ORLANDO, FL – Against a backdrop of strong sales and the promise of a growing economy, Daimler Trucks North America continues to explore emerging technologies from electrification to platooning.
“We’re going to finish strong this year,” said president Roger Nielsen, during a wide-ranging roundtable discussion with industry media during the American Trucking Associations’ annual meeting.
While the Canadian market for Class 6-8 trucks expanded by 6% year over year as of September, Daimler’s related market share dropped 3.9%. Much of the Canadian market’s growth can be attributed to the Oil Patch, Nielsen said. “Honestly, the market growth there is not in a segment where we’re most competitive,” he admitted. “We’re going to solve that (drop), so don’t think I’m going to let that sit.”
Across NAFTA countries, Class 6-8 sales are down 5%, while the Daimler market share holds relatively steady with a gain of 0.2%. Overall Class 8 sales in the U.S. are down 10% in the same time period, although the company’s market share in that country is stable with a growth of 0.3%; Class 6 and 7 sales are up about 1%, with the Daimler market share up 0.7%.
The most dramatic sales gains in the organization are at Western Star, with a 30% jump compared to the previous year. Those gains can be credited in part to the 4700 model, he said.
While raw material costs are rising, their impact on truck prices still remains a discussion point with customers, Nielsen said, adding that the company looks to control the Total Cost of Ownership through fuel efficiency and productivity gains.
At a time when several industry players are announcing electric truck plans, Nielsen was quick to note that Daimler already has a presence in the market. Its urban e-Truck in Europe has a 120-mile range, a Gross Vehicle Weight of 57,000 pounds, and can charge in two to three hours. The medium-duty Fuso e-Canter being released in North America has a 62-mile range and 10,560-pound Gross Vehicle Weight. The latter truck is scheduled to launch with four models in 2019.
He also confirmed that work is underway to develop an electric version of the Cascadia tractor.
“We believe it’s a technology worth exploring,” he said of electric trucks. But there is still the need to increase battery power density and reduce weight penalties, delivering a Total Cost of Ownership that creates a sound business case for truck operators.
A vehicle battery will last about six to seven years, but does that mean an electric truck has no value at the end of that timeframe, he asked. A truck’s depreciating value is tracked through three different customers, but what does that mean for the third buyer?
“It’s not just the battery, it’s not just the electric drive axle, it’s the whole vehicle,” he added.
Product development has hardly stopped there. Among ongoing work is the move to ever-taller rear axle ratios. “We’re doing quite an investment in machining to make that happen,” he said.
Daimler also wants commitments for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Phase 2 Greenhouse Gas emissions standards to continue.
“We are encouraging EPA to keep the standard as it is right now,” Nielsen said, noting that the rules offer fuel economy gains and certainty in the truck development process.
Questions have been raised about whether the rules pertaining to glider kits and trailers might be at risk under a U.S. presidential mandate to reduce regulatory burdens. Nielsen openly hoped for a unified standard across the country.
Another focus involves keeping trucks on the road. The company now has 262 locations certified to Elite Support standards, committing to such things as express assessments.
Advancements in telematics have a role to play here, too. “We know when a truck is in trouble. We know where trucks are, and we can pre-diagnose when trucks are failing,” he said. Gains have also been realized in the ability to flash repairs from afar, updating firmware through cellular connections. Requiring trucks to return to a shop for such work would be akin to people taking an iPhone back to the Apple Genius counter for software updates, he said.
It’s about more than repairs, though. Fleets can use the technology to incentivise drivers, perhaps setting top speeds at 66 miles per hour when using fuel-saving cruise control, or 62 miles per hour when drivers insist on controlling the throttle and gears on their own.
Daimler’s connectivity gains are not meant to replace a telematics provider like Omnitracs, but Nielsen questioned the need for different systems to have independent connections to the outside world, whether that is for a camera, fleet management system, or even a refrigerator in the context of the Internet of Things. The existing truck data center has the power to combine that through a single source, and Daimler has established a development kit for third-party software. Its existing systems can already detect hard braking, hard acceleration, and strange maneuvers at the steering wheel, after all.
Then there are ongoing plans for the future, with evermore refinements in active driver safety systems like lane-keeping technologies that support the potential for fuel-saving truck platoons.
It is a scary experience to sit just 45 feet behind a stainless steel trailer and see your headlights reflected in the surface, said Nielsen, who has completed a test drive himself. “You simply can’t see around the truck in front of you.”
Platooning has a niche, and the underlying technology is ready, he said. Daimler is combining radar, cameras, and vehicle-to-vehicle communications, with antennas on both mirrors so there’s always a line of sight between lead vehicles and those that follow during tests. “We would be the last to advocate a driver sit with his arms crossed, but it will be possible,” he said, referring to lane-keeping systems.
But there are still questions to answer, and they involve more than technological advances alone. Technically there is no limit to the length of a platoon, but there would have to be a business model to support different lengths. “I haven’t had anybody yet say we need five (vehicles), he said. The motoring public also has to learn that the tight gaps between two platooning trucks aren’t meant for their cars, either.
Other productivity gains can still be realized by going old-school. “Why would you invest in platooning if you could put dollies underneath?” Nielsen asked, referring to Long Combination Vehicles as another option.
Daimler itself is steering away from language about autonomous trucks and instead focusing on the active safety systems that support drivers.
Society is not ready for driverless trucks, Nielsen said. There are also practical considerations that have yet to be addressed. Drivers who approach each other at a four-way stop predict movements by catching a fellow driver’s eyes. That wouldn’t happen with autonomous technology.
Automated vehicles that are strictly following rules in a crowded intersection might never get the chance to turn. It’s a huge task to program the related braking, steering and acceleration, he added.
Above all, a description of autonomous trucks leaves the impression that vehicles won’t require drivers, Nielsen said. “We don’t believe that.”