The ability of massive cargo ships to dock at newly expanded East Coast ports and the advent of advanced safety systems that will eventually pilot big rigs autonomously represent catalysts of fundamental change for the trucking industry.
Still, some seasoned players believe these major changes are perched on a distant horizon, leaving room for opportunity with the current state of technology and logistics.
Last year, Daimler revealed its 2018 Freightliner Cascadia, the first redesign of the big rig in a decade. As interest in the new Cascadia sleeper ramps up, Kary Schaefer, the general manager of marketing strategy for Freightliner, discussed her views on the Class 8 segment and where the industry is headed despite all the buzz.
How are orders for the new Cascadia?
January, February and March were ramp up months for production. Initially customers took smaller quantities of the trucks, and now we’re seeing a big increase in conversions to the new Cascadia. Now the order intake for new Cascadia is exceeding the current model by more than half in terms of volume, so we have a higher proportion of new Cascadia in our production mix.
With all the new trucks coming out in the market – new Cascadia, new Volvo VNL and Mack’s upcoming new truck – is the product cycle shortening?
We’ll see an increase of incremental improvements on the vehicles going forward, but none of the manufacturers have done a ground up new vehicle program. We are doing a lot of development on current platforms and improving them – adding interior features and improving electrical architectures.
The product cycle is still about 10 years?
Yes, Cascadia launched as a new vehicle in 2007, replacing two highway models that were in production at that time – the Columbia and the Century Class. Both products were phased out over time as the Cascadia grew more acceptance in the market. The end of production dates for those models coincided with newly-mandated EPA emissions [regulations], so our customers chose the new vehicle in order to comply and we had a natural ramp down of the older products.
Paccar and others are reporting strong orders for regional haulers and medium-duty trucks. What’s behind the trend?
Traditionally the vocational day cab market is pretty solid year-over-year. It doesn’t suffer the cycles that we see on the sleeper side. What we’re seeing is the same base vocational and regional haul volumes being maintained, and a little softening on the sleeper cabs.
Do you see any reason for manufacturers to focus on regional haulers because of the East Coast port expansions?
We’re seeing a shorter length of haul in general in the industry and I think that’s what’s driving some of the movement toward focusing in on the regional haul business. The increase in the warehouses, distribution centers and the way that the supply chains are set up is driving some of that shorter length of haul. That’s an e-commerce trend.
Everyone is talking about self-driving trucks. How far off is that future and how will it roll out?
Automated driving technology is an evolution from a lot of the safety systems that we see on the road today. When we look at a route, there will be certain portions – maybe identified or classified through mapping or geo-fencing – that will meet some criteria or perimeters for automated driving. And it will probably happen sooner than later.
Do I see an autonomous vehicle delivering freight, where it’s being dispatched and goes to the warehouse on a 200- or 300-mile route? I don’t see that happening unless there was a dedicated lane.
I think the integration of drones into commercial airspace is very similar to some of the challenges of automated driving technology or autonomous vehicles into public highways. I see some similarities and considerations there that have to be accounted for as we move down the different levels of autonomy.
Is platooning an autonomous solution for longer freight runs?
We know platooning is technically feasible. The time that you can platoon is something that needs to be better understood by fleets, and what is the impact on their logistics – what would have to change. The intra-fleet, inter-fleet or mixed-fleet pairing and platooning topic is a tough one too. We are in a pretty slim margin business and there’s not a lot of money to be had in taking a fee for a transaction between two different fleets. Unless you’re at some high density of vehicles with a high amount of pairable miles.
Will we see the benefits that people are touting in terms of fuel efficiency and lower congestion? That remains to be seen as it gets deployed or operationalized.
Will it fill the gap for the driver shortage?
If you got to the point where there would be no driver in the second vehicle, then potentially. But that’s a long way off and there is a lot of infrastructure and other considerations to enable that to happen. If we are able to reduce some of the driver workload or driving tasks, then the driver role could be shifted to other needs for managing and delivering freight. The driver role in the future is something that will change.