The past year has been a good one for trucking, on many levels. On the equipment side, we saw some significant advancements in terms of fuel economy and reliability through things like powertrain optimization (including downspeeding and the integration of highly sophisticated automated transmissions) and the remote monitoring of engine fault codes. It’s amazing what the OEMs can accomplish when there isn’t an EPA-wielded guillotine hanging above their necks in the form of another looming emissions deadline.
When I speak to fleet owners and maintenance managers, for the first time in years I’m hearing genuine excitement about what their trucks are doing for them, and not just despondent complaints about downtime.
Here are a few of my personal highlights from the year that was, in covering this great industry:
Driving the new Western Star 5700XE
It’s not every day we get to celebrate the arrival of a completely new Class 8 truck. In recent years, it’s been all about subtle enhancements to existing models.
Western Star promised to bring ‘an edge to aero’ with its new 5700XE and this truck is indeed sharp. I was fortunate to spend a few extra hours with the truck and take it on a drive in the Nevada desert. This truck is a head-turner and if it’s priced competitively with other premium models, and if the fuel economy is as good as Western Star is claiming, then we could have a real winner on our hands, not to mention a complete revitalization of the Western Star brand. A new truck that can compete with the fuel economy leaders but also casts a completely different shadow on the ground – what’s not to love about that?
Automation in action
Self-driving trucks won’t be taking over the roadways any time soon, but the technology exists today to radically change the face of trucking in the future. This was the year autonomous driving permanently entered trucking’s lexicon.
I got to see it in action several times over the past year. First, Daimler demonstrated its first autonomously driven Mercedes-Benz Future Truck on a stretch of autobahn near Magdeburg, Germany. Two months later, the company took the wraps off the Future Truck and showed it in its entirety, featuring other futuristic concepts such as headlights buried underneath the skin of the vehicle and camera-based “mirrors” that sit inside the cab for improved aero.
ZF also got in on the action, showcasing a tractor and double-trailer unit that can be backed into place from outside the vehicle using only a tablet and app.
Peterbilt also demonstrated its autonomously driven truck in a Michigan parking lot. It was so precise the truck circled the parking lot and returned to its starting point, squishing a bottle of water that had been placed there – all without driver intervention.
This is really cool stuff, even if it’s still some time away in practical terms.
Let’s make a deal
‘Scale’ was one of the buzzwords that defined 2014. If you don’t have it, how will you compete in the future? We saw plenty of M&A activity this past year, including some blockbusters. None was bigger than TransForce’s buy of Contrans.
However, the most interesting deal to me was the pairing up of Kriska and Mill Creek to form a new, growth-oriented Kriska Transportation, with Mullen Group as a 30% stakeholder.
Another development that bears watching is Titanium Group’s transformation into a publicly traded entity. These moves set the stage for further acquisition activity in 2015 and some new power players.
We have reached the point where growing organically is nearly impossible and growth through acquisition is the only effective means of expansion. At the same time, adding scale is imperative if you hope to remain competitive. What will the wheelers and dealers have in store for 2015?
Natural gas fizzles
I drank the kool-aid. I thought this was going to be the year natural gas trucks finally burst into the mainstream and took over a significant portion of the Canadian commercial vehicle population.
But there’s been some softening of diesel prices and the pullback of high-displacement natural gas engine product development by Westport, Cummins and Volvo, has left many Canadian fleets out in the cold. There’s still a place for natural gas. The ISX12 G reportedly works well in applications limited to 80,000 lbs.
But for the vast majority of Canadian fleet operations, it’s not adequate. A 15L, or at the very least at 13L, is needed if natural gas is to become a mainstream fuel. Let’s be honest here. Who is going to build such an engine for what is a small segment of the overall North American market when the existing ISX12 G sufficiently meets the needs of US buyers?
I’m not holding my breath.
James Menzies is editor of Truck News magazine. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 15 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies. All posts by James Menzies