initiatives, Horton points to a $700 million investment since 2010 in Mack’s 430-plus dealer locations, as well as its GuardDog Connect telematics network.

“Connectivity and support go hand-in-hand for us,” Horton explains. “Yes, we have game-changing telematics. But the key for us are our Uptime and OneCall centers, where we have real, live, humans manning the phones 365 days a year, 24/7. People don’t like to stand in line waiting for support. And they don’t like pushing buttons and talking to a computer when they have a downtime emergency on their hands.”

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3. Safety More Than Sells

There has been a significant uptick in safety systems for Class 8 trucks as well — not only in on-highway trucks, but also in vocational and on-/off-road applications.

Volvo, for example, has long seen safety as a core corporate value, and recently enhanced its comprehensive collision mitigation system, Volvo Active Driver Assist 2.0, to meet increased fleet demand. The system enhances the original VADA platform by integrating radar and camera capabilities to help drivers maintain a safe following distance through alerts and improved traffic awareness, as well as automatic emergency braking to reduce the risk of collisions.

Of course, Volvo’s not alone in offering ever-more-sophisticated driver safety systems.

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Navistar announced earlier this year it was making Bendix Wingman Fusion standard on all its heavy-duty trucks. Kenworth, Peterbilt, and Mack announced at NACV that they’re offering the latest Bendix Wingman Fusion system with new Highway Departure Braking and Multi-Lane Emergency Braking.

Freightliner earlier this year announced that the Cascadia would be the first truck in series production in North America to offer SAE Level 2 automation when equipped with the full Detroit Assurance 5.0 suite of safety systems. Navistar has said it will soon follow with Level 2 automation.

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“Fleets just aren’t tolerating unsafe vehicles anymore. They can’t afford to,” says Autocar’s Pochocki. “That goes for heavy-duty and medium-duty trucks alike. And what we’re finding as an OEM is that we have to design safety in as a fundamental element of the truck. Safety systems just can’t be add-ons anymore. They need to be integrated and work together seamlessly. And OEMs also have to keep in mind that ‘safety’ doesn’t just mean ‘around’ the truck. It includes things like good ergonomics with safe entry and egress to the cab, large windshields with wide fields of view as well.”

Technology moves at lightning speed in trucking, and both medium- and heavy-duty fleet managers increasingly understand how leveraging the latest developments can save money. Using the technologies outlined above, fleets today are saving fuel, cutting accidents and associated payouts, and getting vehicles back on the road sooner and keeping them there longer.

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