Although it’s a global truck manufacturer, Volvo Trucks views the U.S. market as critically important to both its own name brand and its venerable Mack truck line.
Susan Alt, Volvo’s senior vice president of public affairs, is the truck company’s chief representative in Washington, D.C. Alt must navigate the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies that regulate the trucking industry. She also serves as the company’s liaison with industry organizations like the Truckload Carriers Association and the American Trucking Associations.
In 30 years at Volvo, Alt has held management positions in engineering, product planning, marketing, global logistics and business development. Along the way, she earned her Class A Commercial Driver’s License. Although she has never hauled a load of cargo, Alt earned “Cool Mom” points for picking her kids up at school in a Class 8 tractor.
Alt discussed upcoming regulations and the hot market for trucks and technology at the recent FTR Transportation Intelligence forecasting conference. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.
What preparations are you making for the next rounds of greenhouse gas regulations?
The regulation itself is over 1,000 pages. We are talking with the people [in the federal government] regardless of the administration, trying to get it right because in one day, a government appointee can completely switch what you just spent three years working on. One thing we’ve learned is that the science may not matter. The relationship absolutely matters.
What’s your take on President Trump’s executive order eliminating two federal regulations for each new one?
It’s a mixed bag. I think slowing it down is OK. But there’s also the balance. There were some things, like automatic emergency braking, that were ready to go out, and then the new administration said, “Whoa, we’re going to do this two-for-one.” So that slowed it down even more. By the way, it doesn’t have to be regulated. We’re already standard with automatic emergency braking on our vehicles. But when there is a regulatory requirement and the whole industry has to do something, it helps get it to market faster.
We have new greenhouse regulations coming in ’21, ’24 and ’27. The administration is suggesting they’re going to review that and maybe slow it down, change it or even repeal it. As a manufacturer, we still have to abide by what the current law is, and we have to be ready with these regulations coming forward.
How do you reconcile federal environmental regulations with California’s tough standards?
We work really hard to try to keep them on the same path. Otherwise, you can imagine if the truck manufacturers had to develop a 49-state engine and what your carriers are going to do. California has been pushing very hard for a 90 percent reduction of nitrogen oxide or NOx emissions, from the engines. This impacts the industry because the technology for how to lower NOx with the engines we have is not known yet.
How should the industry read the surge in new truck orders knowing that they could easily be canceled?
When we had that huge order influx a few years ago, there were a lot of orders that were being placed that were not real, or they were stock orders that the dealers were putting in just because they wanted to make sure they had a build slot. What’s different this time is we have disciplined our dealers who put in false orders or stock orders that they aren’t sure they have a customer for. I think what’s amazing is that this is real freight out there. We have a very long order board right now, as all the manufacturers do.
What risks do you see that cause concern for you in the marketplace?
These trade tariffs are already increasing the price of our vehicles because we use steel and aluminum. How much of an impact will it have? Right now, it’s not really that big because there’s so much freight demand. But the trade policies and import tariffs could start increasing prices of other things.
What is Volvo doing to get value from all the data coming from on-board computers?
We’re using statistical analyses. We’re hiring people we’ve never hired before, people with doctorates in statistical analysis that are very helpful to learn from. Information overload is obviously an issue, but I think we’re learning enough to know what to pull and what not to pull. It’s just going to take time for us to continue to get better at it.
How do you assess the state of alternative fuels versus the industry’s reliance on diesel fuel?
The diesel engine, as old and boring as it is, is still getting better. In terms of alternative fuels, whether it’s electricity or natural gas or dimethyl ether, it is about the infrastructure to be able to fuel the vehicle. If I take diesel or even gas, there’s an infrastructure that’s been developed for 70 years. You can get fuel on every single corner. We can build a truck that runs on about anything that you could ignite, but it may not be as efficient.