Building the right truck

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Martin Daum shared an interesting piece of insight this week about the truck making business during a special press/dealer event outside Washington D.C.: the challenges involved in building the right type of commercial vehicle for a customer base that’s as diverse as the stars, as the saying goes.

Daum, president & CEO of Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA), touched on this theme as he talked about the foundation of DTNA’s subsidiary, Freightliner Trucks LLC, by Leland James just after World War II.

In essence, Daum explained, James got into designing and building vehicles for his transportation business – despite his utter lack of manufacturing experience - because he couldn’t find the right type of vehicle for his freight-hauling operation (which eventually became now-defunct Consolidated Freightways). He literally had to go out and do it himself.

Daum summed up his takeaway from James’ story this way: “We never want our customers to have to figure out how to build the right truck on their own.” Because, obviously, if customers could do that, why buy the products built by OEMs in the first place?

Yet all truck OEMs are faced with several conundrums along this line of thought. The first is that a bevy of government regulations are imposing safety and emission control technology mandates upon them, adding to the cost of their products.

Then of course there are the basic metrics every commercial vehicle operator expects these trucks to meet – good fuel economy, low total cost of operation, reliability, durability and longevity.

Yet every trucking operation is different, and almost every customer believes a certain set of specifications gets the job done best – even if customers operating the same type of business rely on vastly different sets of specs.

As a result, all of those issues combined to force truck makers to do some very fast tap dancing over the past few years, Randy Smith, marketing segment manager with Freightliner, told me.

“For too many years, trucking was way behind the automotive industry in terms of [vehicle] design and technology,” he explained. “Now we have caught up. In fact, what took the automotive industry 30 years to do – reduce tailpipe emissions, improve safety and fuel economy – we’ve had to do in five years. And in some cases now we build far more advanced vehicles.”

Yet the complexities involved can’t be understated, Smith stressed to me. “Safety systems touted for today’s luxury cars, such as lane guidance and active braking systems, have already been in place on trucks for many years,” he pointed out. “But a truck is very different from a car; it’s much heavier, has a much higher center of gravity, and behaves very differently when loaded and when empty.”

Just some of the many challenges involved when trying to build the right truck for the customer in the rough-and-tumble freight world. 

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