2011 Heavy Truck Report

Sept. 28, 2011

The truck-building business is looking up. Haulers of general freight and foodstuffs returned to the market in 2010’s later months and continued well into this year. Sales of Class 8 trucks, tractors and trailers are up substantially over last year, depending on segment. Light and medium-duty trucks are also up, reflecting resurgence in the economy as well as pent-up demand.

The truck-building business is looking up. Haulers of general freight and foodstuffs returned to the market in 2010’s later months and continued well into this year. Sales of Class 8 trucks, tractors and trailers are up substantially over last year, depending on segment. Light and medium-duty trucks are also up, reflecting resurgence in the economy as well as pent-up demand.

Trucks average nine years in age and need to be replaced, says Len Deluca, sales manager at Ford Commercial Truck, and it’s happening. “Overall our business is up 17 percent as of July,” he reports. “We expect it to be up again in August. We’re up in every vehicle line. SuperDuty is up 10 percent, and that’s driven by chassis-cab, which is up 48 percent. That’s good to see because that’s construction, home building, landscaping and so forth. That business has been down for a while.”

Shorter Stopping Distances

Emerging from truck factories in the United States right now are road tractors that can stop in substantially shorter distances than those built until the end of July. That’s because new reduced stopping distance (RSD) requirements took effect on August 1.

The changes to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 121, the air-brake regulation, were announced several years ago but were anticipated years before. They require most highway tractors to stop in about 30 percent shorter distance than before during panic-type braking.

Affected are three-axle tractors grossing up to 59,600 pounds, which includes tractors that pull dump and other construction trailers. They must stop no more than 250 feet from when brakes are applied at 60 mph, compared to 355 feet under the previous rule. There are other requirements from slower speeds. Heavier three- and four-axle tractors, and lighter two-axle tractors, will be affected later.

The rules do not affect straight trucks, including heavy dumpers and mixers, because federal authorities believe they run at lower speeds and often have extra axles and brakes to help them stop safely. They also do not affect trailers because their axles and brakes help combination vehicles stop in about the same distance as tractors alone.

To ensure compliance, manufacturers build in a 10 percent safety factor. So affected tractors with stronger S-cam drum brakes can stop in about 225 feet from 60 mph, and those with air disc brakes can stop in 215 feet, say brake makers. Because the vast majority of stops are routine and gradual, tractor-trailer drivers won’t notice the stronger brakes on post-July 30 tractors unless they get into a panic situation, manufacturers say.

To achieve the higher performance, manufacturers are using larger front and rear S-cam drum brakes, or in some cases air disc brakes. Fasteners in the brakes are also slightly larger. Front axles and suspensions are slightly stronger to take greater forward weight transfer that comes in the more severe panic-type stops.

Traditional 15-inch-diameter by 5-inch-wide drum brakes on steer axles have been replaced with 16.5x5-inch or a 16.6x6-inch size, brake manufacturers say. Some drive-axle drum brakes are wider, with 16.5x7 and 16.5x8-5/8 sizes predominating.

Larger brakes have extra thermal capacity—the ability to absorb heat without fading on long downgrades. That and extra lining life are why some truckers already use 16.5-inch front brakes. Those who use engine or driveline retarders won’t need much of the increased thermal performance, but it’s there as a safety factor.

Compared to the pre-RSD 15-inch steer-axle brakes, the bigger drum brakes and their associated gear are heavier, by about 60 to 80 pounds per axle. They are somewhat more expensive, but the costs are built into the vehicles’ list prices so are hard to pin down.

Air disc brakes are not needed to meet the RSD requirements, but they offer other benefits. Side-to-side balance is better with discs, and fleet managers who have begun buying them say drivers like the more precise pedal feel. Knowing he has disc brakes can give a driver a more secure feeling, some think, but worry that this might lead to more aggressive driving. 

