DTNA president Roger Nielsen on electric vehicles, truck production and social justice

PORTLAND, Ore. – Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) is now producing trucks at pre-pandemic levels, is growing its electric vehicle fleet, and will be more vocal in support of social justice.

Those were a few revelations during a wide-ranging discussion with DTNA president and CEO Roger Nielsen on Aug. 17.

“It’s been a tough year,” he acknowledged, noting while production has ramped up to levels seen before the Covid-19 pandemic, overall 2020 volumes were affected by the second quarter shutdown.

DTNA president Roger Nielsen discusses electric trucks. (Source: Screen grab)

“July was a relatively good month for retail sales,” Nielsen said, anticipating the overall Classes 6-8 market in the U.S., Canada and Mexico could hit 310,000 vehicles this year, down from 492,000 in 2019. Sales are being driven by pent-up replacement demand as those trucks purchased during a very strong 2015 are due for replacement.

DTNA’s order backlog stretches well into the fourth quarter, and orders are now coming in for 2021 deliveries.

“We’re excited about that,” Nielsen said. “The level of business you see here is about what’s expected.”

Headquartered in Portland, Ore., where there have been nightly reports of social unrest, Nielsen said DTNA will be adding its voice to the call for social justice. While the protests haven’t affected DTNA’s ability to serve its customers, Nielsen said it’s important for the company to express its social conscience.

“DTNA is taking action to address racial and social injustices. We are not going to stand silently by and watch this happen. We feel we have a voice, and a strong voice,” Nielsen said. “We have the ability to put our voice and power behind that. You will see us with some strong messaging.”

(Source: Screen grab)

This process began with internal training, and even a book club centered around social justice and race relations. Nielsen said the company’s messaging on the issue will be non-partisan. But it will include efforts such as supporting minority-owned dealerships and fleets.

Nielsen also discussed the company’s 30-truck Innovation Fleet of battery electric vehicles (BEVs). Through this initiative, DTNA has provided customers with support in putting the required charging infrastructure in place, and has solicited their feedback on the trucks’ performance.

The fleet has racked up more than 300,000 miles this year, and Daimler now has about two million kilometers of BEV experience globally.

“Even during the pandemic, we have put our team on the road making sure these trucks get deployed properly,” said Nielsen.

DTNA plans to deploy more BEVs to support its “co-creation” approach to development, which relies heavily on customer feedback to assist in product design. As an example, Nielsen explained, customers are asked for their reaction to engine brake activation while in cruise control.

“BEVs are not going to happen by showing a few renderings and concepts.”

Roger Nielsen, DTNA

“If their cruise is set at 60 mph, do they want the truck to coast to 63 mph before the regenerative braking kicks in, or would they rather the truck go down the hill at 60 mph and use that energy they get by it kicking in early to recharge the battery?” Nielsen said. “We are always having trade-off discussions.”

Most of the trucks in DTNA’s BEV fleet are running 160 to 200 miles a day in a variety of distribution applications.

“BEVs are not going to happen by showing a few renderings and concepts,” Nielsen said. “We are putting these trucks into real applications.”

Most recently, the company has opted to electrify its line of walk-in van chassis to support last mile deliveries. However, the first BEV won’t be deployed in Canada until next year, the company notes.

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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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