Data compiled by economic research firm FTR Associates indicates that commercial truck sales – for both the heavy- and medium-duty segments – are beginning to stabilize, albeit at historically low levels. The million-dollar question, said FTR president Eric Starks, is when sales might start picking up again.

“We’re paying very close attention to the orders and sales numbers, because we could be at this bottom for a while,” Starks told FleetOwner. “But for now, order activity and sales are stabilizing both for Class 8 and medium-duty [segments]. We expect orders and sales to stay flat from the second through the third quarter, though there may be a [truck] production dip in the third quarter as OEMs shut plants down for vacation time.”

As a result, FTR’s Class 8 truck production forecast for 2009 remains unchanged; the firm still expects Class 8 production to finish the year 47% below 2008 levels. It also projects a slow recovery to begin in 2010 that will regain some of the ground lost this year. However, 2010 production is still anticipated to be approximately 30% below 2008 levels, FTR said.

“While the near-term picture is becoming clearer every day, there is an unusual amount of uncertainty with regard to 2011 and beyond,” Starks noted. “We are in an unprecedented economic situation where past performance does not necessarily provide relevant guideposts. The range of outcomes is still very wide, with either a continued slow recovery or a faster snap-back both quite possible.”

He pointed out that a lot of equipment still remains in the trucking market, much of it under-used, and that factor will complicate the truck sales recovery picture going forward. Starks also said that while medium-duty sales are stabilizing alongside the Class 8 market, that segment will behave differently going forward.

“General Motors is phasing out its medium-duty operations by the end of July, and it remains unclear how that will affect this segment,” he said. “With GM exiting the market, we may see some push-back, with customers unwilling to buy those models. I don’t expect that to happen, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it did. We’ll just have to see how that plays out.”