Discs are inherently self-adjusting while drums use separate slack-adjuster mechanisms that don’t always work and themselves require periodic attention. Disc pads are easier to change than drum linings, though some quick-change drum designs make replacing shoes almost as fast as disc pads. In some cases disc brakes will be equal in weight or lighter than drums, though drums can be ordered with lightweight mounting spiders and hubs.

Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems and Meritor Inc., the principal brake manufacturers for power units, say they’ve made many advancements in drum brakes. That, along with reasonable prices and complete familiarity by fleet maintenance people, have kept them popular. S-cam drums will therefore continue to be used on most North American tractors and trucks.

Bendix and Meritor also offer air disc brakes, and they are optional from various truck builders.  Bendix Spicer discs are standard on the steer axles of most Peterbilt Class 8 models, including vocational trucks. In past years the brake manufacturers pushed hard to try to sell air disc brakes, but few fleets bought them because they were satisfied with the adequate performance and lower upfront cost of drums. Brake makers now say they’re happy to sell either kind to vehicle buyers.

Brake and truck makers say that preparing to meet the new braking requirements was a multiyear effort involving extensive lab, track and road testing, and use of newly formulated friction materials. The stronger foundation brakes had to be integrated into the vehicles’ braking systems, which meant much work with valves and other hardware.

Friction materials are more critical than ever to proper brake operation, and Bendix and Meritor engineers say that come relining time, vehicle owners should absolutely use original-equipment linings. This is not new, as brake makers for years have insisted that OE linings are needed to keep OE-level performance. And they discourage the practice of rebuilding shoes with new linings because tables might be warped. But it’s more true now than ever, the companies say.

In the real world, some truck operators will seek lower prices that many aftermarket products carry. Stemco, a major supplier of aftermarket linings, says its friction products are tested according to strict procedures to ensure proper performance. Anyone buying non-OE-brand brake products should look for proof of such testing.

Counterparts at Chrysler and General Motors had similar positive reports. An industry total of 680,000 full-size trucks in 1/2-, 3/4- and 1-ton categories were sold, says Tom Wilkinson, a marketing communications specialist at Chevrolet. The second half of the year usually sees a surge due to incentives offered to clear out leftover models, followed by enthusiasm for new models and last-minute purchases by corporate buyers. So sales this year will probably total 1.4 million to 1.5 million light trucks, “but that’s not an official forecast,” he says. 

In mediums and heavies, American truck builders report that sales of vocational trucks have picked up somewhat, though they’re mostly in nonconstruction sectors such as municipalities and energy production. Partly pushed by federal stimulus money, road and bridge building and maintenance activities have caused sales of muni-type trucks that double as snow plows in colder climes.

Concrete mixer uptick

One segment that’s been dead for several years is concrete-pumper chassis, and the ones displayed at trade shows early this year were probably there in 2010 and before. Inventories of unsold pumper chassis have been sitting since before the advent of more complex EPA 2007 diesels, and can be had at good prices. All that’s needed is some concrete to pour and pump. Yet some builders report a spate of sales of mixer chassis.

“There’s an uptick in the mixer market, but nothing like three or four years ago,” Kenworth’s vocational segment marketing manager, Alan Fennimore, said earlier this summer. “We’ve sold as many mixers so far this year as we sold in the two years prior. People started to replace what they bought in ’04-06, and then they started pulling back.”

Industry wide, the increase in mixer production was 30 to 35 percent in the first five months of this year, says Dave Rinas, Terex Advance’s director of sales, who quotes numbers from a monthly report issued by the National Ready Mix Concrete Association. Domestic production, which includes North America, was up 15 percent, while exports were up dramatically as other world economies are recovering faster.

But the market’s become stagnant again, Rinas says. This is not unusual in the concrete business, whose operators tend to order trucks in the first and last quarters and lay off buying in summer and fall.

Terex Advance builds front-discharge mixers, a small segment of the construction market that’s been heavily impacted by the economy. It also produces rear-discharge mixers for installation on conventional-cab chassis. Rinas says that “glider trucks”—new front-discharge chassis, cabs and mixer bodies with used or rebuilt engines, transmissions and axles—comprise 80 to 90 percent of the company’s production. All-new trucks account for 10 to 20 percent. Advance has engineered 2010-spec Detroit and Cummins diesels into its new chassis.

