More than one way out

Welcome to the 2008 version of Trailer/Body Builders' annual Buyer's Guide.

We feel this year's edition is as comprehensive as any that we have ever published. We just wish there were a few more buyers out there to guide.

For most of us in the industry, the market is a lot more challenging than it was this time last year. A number of factors have converged to produce one of the most difficult environments in recent years. A key factor has been the rising cost of raw materials.

Truck body and trailer manufacturers have been impacted significantly by escalating steel and aluminum prices in recent years. But the raw material that has the biggest effect on our industry is petroleum. Rising fuel prices impact customers' profits — and their ability to buy trucks and trailers. But it also takes away their reason to buy. Rising energy prices sap our economic growth. And it takes a growing economy to increase the need for commercial vehicles.

So what to do? Few topics are as polarizing as proposals for solving our energy woes. Far too often, people who otherwise avoid simplistic solutions fall into one of two camps — the green camp or the black camp. They only want to conserve energy or they only want to expand oil production. Anyone in the other camp is wrong.

The reality is that we have a complex problem with no simple solution. We can't just drill our way out of it, nor will we be able to conserve our way to energy independence.

But the advent of four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline certainly makes proposals that previously were marginal look viable. For example, how many of you industry veterans ever thought that you would see medium-duty trucks powered by electric motors? Yet electric vehicles — primarily light-duty, but a growing number of medium-duty trucks — were a fairly common product at the recent Commercial Vehicle Show in Birmingham, England. They are gaining a foothold in a country where the price of gasoline has exceeded $8 per gallon.

The ultimate way to conserve petroleum is not to burn any, which is the beauty of purely electrical vehicles. But will electric power gain widespread acceptance in the commercial truck market? Clearly it's not for every application, but we here in the U S will get to see for ourselves. One exhibitor, American flag displayed prominently at its exhibit at the Commercial Vehicle Show, touted a medium-duty truck that is made in North America for North America. Electric trucks could be coming soon to a customer near you. For a complete report on the Commercial Vehicle Show, please see our coverage beginning on Page 36.

Electric trucks still have plenty of questions to answer. Besides practical performance and durability concerns, these “green” vehicles raise some environmental issues of their own. For example, how do we dispose of worn out batteries? And if we have millions of vehicles plugged into electrical outlets to charge their batteries, how will we meet the additional demand for electricity? Will the same folks who oppose drilling off the coast of Florida support the construction of nuclear power plants?

Technology got us into our current predicament, and we are confident that technology eventually will get us out. In the meantime, we are going to need to have our feet planted solidly in both camps — exploration and conservation. We can't just drill, and we can't just conserve. We will need some cooperation and compromise between those who oppose any expansion of our traditional energy supplies and those who think a carbon footprint is what you get by walking through a coal mine.

We can no longer dismiss pleas for expanded drilling as something that takes too long or has no impact. OPEC showed us the future in 1973, and Iran reminded us again in 1979. We responded with seminars on how to weather-strip a house in 1973, and we watched a president “lead” the way in 1979 by wearing a sweater and telling us to lower our thermostats. Had we acted 30 years ago, perhaps we would not be arguing today that it takes 20 years to develop an oilfield.

Conversely, we can no longer plan the future the way we have planned the past. After five years of construction and a cost in excess of $2 billion, a newly expanded Interstate 10 is set to open on the west side of Houston — just in time for record gasoline prices. A 22-mile project. Eighteen lanes of traffic. No mass transit.

Brighter minds than this one need to come up with some answers soon. Not just new ways to conserve, not just new places to drill. We can and must do both. The alternative is to continue exporting jobs, our national treasure, and our future.

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