Motor carriers have placed orders for 397,000 big trucks so far this year, a 109 percent gain over the first three quarters of last year and the most in two decades.
Surging freight demand, higher shipping rates and a lack of trucks to haul goods has led trucking fleets and dealers to order earlier than usual. The nation’s low unemployment has made it harder to recruit new drivers to haul the cargo, while a shortage of diesel mechanics to fix broken trucks has hurt fleet productivity.
“What’s amazing is that this is real freight out there,” said Susan Alt, director of public affairs for Volvo Trucks North America. “A few years ago, a lot of orders were placed that were not real, or they were stock orders dealers were putting in because they wanted to make sure they had a build slot. What’s different this time is we have disciplined our dealers not to put in false orders.”
The backlog of trucks waiting to be built swelled to about 297,000 in September. Many manufacturers are sold out for the remainder of this year and beyond the first half of 2019. Kenworth, for example, has told customers to expect to wait 60 weeks for new W990 models introduced last week.
Parts shortages for several months this year left thousands of unfinished trucks stranded at plants. Most have been finished and delivered. But supply chain bottlenecks could happen again as suppliers struggle to find workers, said Don Ake, vice president of commercial vehicles at FTR Transportation Intelligence.
The last time truck orders approached this level was in the first nine months of 1998, when 290,200 orders were placed.
Preliminary orders for 42,800 heavy-duty trucks in September were 90 percent ahead of the same month a year ago. An average of 44,100 trucks a month have been ordered so far this year, said Kenny Vieth, president of ACT Research.
A slower pace of orders is expected in the fourth quarter because so many orders were placed earlier than usual, said David Leiker, senior research analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co. But orders still could be 25 percent higher than last year’s fourth quarter. That would cement a record year.