Arch-competitor Indiana Phoenix reports production there is entirely gliders and has been for some time. It offers several types of gliders that vary in the number, type and origin of the used components installed in new chassis. The small company has a deal in the works with a large company, Navistar International, that will have Phoenix assemble new Continental-badged front-discharge trucks using Navistar MaxxForce diesels. Navistar bought Continental in 2008 to gain a larger presence in the construction market.  

Most concrete producers are strapped for cash and see much value in gliders because they cost 35 to 40 percent less than new trucks. And buyers also avoid the 12 percent federal excise tax imposed on new heavy trucks. Advance also sees lots of parts sales, of drums and other components, “to stretch out the life of trucks that should be replaced by now,” Rinas says.

Daimler glider program

In conventional-type vehicles, Daimler Trucks North America offers many of its Freightliner and Western Star models as glider kits. Peterbilt makes some Model 389 kits, but does not offer older models because it views the gliders as a means to repair heavily damaged trucks, not as alternatives to brand-new vehicles.

Executives at Peterbilt and its Paccar parent feel it’s more socially responsible to build and sell trucks with only the latest clean-burning diesels. Other builders, including sister-company Kenworth, agree, and do not offer gliders at all. Not stated is their desire to recoup the tremendous monetary investments made to comply with government exhaust emissions regulations in the past decade, and that is best done by selling new trucks with new engines.

Daimler, however, says there are truckers who cannot afford to buy today’s expensive new trucks but want something better than used trucks, which are currently in short supply anyway. It turns these people into customers with its glider program, which offers new trucks with used powertrains. Most of the Freightliner and Western Star gliders require installation of remanufactured or rebuilt engines and transmissions, and sometimes drivelines and rear axles. Some come as “rolling gliders,” with new rear axles and suspensions.

Compared to the price of a similar new truck, a glider costs at least 25 percent less—a mimimum number set by the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS does not collect the 12 percent FET on new Class 8 trucks if the assembly and transaction are handled strictly according to its regulations. IRS enforcement of the regs is not uniform but varies among its regional jurisdictions, say some who have crossed swords with the agency. Doing the deal legally is as important as doing it correctly on the mechanical side.

Freightliner and Western Star kits are handled through their parts divisions, and Daimler has a small contingent whose members promote this business. For instance, last March they manned a booth at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville. They explained that the key component is the engine that will be installed in a glider. A customer provides the engine’s serial number, and the glider cab and chassis are built with the proper wiring harness. The program supports electronically controlled diesels made as far back as the mid to late 1990s. If a customer doesn’t have an engine, his dealer can usually get one from a wreck and, if necessary, have it remanufacturered or rebuilt. Renewed engines and transmissions are backed by their makers as though they’re new, usually with a warranty of a year or longer. A few customers assemble gliders themselves, but usually dealers do it. This is an activity where mechanics need specialized knowledge and skills, say those who are in it.

A major nondealer assembler of Daimler gliders is Fitzgerald Truck Parts at Crossville, Tenn. It offers sleeper- and daycab tractors and dump trucks based on Freightliner’s Coronado and other models. In recent years it was building and selling about 200 a year, but has expanded into a new plant to handle increased business. It has orders for more than 700 glidered tractors, a representative says. 

For engines, Fitzgerald favors rebuilt Detroit Series 60 engines from the late 1990s and early 2000s, before the change to exhaust-gas recirculation. The electronically controlled, 12.7-liter Detroits are reliable and economical with fuel—better than EGR’d diesels and much better than 2007-spec models that use higher amounts of exhaust gas and also include expensive diesel particulate filters—Fitzgerald people say. Yet the truck or tractor is titled as a current-model vehicle, never getting a “salvage” title, with the VIN containing numbers identifying it as a glider. 

