The more things change

THE AUDIENCE filled the Hyatt Regency ballroom. Ford's Dave Tarrant took the podium. After a few opening remarks, he asked those in the crowd to stand if they were in attendance 20 years ago when he addressed the NTEA Truck Product Conference for the first time.

The audience was silent. And motionless. Finally a few individuals rose to their feet and looked across the room at all of the people who remained seated.

Compared with what occurred 20 years ago, it was the same room. Same speaker. Same event. Same purpose. Same industry. But a radically different audience.

Trailer/Body Builders has covered all of the Truck Product Conferences, including those held before 1983. This year's conference was remarkably calm compared with some previous events, in large part because of the two-way communication between our industry and the chassis manufacturers over the years. At this year's Truck Product Conference, for example:

  • No chassis manufacturer introduced a chassis with nonparallel frame rails.

  • No one needed to ask chassis manufacturers when they would include an auxiliary fuel tap. After years of asking this question, chassis manufacturers have made them available for most (although not all) of the chassis where such a feature is valuable.

  • No one needed to ask about PTO provisions for automatic transmissions. These, too, have become options on most automatics that are used on commercial trucks.

  • No wholesale grumbling was heard about chassis pools. Apparently the industry companies that have complained in the past either have gotten one, learned to deal without one, or (as some distributors predicted) have been driven out of business by one.

A frequent complaint in the early years of the Truck Product Conference was that chassis manufacturers did not understand — or value — the truck equipment industry. But over the years, the information has become increasing on target. For example, International gave a fascinating demonstration of how to program its new multiplexed electrical system. Not a lot of, “look how wonderful we are,” but more a matter of, “Look, guys. Here's what it will do, and here's how you make it work.”

The conference was quiet this year, too, because our industry is in a period of regulatory calm. Other than the TREAD Act, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not shaken the industry with regulations that have had major, direct effects on the way truck bodies and equipment can be mounted on trucks.

New environmental regulations, rather than safety standards, have been affecting the commercial truck equipment industry recently. Chassis manufacturers continue to face major challenges to meet future emissions regulations. They survived the most recent tightening of Environmental Protection Agency regulations, but before the end of the decade they will have to prepare for two more rounds of tighter emissions regulations.

Regulations of engine emissions may not always affect truck body equipment installations, but they almost invariably affect the truck customer. We saw this vividly last year as customers scrambled to buy Class 8 trucks ahead of tighter emissions regulations, and then left the market en masse after the new limits went into effect.

It was emission regulations that led to the rash of fires related to fuel fill lines in the late 1980s. This significantly affected the ambulance industry, leading Ford to launch its Qualified Vehicle Modifier program. Now a California regulation has raised concerns again about fuel fill.

Ford and General Motors have both issued technical bulletins advising those who modify their vehicles of changes in the fuel system for the 2004 model year. Ford's changes involve all 2004 E-Series and 2005 F-Series trucks. GM's advisory applies to 2004-model vans, cutaways, and pickups powered by V-8 gasoline engines.

The California Air Resources Board recently slashed in half the allowable hydrocarbon emissions for gasoline engines (from 2 grams per 24 hours to merely 1 gram per 24 hours). Although it is a California requirement, manufacturers want to minimize the special systems for an individual state, preferring instead to sell the same vehicle in all 50 states.

The Ford and GM technical bulletins are remarkably similar in their response to this issue. Both companies have eliminated the fuel return line on vehicles powered by all but the smallest gasoline engines (diesel engines are not affected) and have reduced the diameter of the fuel fill lines.

One little irony from the GM Upfitter Integration bulletin — the changes will prevent the use of auxiliary fuel taps.

Two steps forward, and…Dave, can we sit down now?

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