Collaboration, globalization to define future of commercial vehicle market

Collaboration and globalization will be the keys to success for truck and van manufacturers in the coming years.

That’s according to Tim Campbell, managing director at Campbells Consultancy, who was speaking at the virtual NTEA Work Truck Show March 9. And he has made some prescient observations during past presentations at the Work Truck Show.

In 2009, he predicted the U.S. would see an influx of European cargo vans, which came to fruition, and in 2014 he predicted another European truck manufacturer would enter the U.S. market. Volkswagen proved him right when its Traton truck division agreed to buy Navistar.

Looking to the future, Campbell said OEMs will continue to form partnerships as they transition to electric and hydrogen fuel cell platforms. Already, Ford and Volkswagen are partnering on commercial vans, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has merged with PSA Groupe to form Stellantis and will streamline their commercial vehicle lines, and Mercedes-Benz is working with Renault in Europe on light vans.

Daimler has also formed a joint venture with Volvo to develop fuel cells.

“Nobody can do it by themselves,” Campbell said of building global commercial vehicle platforms while transitioning to emissions-free powertrains. “Therefore, we have this market where everybody is getting together and what were enemies are now best friends.”

Euro-styled cargo vans like the Mercedes-Benz Metris have redefined the commercial vehicle space in North America. (Photo: James Menzies)

The result will be an increase in Euro-styled commercial vans entering the North American market, Campbell added. “It’s not the end, but the beginning.”

There will also be more European influence on North American trucks. This has already been seen in form of automated transmissions, which were slow to gain acceptance here but have eventually taken over the market.

“Ten years ago, they’d all be manuals,” he said of North American Class 8 trucks. “Now you can’t have that. The engine is so sophisticated, the gearbox is so sophisticated and the chassis is so sophisticated – you can’t have someone in the middle messing with the gearbox. Someone in the middle such as a driver playing about with the gears does not do any good.”

Heavy truck platforms will become increasingly globalized, Campbell said.

“What’s it mean to you? It means what was a 3,000-mile gap is now probably a 30-mile gap,” he added.

Collaboration is also being driven by the arrival of new entrants to the commercial vehicle space. They have the benefit of designing zero-emissions vehicles from a blank slate while incumbent players have legacy platforms they must try to adapt. Campbell also warned some Chinese vehicle manufacturers will likely bring their products to North America at some point.

Another reason collaboration between OEMs will be necessary is that governments around the world are mandating zero-emissions vehicles sooner than expected. In the United Kingdom, for instance, there will be no fossil fuel-powered light-duty vehicles allowed in nine years. That imposes ambitious R&D timelines on the OEMs.

But will the future be dominated by battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell commercial vehicles? Both will have their place, Campbell said, battery electric in urban haul and hydrogen fuel cell for longhaul. There could be some middle ground where battery electric will work in regional applications, but only when range is extended, by pulling battery-equipped trailers for example.

Campbell urged fleet operators and upfitters to acquaint themselves with the emerging technologies now, so they’re prepared for drastic changes. He said they should ask OEMs about their future plans, figure out how they’ll fuel zero-emissions vehicles, try to understand the implications for existing on-board systems such as hydraulics or onboard diagnostics, and how they’ll train staff on the new technologies.

“Get close to the OEMs,” he concluded. “They have a better idea of the future.”

James Menzies

James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 18 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at james@newcom.ca or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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