More status, more equipment options; more safety regs, too?

The best of times may be ahead for medium-duty fleet managers. Problem is, the worst of times lurks along the very same road. What I'm talking about is the convergence of two events that are creating positive and negative fallout for medium-duty fleets.

The first is quite simple: Medium-duty truck sales are booming. Mike Parrish, national medium-duty sales manager for Kenworth Truck Co., sees Class 5-7 truck sales topping 200,000 units a year. Those numbers convinced Kenworth to bring the Class 7 K300 cabover to the U.S. market and spend $90 million to dedicate its St. Therese, Que., plant to build only medium-duties.

"It's absolutely a more important market today," he told me recently. "We're forming more support packages for our medium-duty customers, including different financial packages, contract maintenance options, Paccar Leasing options, and 24/7 customer support hot lines."

Paul Vikner, exec. vp-sales and marketing for Mack Trucks, is equally enthused about the potential of the medium-duty market. "The medium-duty customer is much more important now to the manufacturer, as well as the dealer," he said. "The medium-duty truck is a necessary tool for butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers, and we recognize we've got to offer them more products and services."

Even traditional Class 8 manufacturers such as Western Star seem to have gotten the message. Late last year, the OEM rolled out a complete Class 7 product line.

End result? Medium-duty fleets will no longer play second fiddle to their Class 8 brethren. If you operate a fleet of medium-duty vehicles, you're going to see a much wider variety of product and service options coming your way. You're going to be courted vigorously by all the major manufacturers, and you're going to see a lot of good deals coming down the pike.

That's the good news. But here's where the hair on the back of your neck should stand up.

The trucking industry has a new regulatory oversight agency called the Motor Carrier Safety Administration (MCSA), finally putting truckers on equal par with the railroad, aviation, and maritime industries.

There's just one problem: MCSA is the only transportation agency with the word "safety" in its name. And it seems likely that it's going to use "safety" as a way to tighten its oversight of medium- and light-duty fleets.

John McQuaid, president and CEO of the National Private Truck Council, believes it's likely that we'll see the CDL requirement extended to all operators of commercial vehicles over 10,000 lb. very soon.

"You're going to witness an explosion of e-commerce and the needs of people involved with it for light- and medium-duty vehicles," he told me. According to McQuaid, light- and medium-duty vehicles will be the circulatory system of e-commerce. "That means higher visibility and more attention from the regulators."

That's why he thinks a CDL requirement for commercial vehicles 10,000 lb. and up is on the way. And sooner rather than later.

"In my view, there's an inevitability about all of this," he explained. "There are some out there who say, 'while we did get our own separate regulatory oversight agency to put us on par with the other modes, we're the only modal administration that actually has the word "safety" in it.' It could be a millstone around the neck of the truck and bus industries. It's going to be a license for aggressive safety enforcement ... for all classes of commercial vehicles."

Buckle up, everyone. It's going to be a wild ride.