Still, the preponderance of truck sales is for all-new vehicles, and oil and gas exploration has driven a giant increase in orders at Western Star Trucks. It saw a 325-percent jump in the first five months of 2011 over the same period last year, reports Ann Demitruk, director of marketing. Most of that is coming from central and western Canada, where oil field work is healthy, and in Ontario, where stimulus funding for infrastructure improvements requires new trucks. The central and western U.S. also seem to be reviving.

At Kenworth, “we’re seeing good growth in the oil field and oil field servicing market with the price of oil the way it is,” Fennimore says. “That’s something we play very well at.” KW was also selling some dump trucks earlier this year.

Mack Trucks and its sister company, Volvo Trucks, also see growth in municipal and oil field segments, particularly in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, where deep drilling for natural gas has boomed in the last year or so. The process is economically and strategically promising, because natural gas has become a viable alternative to imported oil.

It’s controversial because it involves fracturing gas-bearing rock with chemical-laced high-pressure water, which some claim threatens ground water. And millions of barrels of brine that comes back up must be disposed of. A new federal report says that reserves of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale area of New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio are only about one-fifth the amounts estimated months earlier, raising questions about how much and for how long America can rely on these supplies.

Options open up for natural gas

But for now, plentiful gas supplies have lowered the price of the fuel to where it’s garnered attention from fleet managers in areas where it’s available. Gas itself is a little over half the cost of diesel fuel, making a good business case even without federal tax credits that offset the cost of buying trucks with gas-burning engines. This can be 50 percent more than for a straight diesel truck. The tax credits expired last December and might or might not be renewed by Congress.

A gas-fueled truck is pricier because a stack of gas “bottles” for compressed natural gas (CNG) or a large cryogenic tank for storing super-cooled liquified natural gas (LNG) cost $30,000 or more. They’re expensive because they’re pressure vessels built to stringent standards. The plumbing and regulation devices that carry gas to engines are also expensive. Then again, gas engines burn so cleanly that they don’t need expensive and heavy exhaust aftertreatment equipment.

Diesel particulate filters used since 2007 capture particulate matter—soot—and ash from motor oil. Ash must be periodically cleaned by removing the filter from the truck and blowing or baking. Soot is burned out passively, by exhaust heat, or actively, by burning it out through injection of fuel upstream of the DPF. Regeneration, as it’s called, prevents buildup of soot that would otherwise choke the engine.

Active “regens” are needed with engines that run locally and don’t build up much exhaust heat. Construction trucks are in this category, and operators must be aware that the truck must be stopped for as long as an hour and the engine allowed to idle as a DPF regen is done. This happens automatically or after the driver hits a button when prompted by a series of warnings in the instrument panel. Regens occur fairly often on 2007-spec diesels but less so on 2010 models.

Active regens burn extra fuel, and this should be accounted for in any fuel-economy calculations, say fleet manager-members of the Technology & Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Association. So they added this to TMC’s Type IV economy test, an on-road procedure that can quickly tell a manager if a new piece of equipment saves fuel.

“If you can document the fuel used, you can back it out and get your economy numbers,” says Chuck Blake, a senior testing engineer at Detroit Diesel who was involved in the Type IV project.  “When you’re done, you can add that fuel back in and get your cost per mile.”

The recommendation now is for the manager to determine the “regeneration rate” of his engine, count the number of regens that take place during a test, and factor it into calculations. The manager must get the regen rate from the engine manufacturer. Some have published the numbers and some haven’t.

2010-spec Detroit engines use 1.8 gallons in a DPF regeneration, Blake says, but regens are needed much less often than for early 2007 products. An ’07 model underwent a regen every 500 miles or so; now it’s every 8,000 miles in the summer when the exhaust is hot enough to burn off soot on its own, and in winter it might be every 2,500 miles.

Cummins DPFs usually regenerate every 96 hours for on-highway trucks and more often for vocational trucks, says Zack Ellison, director of customer technical support. For 2007-spec engines, a regen uses 0.5 to 0.7 gallon of fuel; for 2010 models, it’s closer to the half-gallon number. But a manual, driver- or mechanic-induced regen might burn 1 gallon of fuel.

