DTNA optimistic about year ahead, continuing to push technology

ORLANDO, Fla. – Roger Nielsen, president and chief executive officer of Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA), is anticipating a strong year for truck sales in 2018.

“We see a strong finish to 2017, as well as good business next year,” he said during a media roundtable at the American Trucking Associations’ annual Management Conference & Exhibition. Recent orders are supporting that belief. Nielsen said DTNA over a recent weekend took orders for 5,000 units, from four customers operating in four different business segments.

“This tells us business is going well across the industry,” Nielsen said. “We are pleased with how the year is going and excited about our prospects for 2018.”

Through September, DNTA’s share of the NAFTA Classes 6-8 market inched up 0.2%. However, it was down 3.9% in Canada. Nielsen attributed this to the recovery of the oil and gas segment – which is not DTNA’s strongest – skewing the numbers.

“Honestly, the market growth there is not in the segment where we’re the most competitive,” he explained. “But we’re going to solve that.”

Western Star sales were a bright spot for DTNA, up about 30%. Nielsen said this is mostly due to the success of the 4700 model, which has given it in-roads into municipalities and lighter-duty Class 8 applications.

As for its top-selling new Cascadia, Nielsen said further improvements in fuel efficiency are already being developed.

“We have a whole series of developments on the vehicle side and the powertrain side that will increase the fuel efficiency of our products,” he said. “Some are in line with GHG Phase 2 and others in line with what our customers expect, which is year-over-year that we get better and better.”

As for those GHG Phase 2 rules, Nielsen is hoping the current administration doesn’t change them, as they are focused on driving improved fuel economy.

“We believe we owe it to our customers to continue to provide fuel efficiency improvements. We are watching the discussion on GHG Phase 2 and on what the EPA may or may not do, but for sure it’s not modifying our path. We are encouraging EPA to keep with the standard as written – we don’t see a need for rescinding it,” Nielsen said. “We believe that what’s agreed upon is great for the industry.”

Nielsen also spoke of connectivity, and how that’s bringing benefits to fleet customers. Detroit Connect is standard on all DTNA trucks and helps predict breakdowns. Over-the-air software updates are another way DTNA is reducing downtime.

Asked about emerging technologies such as truck platooning and autonomous driving, Nielsen said while Freightliner is testing platooning, he’s convinced lane keep assist needs to be an element that comes first.

“We are not ready to announce a market availability of platooning,” he said. “But you will see us coming out soon with active lane keeping as another advanced driver assistance system.”

Nielsen said the following drivers in a truck platoon can become fatigued when staring at the back of a trailer at close range all day, so lane keeping assist is necessary for safety. Nielsen also threw water on the idea trucks will be driverless in the near future.

“The driver does more than steer and brake and accelerate,” he said. “He provides quite a service to shippers and the fleet he drives for, pre-trip inspections, post-trip inspections, and handling issues that come up on the road.”

Instead of trying to replace the driver, Nielsen said DTNA’s focus is on making his environment safer. Truck platooning appears to be more practical, but this will initially at least only be possible with like trucks.

“We don’t believe in promiscuous pairing,” Nielsen joked. “We definitely believe it is intra-fleet, and if two fleets with common equipment would like to pair, we have the technology to open up the devices so that Fleet A and Fleet B can cooperate, but definitely not mixed brands. I think this is a bridge too far at the moment.”

On the topic of electric trucks, Nielsen confirmed a Cascadia-E is being developed.

“We believe it’s a technology worth exploring,” he said. “We need to increase the power density and get rid of the weight penalty to make sure the total cost of ownership makes a viable business case.”

Heavy-duty electric trucks from DTNA may be put into service in applications where it makes sense as early as 2018, he said. However challenges remain, such as determining the value of a truck after the battery pack expires.

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James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 20 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at james@newcom.ca or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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