Your father's commercial vehicles

Feb. 1, 2011
THE trucks and trailers of today are not your father's commercial vehicles. And before long, they won't be yours, either. Commercial vehicles both trucks

THE trucks and trailers of today are not your father's commercial vehicles. And before long, they won't be yours, either.

Commercial vehicles — both trucks and trailers — are radically different from those of a generation ago. Our father's business world was a lot smaller than ours is today. Trucks and trailers were built here, they were sourced here, and they were sold here. All right here in the USA.

When Volkswagens, Datsuns, and Toyotas began rolling onto U S shores, it was easy to believe that imported cars would be just that — imported cars. Commercial vehicles, conventional wisdom had it, would remain domestic products for a number of reasons. Trailers were far too big to be shipped across oceans and still be competitive. Commercial trucks were a custom business that required local parts and local service. Besides, they all came with metric fasteners. Who owned metric wrenches back then?

That's all changed. Check out our annual survey of trailer production that begins on Page 18, and you will find that of the six largest trailer manufacturers in North America, two are subsidiaries of international companies. Beyond that, even some brands that are as American as apple pie are using trailer components made elsewhere — just as American-based trailer suppliers are finding success marketing internationally.

But while international companies have established themselves in the North American trailer market, the real revolution may be coming in commercial trucks.

Truck manufacturers will face major challenges to produce vehicles that meet the sometimes conflicting needs of a changing market. On one hand, they will need a quality, dependable truck that also appeals to the driver. Trucking industry capacity has already tightened, and executives are concerned about an approaching driver shortage that will dwarf the one experienced just before the economy nosedived. One way fleets have remained competitive in times of driver shortages has been to buy trucks that are ergonomic and well-equipped with driver amenities.

On the other hand, the regulatory environment promises to put upward pressure on truck prices. This will be on top of the recent five-digit increase in heavy truck prices. Just the cost of new emissions systems would be enough to purchase one of your father's Class 8 trucks, with enough left over for a down payment on his Oldsmobile.

Likewise, the truck customer undoubtedly will have to cope with rising fuel costs and other operating expenses. So what is the answer? As one of the speakers at the recent Heavy Duty Dialogue said, the challenge for truck manufacturers will not be to make cheap trucks. The challenge will be to make trucks cheaply.

For all truck manufacturers, that will mean finding the ideal balance between quality and price for each part of the truck. Deciding between what's desirable and what's affordable will be more important than ever before. And that may well present opportunities for truck manufacturers from India and China to market their products here in North America.

That can happen in a variety of ways, most likely joint ventures between U S and international companies. That process is well under way, with numerous North American and Western European companies already in partnership with one another (see Page 32).

It's likely that some of these products will find acceptance in North America, especially with manufacturers finding ways to slash costs by almost 30%. They are doing it a little at a time, finding 3% cost savings here, 4% there. But the incremental savings add up to double-digit cost reductions. Target pricing is under $20,000 for a light-duty commercial vehicle, under $40,000 for a medium-duty truck, and less than $85,000 for heavy-duty models.

Truck manufacturers clearly can achieve labor savings by producing their products in Third World countries, but some of the cost reductions being talked about for future vehicles involve the content. As the coming decade unfolds, we wonder how eager North American truck customers will be to buy “good” and not “best.” Will they pick manual transmissions over automatics? Fuel efficiency over power? Vinyl over leather?

How will the mindset of the customer change over the next decade? Greenhouse gas regulations, rising fuel prices, and other bottom-line concerns will conflict with desires for speed, performance, and driver comfort. What will the customer value most? That will be the overriding factor as truck and trailer engineers draw up something different from today' commercial vehicles.

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