Regens for Cummins vocational-engine DPFs are more likely based on the filter’s back pressure from front to back. As pressure increases, the engine’s electronic controls sense a need for a regen, and order it. Again, drivers are warned beforehand so the regen can be done during a lunch period or when the truck comes in at the end of a day.

The Paccar MX’s DPF regenerates on a widely variable basis according to soot buildup, temperatures in the filter and engine, and other factors, says engine specialist Kurt Freitag. Time for each regen and the fuel used also vary. The idea is to keep the filter clear and save as much fuel as possible. So there is no published schedule. 

DPFs on 2010-model Volvo and Mack engines need few regens, and Volvo advertises “no regen” models for on-highway use. Even those on vocational trucks regenerate very little, representatives say. Both builders use diesels made by Volvo Powertrain.

Navistar doesn’t state regen numbers because of “a huge variation” in rates among different duty cycles, says Tim Schick, vice president of engine sales. “We hesitate to publish something that might not be what customers see.” In some vocational uses, “the engine does not get very warm because you’re not on the throttle enough. In a few hundred miles you could be looking at a regeneration,” compared to a heavy highway tractor whose DPF might undergo a regen every 1,000 miles or beyond.

Most 2010-spec truck engines for North America use selective catalytic reduction, which allows the engine to be tuned for greater efficiency. This produces less soot but more NOx, which is dealt with through urea injection, the builders have said. Navistar International alone does not use SCR.

Without SCR and urea injection, International trucks don’t need heavy and expensive aftertreatment equipment. Its fuel economy improvements aren’t as high as competitors’, though Navistar claims that when use of diesel exhaust fluid is counted, the costs are close to the same. Competitors dispute this and say their 2110-model SCR diesels produce fuel economy that’s better by 3 to 8 percent or more compared to 2007-model diesels.

Nasty public comments by Navistar against its competitors, and they against Navistar, have quieted, with both sides refocusing on building and selling trucks. However, Navistar has continued to demand in court that the federal Environmental Protection Agency act against SCR users whose engines, it alleges, produce excessive amounts of NOx and whose aftertreatment equipment can run on plain water instead of diesel exhaust fluid.

The EPA announced last month that its surveys found truck users do not let their fluid tanks run down, though it now wants stricter controls on trucks if their tanks do run dry. Instead of gradual power cut-backs as tanks run out of fluid, the agency wants trucks’ road speed cut to 5 mph, which will be a more potent warning to forgetful drivers.

Some of Navistar’s diesels, meanwhile, make more than the absolute limits of NOx for 2010 models: 0.5 gram per horsepower-hour versus 0.2 gram that most others meet. Navistar engines do so under credits issued by EPA for having previously sold diesels that were cleaner than necessary. So the extra NOx production is legal, at least until the credits run out. Navistar says it has plans to bring down the NOx amounts when it needs to.

Fuel economy standards

Better fuel economy for most 2010 diesels fits in well with the latest standards announced by federal authorities: 10 to 20 percent greater fuel efficiency by 2018. They begin in 2014. Unlike mile-per-gallon standards for cars and light trucks, the standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks and buses are expressed in gallons per ton-mile—a measure endorsed by nearly everyone in the trucking  community. The regulations were announced in August by EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The complex regulations cover many types of vehicles because they vary in the amount of cargo carried and how they are driven. Construction trucks are in the vocational category, which will meet less stringent, 10 percent economy betterment due to their urban stop-and-go duty cycles. Overall, the economy improvements will save commercial truck and bus operators about $50 billion in fuel costs in the four years they phase in, the Obama Administration asserts.

Also limited, as expected, are carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that many scientists claim is causing global warming. CO2 is a function of the amount of fuel burned, so reducing one also cuts the other, say truck and engine makers. The government agencies say 530 million barrels of oil will be saved, while 270 million metric tons of CO2 will not get into the atmosphere.